Review of Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia
July 9, 2011 § 1 Comment
You are what you love and not what loves you back
So, before I say anything else, I should say that I’m writing this review without having seen the film. That’s not to say that I have anything against the idea of the film, but I think that the book is good in its own right in a way that, judging from the reviews, was not quite translatable into the film, and so my goal is to tell you why it works so well as a book. To summarize, I came away from the book confident that: 1) Julie Powell is a writer, and not just a person with an interesting, marketable story to tell in passable prose; 2) Julie Powell’s interest in Julia Child is genuine and thoroughly explored, and thus by definition has little if anything to do with Child’s desired legacy; 3) Julie Powell joins the ranks of Phoebe Gloeckner, Elif Batuman, and Georgina Kleege, as a writer of the female gender, who approaches autobiographical writing in concert with experimental inquiry into an enduring field of study (cooking and, now, butchering for Powell; anatomy for Gloeckner; Russian Literature for Batuman, and visual culture for Kleege).
The connection with Gloeckner is particularly strong, although Powell is doomed to have the sexual and political edge of her work whitewashed in popular reception, and Gloecker is doomed to subcultural status by virtue of both content and form. But in terms of what they are talking about, the writers share a serious investment in the flesh and bones of life, explored by Gloeckner in her anatomical drawings, particularly their incorporation of sex organs, and by Powell in her satisfaction at getting to the marrow of the animals we eat, with her tools and her hands. Batuman and Kleege get to the core of intellectual technologies and perceptual possibilities via their unparalleled writerly talents, while Powell and Gloeckner go after the material of bodies themselves, and thus they create art. Somewhere in this dichotomy is the key to the fine distinction between writing and visual art, made even finer by Gloeckner’s incorporation of anatomical insight into her comics. Just as Gloeckner’s anatomical drawings don’t exactly arouse the sexual senses (they speak, at least for me, to larger questions of embodiment), Powell’s descriptions of her cooking don’t whet the appetite. They ask the reader, rather, to reflect on the limits of taste, long a serious question entertained by philosophy. While reading some of Powell’s more academic thoughts about why she was attracted to Child rather than some practitioner of molecular gastronomy, I recalled Edmund Burke’s “On Taste,” in which the philosopher outlines some of the more universal qualities of taste. in order to combat the relativism that suggests that our experience of taste, in the passage below, is always and only personal. Because Powell’s book is about the process of continuing to evolve one’s tastes past the initial milestones of adulthood (the first fully enjoyed sip of wine, for example), I think that Burke’s schema of the cultivation of tastes is helpful. He says,
A man frequently comes to prefer the taste of tobacco to that of sugar, and the flavour of vinegar to that of milk; but this makes no confusion in tastes, whilst he is sensible that the tobacco and vinegar are not sweet, and whilst he knows that habit alone has reconciled his palate to these alien pleasures. Even with such a person we may speak, and with sufficient precision, concerning tastes. But should any man be found who declares, that to him tobacco has a taste like sugar, and that he cannot distinguish between milk and vinegar; or that tobacco and vinegar are sweet, milk bitter, and sugar sour; we immediately conclude that the organs of this man are out of order, and that his palate is utterly vitiated. We are as far from conferring with such a person upon tastes, as from reasoning concerning the relations of quantity with one who should deny that all the parts together were equal to the whole. We do not call a man of this kind wrong in his notions, but absolutely mad. Exceptions of this sort, in either way, do not at all impeach our general rule, nor make us conclude that men have various principles concerning the relations of quantity or the taste of things. So that when it is said, taste cannot be disputed, it can only mean, that no one can strictly answer what pleasure or pain some particular man may find from the taste of some particular thing.
