In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe, The Dial Press, 265 pages, ($25). The critic’s neologism describing her that Katie Roiphe likes is “uncomfortabilist. For some probably perverse reason, I am drawn to subjects or ways of looking at things that make people, and sometimes even me, uncomfortable.”
Forget, for a second, her thoughts on date rape. Most famously, her “uncomfortabilism” led to an essay in the New York Times Book Review called “The Naked and the Conflicted” in which she allowed that oppressive patriarchal villainies of “The Great Male Novelists of the Past Century” (Roth, Mailer, Updike, Bellow) maintain a vitality amid feminist obloquy, whereas “characters in the fiction of the heirs apparent are often repelled or uncomfortable when faced with a sexual situation.” Because she’d probably rather not write than avoid naming names, that means David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen. “The same crusading feminist critics who objected to Mailer, Bellow, Roth and Updike might be tempted to take this new sensitivity as softness or indifference to sexual adventuring as a sign of progress … But the sexism in the work of the heirs apparent is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out.” That’s because their characters are “too cool for sex.” So Roiphe asks “why don’t we look at those older writers who want to defeat death with sex, with the same fondness as we do the inventors of the first failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines and looked up at the sky?”
In the realm of discomfort, consider “Making the Incest Scene” where she deadpans that in Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres,” incest exists in the fictional “bargain basement.” She asks “Is Maureen Dowd Necessary?” (you can guess her answer) and parties down at the expense of celebrity profiles. Hillary Clinton is called “Sister Frigidaire.” Twitter, Facebook and the Internet are here, along with Joan Didion, Susan Sontag and “Mad Men” (which gave her a title). Anyone looking for lineage shouldn’t stop at Mary McCarthy standing at the gender gate when, a few yards into history is George Orwell, who’d probably think this book just dandy.
– Jeff Simon