The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison, book review: As in 'Girls', this collection is boozy, boyfriend-fixated Brooklyn to the core

 
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The Independent Culture

Could 'the empathy exams' be the essay collection that Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham's character in the HBO series Girls, says she's writing? Brooklyn, boyfriends and boozing abound in both but the answer is "no", although Leslie Jamison does mention Dunham's "post-wounded women" in her collection's closing essay, "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain". It's unusual to begin a review by discussing a book's ending, but here it's apt because Jamison believes essays can start anywhere, go everywhere and do anything. Her epigraph comes from the Roman playwright Terence: "I am human: nothing human is alien to me."

These essays walk a knife-edge between self and social inquiry. "Empathy is always perched between gift and invasion," Jamison writes in her titular essay, where she recalls being paid to act as a patient for medical students, alongside her experience of having an abortion.

She finds meaning in everything that happens: getting punched in Nicaragua, drunk in New York, dumped in New Orleans. Moving among voyeurs, athletes and addicts, she's candid about her vulnerability. She listens to people who believe they suffer from Morgellons syndrome, which doctors dismiss as a phantom disease, and wonders: "When does empathy actually reinforce the pain it wants to console?"

Every detail, down to the typographical choice of tiny plus signs for full-stops, prevents us feeling comfortable. Pace yourself when you read this short, visceral book, let each essay resound before moving on to another.

"La Frontera", in which Jamison considers "empathy tourism" in Mexican neighbourhoods, where violence has become part of everyday life, and "Fog Count", a testament to America's incarceration epidemic, haunt you even if you'd rather banish some details.

"You can be too intelligent to be a novelist," Martin Amis has written, "but never too intelligent to be an essayist." Jamison has published one novel, but the courage and intelligence she displays in examining our need to feel indicates that the essay is her form. Sometimes she circles arguments with stylish phrases and is too quick to quote Joan Didion or Susan Sontag, when her own words are more illuminating. During a tour of Los Angeles' ganglands, she quotes Sontag twice and, while I'm not saying she's better than her heroes, she doesn't need them as much as she thinks she does.

Three years ago, when David Shields proclaimed the lyric essay the literary form of our time, critics countered that only fiction lets us imagine what it's like to be somebody else. When Jamison visits Charlie, who appears to be in prison for little reason other than that somebody, somewhere is profiting, she writes: "On the outside, you can think about prison for a moment and then you can think about something else. Inside, it's every moment." Jamison helps us imagine a modicum of Charlie's isolation, his invisibility, and leaves us wondering: "Is he still there?" It feels inhumane to turn the page. Is this how the essayist enters the minds of others? It's one moment, one essay, one book, but it's significant.

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