9 November, 2019 • • 40.7LiteratureNon-fiction

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52 Blue

Em Meller

Leslie Jamison 
Make it Scream, Make it Burn
Granta Books



There is a whale with a call so unique that no other whales can understand it. Named by scientists as ‘52 Blue’, they have traced its lonely call all across the oceans, never hearing it swimming alongside a companion. This whale is the subject of Jamison’s first essay in Make it Scream, Make it Burn, which begins as a heartbreaking meditation on what it means to be alone because you cannot be understood, even though they are in an ocean with other whales who it is calling out to.

There is someone in particular this whale reminds me of, and reading this essay made me start to cry in a café – for the whale, but also for the existence of this profound kind of loneliness, which seems to serve no function, evolutionarily or otherwise.

But the essay quickly takes a turn. The scientist who knows the most about ‘52 Blue’ is sick of fielding questions about it. The truth, she says, is we have no idea if this whale is alone, or feels lonely. These feelings are projections humans have made onto the whale – a narrative constructed to mimic how it can feel to move through our own, human world. But probably they have nothing at all to do with the actual whale.

This is a typical turn in a Jamison essay: to think about a feeling, but then zoom out to see whether the meaning we assign to it is valid, or something we desperately want to believe. To quote Oscar Wilde, “The temperament to which Art appeals is the temperament of receptivity.” Receptivity – having an open heart – seems to be the main aesthetic concern for much of Jamison’s work.

So what does it mean to write ‘from the heart’? The idea that creative expression is heart-led, coloured by emotions, is a pervasive one. But it presents a special problem for narrative non-fiction writers: when you are dealing with other people, but you owe the reader ‘the Truth’, where are you meant to put your heart? When it comes to seeing a person or situation clearly, the heart is always our biggest liability.

But despite this, Leslie Jamison’s essays always have heart. Or, they are written from the place we call the heart. No matter what her subject, she treats them with immense kindness, always allowing the portrait she paints to show their best traits alongside their less-admirable qualities.

Make it Scream, Make it Burn is a collection of essays Jamison wrote over the last five years, and is her third book of narrative non-fiction. Her most recent, very thick, book The Recovering traces her own recovery from alcoholism and the history of addiction in literature more generally. While eloquent and exacting, it is a tome that often collapses under its own weight. 

Jamison’s work is strongest when it has a razor-sharp focus, as it did in her first non-fiction book, The Empathy Exams – a highly focused examination of female pain and the function of empathy which, as she explains early on, “comes from the Greek empatheia — em (into) and pathos (feeling) — a penetration, a kind of travel”. As Katy Waldman writes in the New Yorker, the relevant question about Make it Scream, Make it Burn is how much it manages to advance this project, and the question of the role of empathy.

When taken together, all three books centre on slight variations of the same themes: addiction, looking, writing and what it means to feel, and deal in, the pain of others. This latest collection again picks up on these ideas and Jamison applies her familiar gaze to subjects as diverse as the narratives of evil fairytale stepmothers and outsider artist Annie Appel, who photographed the same family in Mexico for three decades. All of them are presented to us as examples of figures who deserve, if nothing else, to be properly understood.

Sometimes when I read ‘hard’ journalism, the kind we are told is objective and clean, the subjects are revealed in a light that is accurate but cold – unduly harsh. This is even more of a problem when it comes to longer essays, instead of small articles. For all her precision and the beautiful terseness, Joan Didion could be too exacting with her scalpel. Jamison is often compared to Didion – perhaps unavoidable for any female who writes personal essays, especially if they are American – but often they seem to overlook that what Jamison is actually doing is correcting the idea that in order to be an effective non-fiction writer, you have to – in the paraphrased words of Janet Malcolm – sell out your subject.

Jamison doesn’t have the solution to these problems. But part of what she is doing in Part II of this collection, ‘Looking’, is at least revealing some of the mechanisms behind non-fiction writing. This is the same thing Malcolm did with The Journalist and the Murderer, both represent a kind of meta approach to journalistic ethics. Like checking your privilege, the idea seems to be if you show your working and biases, you will get a little closer to a fair representation – or at least give a road map for critics who find fault with your position.

These essays do provide insight, not just through examining Jamison’s own work, but also the work of others. The title essay, ‘Make it Scream, Make it Burn’ is a particularly interesting examination of James Agee when he wrote Praise, hailed as a shining example of New Journalism (the kind Didion was also famous for). Agee spends a summer observing three sharecropper families in rural Alabama, and produces a long and self-reflexive book of lyrical reportage.  As Jamison writes, “Praise is nothing but an endless confession of everything Agee felt and thought and questioned as he tried to tell the story of these Alabama families”. He was tortured by his own position in relation to them, his inability to represent them fairly – not his personal problem, but a more general failing of the entire enterprise of reportage. 

