Monday, October 01, 2007

Learning to Drive. A Review

Katha Pollitt's new collection of essays, Learning to Drive And Other Life Stories, is not about politics in the sense we have grown accustomed to expecting from her but about life, especially about its not-so-pleasant aspects. She writes about her struggles to learn to drive a car, about her reactions to finding that a boyfriend of seven years had a harem of other women, about the lives and deaths of her parents and about aging. She writes about her own life as a half-finished prospect and about the way feminism, politics and the specific time and place of her existence interact or how she thinks all these interact. And she has been very heavily slammed for doing this.

Susan Salter Reynolds in Los Angeles Times writes:

It must be my problem. Watching a feminist I've admired my entire life dissolve into a whingeing puddle in her late 50s is painful. Katha Pollitt's fourth collection of essays is self-indulgent at best: She writes about losing her boyfriend; Web-stalking her ex-boyfriend (a phrase used so often it causes a kind of vertigo as a reader learns to anticipate the free fall of self-hatred and victim mania); yuppies on Manhattan's Upper West Side (apparently sacred ground for poverty-stricken intellectuals); real-estate developers in Connecticut (No! Yes!); and the popularity of plastic surgery. These are just a few of the topics that get Pollitt going. "It's not as if I like being like this," she admits. "People who despair after a certain age are just depressing. We don't have the looks for it, and besides, we make others uncomfortable: what if we're on to something?"

And Toni Bentley (the author of a book about the joys of erotic submission) makes the connection even more openly in the New York Times: That Pollitt shows herself as sometimes vulnerable and not in control means that feminism as an ideology has failed:

Groaning and moaning from clever, sassy women has become a genre unto itself, the righteous revenge of the liberal, pre-, during- or postmenopausal woman (anyone missing?) in the post-chick-lit age (it is over, isn't it?). Perhaps this heralds the birth of fourth-wave feminism? (Or is it the fifth?) Or maybe it's not something political, but just plain old biblical revenge: God knows women have centuries of wrongs to catch up on. An enraged, educated woman (Vagina dentata intellectualis) with her arsenal of experience, observation, self-deprecation and indignation is a force to be reckoned with, a kind of intellectual Mike Tyson — though, apparently, she is still not as likely to be seduced into bed as the bombshell bimbo, one reason she's so irate. Not only is she entitled to be angry, but it is virtually the bedrock of her independence, and pugnacious prose is her lethal weapon.


Ultimately, a sharp tongue, a quick wit and ample intellect provide a powerful defense but little consolation for women in search of that phantom that is freedom from men and the vulnerability of love. They can trap the rats — with the impunity feminism ordains — but jailers are in prison too.

It's a hard thing, this being a feminist icon. Are you holding that coffee mug with the right amount of strength and clarity, my dear? It would have been better if Pollitt had revealed a problem with running a gang of armed feminists in Manhattan, or an addiction to taking steroids or something else which is sort of manly. Of course it would have been best if she had written essays about how she beat patriarchy into the gonads and came out a winner and the current ruler of the world. Make a note of that for the next book, Katha.

Then to reviewing the actual book which I read before reading any of the reviews, though I did hear that some of them were nasty. The book can be read on different levels, and the level I enjoyed best was the purely sensory level: of enjoying Pollitt's lyrical language, of being seduced into the book as into drinking a glass of sparkling wine, of slowly getting inebriated with the rhythm and flow of the sentences, of being lulled into thinking that the ride to drunkenness should always be this gentle, only to be suddenly stopped, when a sentence blows into your face like a popping champaign bubble, revealing something hilarious or true or just very odd:

Sometimes I think I would like to be word - not a big important word, like "love" or "truth," just a small ordinary word, like "orange" or "inkstain" or "so", a word that people use so often and so unthinkingly that its specialness has all been worn away, like the roughness on a pebble in a creek bed, but that has a solid heft when you pick it up, and if you hold it to the light at just the right angle you can glimpse the spark at its core."

Or when a sentence gives us the gist of what I think the book is saying, as in this description of Pollitt looking backwards to understand a crisis in her life:

In the months to come, I would look back on this time in my life almost as a kind of out-of-body travel, from which I had returned with nothing but a sense of memory of having been somewhere inexpressibly exciting and far away. It wasn't like a dream, exactly; although it had a dream's strange internal logic. It was like looking through the window of an airplane at night, the way the city below appears so near, yet untouchable behind the glass -- a network of lights, flames, stars.

