Tough to care about crude tales

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Julie Carl

IT’S quite a feat, writ­ing an en­tire book based on awk­ward mo­ments in your life. Sure, David Sedaris seems to pull it off — well, ex­cept for Squir­rel Seeks Chip­munk — but no one ever re­ally seems able to ex­plain why his sto­ries work. Tina Fey did it with aplomb. But then, she had war sto­ries from Satur­day Night Live and 30 Rock to fall back on. But in The Harm in Ask­ing, Sara Bar­ron’s sec­ond collection of es­says on her life as a 20-some­thing in New York, the writer is solo­ing. She has no top TV shows to pro­vide fod­der and her writ­ing is just not funny enough to carry the mem­oir. True, show­ing one­self in the worst light can be amus­ing. But a re­lent­less un­veil­ing of char­ac­ter flaw af­ter char­ac­ter flaw — of in­sen­si­tiv­ity and end­less nar­cis­sism, all seem­ingly as an ex­cuse to be crude — re­sults in some­thing akin to the fi­nal Se­in­feld episode and the ques­tion: Why would I care about this per­son? To be com­pletely fair to Bar­ron, her work does stand out in the crowd of 20-some­things writ­ing mem­oirs about their lives in New York — it stands out as more vul­gar and more un­be­liev­able than the genre tends to be. (Also, to be fair, she’s slot­ted into the 20-some­thing crowd, but Bar­ron’s bios don’t list her ac­tual age, al­though a story she told in Van­ity Fair hints she saw 29 sev­eral years ago.) Bios may skip her age, but they do in­clude her work as a sto­ry­teller both on NPR’s This Amer­i­can Life and The Moth, a col­lec­tive of live sto­ry­telling, which Bar­ron of­ten hosts. Per­haps the crude­ness works bet­ter, maybe seems less un­be­liev­able, on stage or ra­dio. Per­haps Bar­ron is a very warm sto­ry­teller in per­son and it’s just her lit­er­ary voice that’s so un­lik­able. Again with the fair­ness: About the time the reader is con­sid­er­ing putting the book down for good, along comes a whim­si­cal sen­tence or two that fills the reader with hope things are about to get a lot less gross. Such is the mo­ment when Bar­ron writes about learn­ing that women with dogs are highly date­able — the prob­lem be­ing she doesn’t ac­tu­ally like dogs, let alone own one. So she heads out to a dog park, don­ning a cute sun­dress and san­dals and grab­bing a pack­age of Gold­fish crack­ers to en­tice the dogs. Then comes the whimsy: “I hoped to come across as a younger and more comely Bird Woman from Mary Pop­pins, but with dogs in­stead of pi­geons and Gold­fish in­stead of bird­seed.” And so the reader is hooked back in, seek­ing the amus­ing, only to be dis­ap­pointed yet again. There’s per­fect comic setup in the “This Might Be Con­tro­ver­sial” game Bar­ron has stu­dents in her writ­ing class play to make it eas­ier to be hon­est in their cri­tiques of one an­other’s work. The stu­dent must start with the phrase “This might be con­tro­ver­sial...” and can fol­low with any­thing, as long as it’s some­thing they truly be­lieve. This could be com­edy gold, but the racist, anti-Semitic and ho­mo­pho­bic state­ments that come out of the stu­dents’ mouths are hor­ri­fy­ing. Not a sin­gle ex­am­ple can be re­peated here. Per­haps it’s not just Bar­ron. Per­haps the en­tire genre of New Yorker 20-some­things writ­ing early-life mem­oirs must be stopped. It brings to mind the ad­vice H.L. Mencken fa­mously gave a young writer: “Wait un­til you’ve lived long enough to have some­thing to write about.” Julie Carl is the Win­nipeg Free Press as­so­ciate edi­tor of reader en­gage­ment.

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