Like Jamison, and like myself, Agee inserts himself into his non-fiction. The justification – at least mine – for this is twofold. Firstly, it seems more honest to admit that I am there, in the frame. But the second reason, less flattering, is that I can’t seem to keep the ‘I’ off the page – even when it is not about me, it always seems to be about me. So then the ‘I’ appears, even when I try to bury it under some more professional third person. But it’s so obvious, this attempt, that the essay reads better if I just let it sit there. It’s hard to feel true empathy for another person without first integrating that person into your own narrative. That’s when they really get a face, a personality – emotional resonance. 

There is a heavy focus on Agee in The Recovering, and so parts of this essay do feel a little familiar, like they are offcuts of Jamison’s other research. But the way it meditates on gaze – Agee’s position in relation to the family he was observing, the fact that he self-consciously tried to keep the framing ‘honest’, what was (in many ways) his failure to adequately articulate and acknowledge his own re-arrangement of facts in the name of art. 

Jamison’s most brilliant insight comes towards the end of the essay, after quoting a passage from Agee in which he imagines the daughter of one of the farmers, Emma, fantasising about an orgy with Agee and her husband. As she writes of this, “Agee not only confesses his own desire but also projects this desire onto Emma, imagining what she thinks of him … [a] ‘mythological creature’.” Isn’t this exactly what all non-fiction writers really want to do when they insert themselves into the story? Make room to imagine what their subject thinks of them?

I read this collection — like all of Jamison’s books — at a time where I perhaps overidentified with the kind of loneliness symbolised by 52 Blue. The kind that makes it necessary to keep moving, but all forms of swimming feel aimless and isolating. I am sure my mood has coloured this review, made me more receptive to the particular brand of open-heartedness in these essays which might, to a more cynical reader, veer into being overly sincere.  Like Jamison, one of the main things I seem to have inherited from my New Journalism predecessors is the inability to keep myself out of an essay – and while this practice can be (and often is) criticised as an unnecessary insertion – navel-gazing – it feels more honest than pretending I am not here at all. I am here, and Jamison is on her pages too, examining her own gaze.

Jamison’s weaker essays, like parts of The Recovering, come when she is too immersed in her own research. Sometimes it can feel like reading a series of quotations rather than a genuine exploration of the subject-matter. But her strongest essays use these intellectual ideas and ground them in real life– how she lived all of this theory, how she felt and practised these philosophies.

In ‘The Long Trick’, Jamison takes us to Las Vegas, to its glitz and glamour and hall-of-mirrors aesthetic. She tells us about a relationship she has with a man that, like all of the crystal chandeliers draped from the casino roof, turns out to be glittery but cheap. There is no depth to it. But she then brilliantly flips the essay: she meets her husband, who grew up in Las Vegas. What, to outsiders, is a party city is to him a childhood home, friends, family. Jamison takes this idea of the spectacle and shows that even the most gaudy simulacra has something ‘real’ underneath.

This kind of turn, and the tenderness with which she writes about subjects close to her, has always been my favourite part of Jamison’s essays. Like The Empathy Exams she turns the subject over the exact right number of times, and manages to frame her gaze without it feeling like a clunky ficto-critical meditation on turning the camera back on yourself. This is more like a selfie – we all have the cultural cues to know what it is, who took it, and the significance of that particular mode of framing. But there doesn’t need to be footage of the moment you took the phone out and decided to flip the camera. 

When the mechanisms of her writing are less visible, it makes more room to see Jamison’s heart in these essays. There is a wisdom that is indebted to New Journalism, but makes up for a lot of the kindness and warmth – a willingness to occasionally just indulge in the nice, pleasant parts of life – that some of those seminal works always lacked. It is also a turn away from the position in The Empathy Exams — a loss of the kind of pining sadness that runs throughout it and occasionally overtakes the text completely. There seemed to be a hesitation or a cowardice in some of those writers, and in Jamison’s earlier work, who always seemed afraid of not being taken seriously or gave in to their own neurotic internal monologues a little too easily.But when I read the best of Jamison’s essays, which includes The Empathy Exams, I think: I do not want to be a coward. I want to write, unashamedly, about my heart.

Em Meller is a writer and a Gemini. She has recent work in The Lifted Brow, Slippage and Ash.