I also read the book on the level of finding a major theme in it, for me at least, and the theme has to do with map-making, the many ways, some silly, some creative, some obvious, that we all make maps about that universe out there, those people and the way power is allotted to them; maps about how we relate to the rest of the landmarks, maps which will allow us to navigate this life. Maps.

Pollitt calls it "observing" in the title essay about learning to drive. In the essays about her unfaithful lover and her obsessive reactions after finding out about the infidelities she calls the map-making internet stalking. She doesn't actually stalk her ex-lover. She is making maps, writing a history, providing an explanation, although in that specific example the endeavor is not a helpful one. But it is how humans try to make sense out of events, by thinking and by observing, and sometimes by compulsively going over the same ground to see if a large STOP sign was ignored, if a car engine light flashed on unnoticed. An attempt to make sense.

In other essays the theme crops up again. The essay about a Marxist study group portrays the group participants as making sense of the demise of communism by finding it in books and in the study group, by making maps. "Sisterhood" shows us Pollitt's own attempts to make sense of the love affairs of her ex-boyfriend by interrogating those he took to his bed. What did he want? Did he ever love her? These examples show the pointlessness of maps about the past but they also show the human attempt to understand, to create a coherent explanation for incoherent events.

Pollitt's essays about her parents' lives and deaths mention their FBI files, places to seek for further information now that they can no longer be questioned themselves, and in one essay we join Pollitt in rummaging for files in the basement of her father's house, searching, searching, making maps. Even the short piece on the environment uses something to draw maps, this time of Connecticut's disappearing shoreline which reminds Pollitt of Danish landscape paintings, sometimes available for purchase on eBay:

Besides, I tell myself, there may be a picture buried in there of the view from Beach Park Road - there were quite a few minor painters in this part of Connecticut at one time; it's quite likely that pictures of those very fields exist. Or, if not of that exact view, there may be a picture of another view very much like it, perhaps in Denmark.

This is how I read the essays before reading them on the third level, the level that the reviews focus on and the level that has to do with a feminist writer revealing parts of her life which show her not-in-control, perhaps even out-of-control. And Pollitt does choose to reveal these episodes. Note that she doesn't tell us that she learned to drive. It is only from a later essay that I deduce she actually does drive these days. Note also that she lets us observe with her (Pollitt-the-cool-observer) the breakup of a long-term relationship and its odd obsessive effects on her behavior (on Pollitt-the-cyberstalker). She doesn't tell us how she regained her balance. It is only from reading carefully that I find she is newly married, for example. In short, the selection of episodes and themes is purposeful. The author wants to show us her "soft underbelly". She's not writing her memoirs, mind you, not trying to tell us that the Whole Life of Katha Pollitt is Dreadful. She is choosing to focus on certain events only.

Rebecca Traister in Salon discusses the advisability of this:

Picking up these pieces again in book form, accompanied by other essays about Pollitt's daughter, the Marxist reading group she joined in part to impress her scoundrel boyfriend, and friendships with the women with whom her ex cheated on her, I have a much more intricate reaction than when I first read them. Instead of simply rearing back from them, I wonder: Is there ever a point at which it is a good idea for women, especially intellectual, politically engaged women, to strip off their clothes and caper naked as jaybirds in front of a line of would-be assassins?

Is it advisable? For whom? Perhaps the theme I spotted in Pollitt's book required this particular approach, and perhaps allowing feminists to be human beings requires them to be allowed to have problems and flaws and even out-of-control times in their lives? But Traister is of course right in pointing out that a book of this kind exposes Pollitt to anti-feminist ridicule and the embarrassment of those who prefer their feminists in armor at all times.

There is an advantage to the approach Pollitt took, and that is the advantage offered by the feminist views she offered to explain the events surrounding her relationship and its ending. If nobody discusses such intimate reactions, how can we then decide whether we agree or disagree with assertions such as the neediness for male love in women or the desire to center ones life around a man or whether G., Pollitt's ex-lover, is just a jerk or something more like a metaphor for all men?

How can we learn that someone else views men in a certain light, perhaps a light quite as alien to us as the Manhattan street lights would be to someone living in outer Siberia? How can we learn to differentiate the effects of a certain social class or place of residency or even industry on our views about men and women and the role of love in general? Generational differences, do they matter? Does it matter that the men Pollitt knows are men in the media or the arts or other places where a certain type of personality seems more frequent?

I don't know. These are some of the questions the book elicited in me, mostly, because my experiences with love and men are not those Pollitt regards as general among the women she knows. It could be that I am the odd bird out, or it could be that the world is a very complicated place and that the maps we make shift and distort and only really apply for a few moments of time.