Charles D’Ambrosio

In some people (usually willful or grandiose or highly defended types) there’s only a very small difference between talking incessantly and saying nothing. I vaguely remember a quote from Roland Barthes, who claimed his rhetorical needs alternated between a little haiku that expressed everything and a great flood of banalities that said nothing.

I expected that I would really like this collection of essays, reading about it first through D’Ambrosio’s interview with Leslie Jamison for The New Yorker. I was especially curious about their discussion of his work being “marked by a figure standing outside some kind of threshold.” In actuality, while I appreciate the style of his writing, the overarching themes of the book felt too bleak for me right now — not such a surprise considering how D’Ambrosio finishes in that interview:

The personal isn’t by definition false, nor is confession, but in writing both have to meet this other demand, the demands of language… That dual allegiance, to the truth of the thing and to the truth of writing, inevitably takes you away from the merely heartfelt, it seems to me. In a way, writing maps a path out of the self. Instead of sobbing, you write sentences.

Possibly I could have found stronger footholds had I started reading this at another time, instead of the coldest February in NYC since 1934. In the end I read most of it but skimmed a lot and then skipped a few essays, but a month later it’s time to give up and move on.

The essay that sticks out to me most at the moment is “Salinger and Sobs” about JD Salinger’s writing and how he writes about family and suicide, eventually threading in perspectives about two of D’Ambrosio’s brothers — one of whom committed suicide and another who survived an attempt. It was the one that pulled me through steadily, and it skillfully bridges a literary exploration with a personal story. An earlier essay “Whaling Out West” tries to create a similar type of connection between the Makah people’s whale hunts and D’Ambrosio’s desire to have children; it never really came together for me.

“Catching Out,” a short essay about hopping trains, is maybe the only piece in the collection that felt somehow hopeful. Though it’s also the one that doesn’t quite follow what D’Ambrosio considers in his preface about why he was drawn to write essays; he theorizes that, to him, “the personal essay left its questions on the page… it was a forum for self-doubt, for an attempt whose outcome wasn’t assured.” While I appreciate ambiguity in many forms, it might be that feeling of doubt that made it hard for me to follow these essays as a collection. An essay can certainly be a question that is difficult to fully answer, but too many here were left entirely open-ended.