THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1995 by Jamaica with Robert Atwan--Eds. Kincaid


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Solipsism, as much as skillfulness, is what the contributors to this year's collection seem to have most in common. ""A good essay for me is an essay that pleases me,"" guest editor Kincaid (Lucy, 1990, etc.) declares in her introduction, setting the pace for the overweening, self-indulgent egos that parade through the rest of the volume, coedited by series editor Atwan. The title of William H. Gass's otherwise' murky essay clearly states their overarching theme: ""The Art of SelL"" The problem is not this time-honored topic, of course. Rather, it is the excessive narcissism that many of these authors exhibit, whether explicitly discussing themselves or just drifting from some other subject into navel-gazing. We expect nothing else from Harold Brodkey, whose first dispatch from his struggle with AIDS appears here. Maxine Kumin disappoints, however, with a celebration of vegetable gardening that fairly oozes self-satisfaction. Most egregious is Edward Hoagland's apologia for his adulteries, which masquerades as an elegy for his late wife. Some of the autobiographical pieces do manage to avoid blithe egocentrism. Tobias Wolff and Henry Louis Gates Jr., elaborating their already well-known midlife memoirs, keep the focus on their families and friends. Grace Paley sketches the women whom she met when she spent a week in a Greenwich Village jail for protesting the Vietnam war. Fine efforts come from Joseph Brodsky and Elaine Scarry: Brodsky's record of his ongoing fascination with the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius shows him confronting, rather than simply emulating, a prototypical imperial self, while Scarry argues persuasively that the ends of centuries bring a heightening of poetic consciousness. On the evidence of this inconsistent tenth volume, however, such vaunted fin-de-si≤cle magic seems to be failing for essays.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1995
Page count: 264pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin