Magazine article The Spectator

'The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath', by Leslie Jamison - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath', by Leslie Jamison - Review

Article excerpt

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison, novelist, columnist, bestselling essayist and assistant professor at Colombia University, makes for bracing reading. Clever, bold, earnest and sometimes maddening, it is chiefly an account of the author's alcohol addiction and the various stages of her recovery. It is also an examination of the lives and works, in so far as they pertain to drugs and alcohol, of 'addicts of extraordinary talent', such as Jean Rhys, John Berryman, Billie Holliday and David Foster Wallace.

The book is an investigation of how Alcoholics Anonymous operates, its strengths and challenges, the leanings of its founders and a roll call of some of its members who've touched the author's life. It is the story of a three-year romance between the author and her hard-to-fathom love interest 'Dave', a man who takes so long to mix a cocktail that you wonder if you might have a drink while waiting for your drink.

It is an exploration of self-harm and anorexia, the drive to score and whittle away skin and flesh, as a response to the human need to create visible proof of our suffering. It contains an inspiring aside about prayer, a defence of clichés -- for what is more hackneyed and unoriginal than a knee-jerk disdain for clichés? -- and as compelling an account of a bakery store dispute over Thanksgiving turkey-shaped biscuits as you're ever likely to read.

It looks briefly at what drink does to the issue of sexual consent. It also asks how gender affects the way addiction is viewed, and how the 'mythic male drunk manages a thrilling abandon' -- while his female equivalent is more likely to be seen as guilty of 'failing at care'. And it looks at race, asking what makes people see one addict as vulnerable and another as dangerous?

Perhaps, more than anything, The Recovering is a book that seeks to establish what, for an artist, is the most valid alternative to suffering in style. Can inner resources, calm and sobriety really compete with despair and disarray when it comes to creating memorable narratives and characters, when it comes to living days of maximum life? Is it important that stories about getting better are as enthralling as stories of wreckage? It is important to Jamison.

She writes wonderfully well about the bad old days, beginning with the very early drinking when she felt 'giddy from a sense of trespass'. You feel for her and wince and shake your head, and you laugh. 'My first boyfriend: he liked to get high. He liked to get the cat high.... He came to a family meal fully wired on speed. "SO talkative!" said my grandma, deeply smitten. …

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