Book review: In Praise of Messy Lives, By Katie Roiphe

A darn good rubberneck at others’ errors

Usually this reviewer picks the book but on this occasion the book picked me, as it will many readers, with its title: In Praise of Messy Lives. It’s a volume of essays by the American journalist and academic Katie Roiphe that covers journalism, literature, television and new media and she sets up the territory with a pair of essays on being a single mother and another on sleeping with a best friend’s boyfriend. They grate, seem defensively self-justifying and wannabe Joan Didion. But they draw you in.

From that opening, Roiphe strides across the modern culture, with magnificent essays on how men’s sexual prowess in the literature of the Dave Eggars generation has gone limp compared to Philip Roth at his peak, the obsession with a rubberised flooring for children and the mechanics of a celebrity interview.

Roiphe’s book circles around how those who feel “normal”  see “others”. When she talks  to one editor about writing on  single motherhood he tells her it’s interesting. “And I say that as a guy who looks at single women and thinks what’s wrong with her? How did she fuck up?” But the disapproval is cut with fascination, rubbernecking on others’ car crashes. In her essay on Mad Men, Roiphe notes how the 1950s advertising industry drama, fuelled by illicit sex, is watched obsessively by people who prioritise gym-going over gin-drinking. Also tie into that E L James’s 50 Shades of Grey, in which the female protagonist submits to S&M sex without taking responsibility for initiating it. (Roiphe says any feminist offended by the submission should take greater objection to women reading such sloppily written literature.)

Roiphe does take responsibility, and her essays have an uncomfortable honesty about how modern women take on or refuse that burden. They are also very funny at turns and honourable mention goes to the one on Maureen Dowd, the New York Times journalist and author of Are Men Necessary? Roiphe’s title for it: “Is Maureen Dowd Necessary?”

As for the jibe earlier about her being a wannabe Joan Didion, Roiphe has that cornered too, with a sharp essay on how the style of Didion has infused the writings of so many who came after her. In Praise of Messy Lives is a worthy successor.