The current iteration in the venerable franchise, edited this year by essayist Sullivan (Pulphead, 2011, etc.), who contributes a thoughtful introduction on the art of the essay since it was defined by Montaigne.
This year’s collection is as eclectic as possible, considering recent trends toward the self-reverential, and most of the 21 contributions (arranged alphabetically by author) offer some valuable insights and lessons. The majority of the essays are written by players in their own stories, and several are droll and sagacious. “Marriage gives you someone to blame—for just about everything,” writes Timothy Aubry in “A Matter of Life and Death.” In her New Yorker essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” Ariel Levy writes, “Even if you are not Robinson Crusoe in a solitary fort, as a human being you walk this world by yourself. But when you are pregnant you are never alone.” James Wood is “dismayed by the plagiarism of inheritance.” While some of the essays display dry wit, others offer moist emotion. Barry Lopez tells a harrowing tale of cruel molestation. Wells Tower brightly chronicles his visit to Burning Man with his father. Leslie Jamison describes victims of what seems to be an imaginary disease. Zadie Smith considers the rarity of true joy. Paul West presents a lighthearted piece on being introduced at a public lecture. More audacious—and only partly successful—is Lawrence Jackson’s “Slickheads,” a pulsating story of ghetto life that occasionally indulges in unrepresentative vocabulary. Self-effacing Baron Wormser writes an overwrought sketch of Willem de Kooning that recalls the passion of the late John Dos Passos. A pervading theme is loss—of faith, self, youth, life. Other contributors to this worthy and diverse assemblage are Yiyun Li, Emily Fox Gordon and the ubiquitous Dave Eggers.
Good reading on a variety of topics by an observant band of essayists.