A dazzling collection of essays on the human condition.
In her nonfiction debut, the winner of the 2011 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Jamison (The Gin Closet, 2010) presents 11 essays that probe pain alongside analyses of its literal and literary trappings. Whether tackling societal woes such as strip mining, drug wars, disease and wrongful imprisonment, or slippery abstract constructs including metaphor, sentimentality, confession and “gendered woundedness,” Jamison masterfully explores her incisive understanding of the modern condition. The author’s self-conscious obsession with subjectivity and openness to the jarringly unfamiliar become significant themes. In the title essay, for example, the author uses her job as a medical actor—tasked with pretending to be a patient afflicted with a predetermined illness in the service of measuring medical students’ diagnostic skills and bedside manners—as a springboard for examining the meaning of empathy and her relation to it. “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel,” she writes. “It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” Jamison’s uncanny ease in crossing boundaries between the philosophical and the personal enables her both to isolate an interiority of feeling and capture it in accessible metaphorical turns of phrase: “Melodrama is something to binge on: cupcakes in the closet.” Throughout, Jamison exhibits at once a journalist’s courage to bear witness to acts and conditions that test human limits—incarceration, laboring in a silver mine, ultramarathoning, the loss of a child, devastating heartbreak, suffering from an unacknowledged illness—and a poet’s skepticism at her own motives for doing so. It is this level of scrutiny that lends these provocative explorations both earthy authenticity and moving urgency.
A fierce, razor-sharp, heartwarming nonfiction debut.