Powell learns from Child that tastes can evolve further still, past tobacco and stoli to incorporate and enjoyment of kidneys, various gelatinous savory dishes, and the sensation of handling duck bones. And her argument is that, where she has felt isolated by getting in touch with this evolution of the tastes, she is able to recover pleasures she had lost touch with as a result of mundane secretarial work, and a marriage which, however movingly anchoring, cannot compensate entirely for the domination of her life by this kind of alienated labor. If I sound dramatic, take comfort in the fact that Powell does not describe it in exactly these terms, although one quickly suspects that she would if she weren’t under constraints she is quick to allude to from her publisher and her former place of employment. The work is not primarily an exposé, and so I’m ultimately glad that Powell made the sacrifices necessary to produce a mainstream work, particularly because it has now enabled her to be a professional writer. I might argue that’s even more principled than that, because she’s someone that learned from blogging that, while you have to stay true to your own voice, there is great benefit to be gained in finding an audience, and that audience will only stick with you so long as you are primarily talking about what you said you’d be talking about. She cites the 17th-century Samuel Pepys, whom she calls a “proto-blogger,” as a source of inspiration for her own work, but she also is sufficiently abreast of contemporary writing culture as to be mindful of the limits of this bare-all approach. (Unlike Emily Gould, another memoirist I have a lot of time for, Powell was lucky not to be sucked into the Gawker media empire, considering her writing talents and surprising amount of overlap with that crowd in terms of age, social standing, and geographic location.)
But really, to return from digression-land to reviewer mode, the remarkable thing about Julie & Julia is how full it is. The biggest anxiety about blog-to-book movies, I think, is that they will be thin, not worth the price, nor worthy of the title or shelf space. Batuman and others I mention above make clear that this doesn’t have to be the case — her “essay collection,” almost all of which was previously published in other outlets, deserves to be at least one book, and could easily have been stretched into two by contemporary standards. But then, on the other side, there are books that will be flown through, except by the most devoted fan (which, in these cases, would have to be a hardcore fan). Julie and Julia, by contrast, reaches an admirable middle ground. I had never read Powell’s blog, because, although I am an avid reader of ladyblogs generally, I spend more time on posts about politics and sexuality than I do on posts about fashion or food. That said, Powell found the perfect register with which to address an internet-literate, but not food blog obsessive audience. She incorporates creative ruminations on Child’s life, grounded in archival research, but she has a good sense of proportion, and keeps these isolated to intertextual meditations, allowing the reader to peruse according to his level of interest in this docudramatic history.
I conclude with some speculation about an element of the book that I am confident was reductively incorporated into, or possibly removed entirely, from the film, which is Powell’s evolving understanding of sexuality. The major bildungsroman here is the story of her transition from happily married secretary into happily married writer (happily in pajamas), but the subtler strain goes back to what I was trying to articulate about the relationship to Gloeckner. Powell resists from the beginning, out of fear that her friends already see her this way, the judgment that she is a dowdy housewife looking to create middlebrow cuisine to keep her husband from his inevitable drive to stray. She makes clear that, although she counts herself as lucky for having met such a wonderful partner at such an early age (the two were high school sweethearts), that she continues to learn from her more socially and sexually adventurous friends, and continues to ask herself what her relationship means to her, and what this means with regard to parts of her sexuality not accounted for by the conventional heterosexual marriage paradigm. She talks a lot about reading for pleasure (oh, I’m having too much fun with this), as well as, quite proudly it seems, relating an anecdote about sharing vibrator advice with a single friend. Both of these, as well as the sensual pleasure she begins to get from cooking, serve to combine interestingly to assert her sexual individuality, not in spite of, but in concert with, her husband’s positive presence in her life. By the end (spoiler alert I suppose, but you can’t really be spoiled for the book), she realizes that her growth narrative came from the intimacy of cooking and writing, as well as the community created by blogging, and so she realizes that she ought to step back from making judgments on her friends’ less conventional relationship decisions.
I hope that, if there are those straw blog commenters who loved her writing, that they read the book, because if they do, I think they would receive a positive message about the ways in which taking one’s own interests seriously, whatever they are, is the best path toward understanding why they are not necessarily shared by others. This is what I call the lady model of the internet, although of course it’s not confined to biologically female ladies. It’s not about finding bobbleheads who already agree with you, as has been the charge. Rather, it’s about writing and talking about one’s interests and pursuits in a way that ideally inspires and entertains a community of people, and less than ideally, but still pretty pleasantly, inspires and entertains oneself and one’s kin.
In this case, I would argue that the community who might potentially be inspired by Powell’s writing ought to include everyone who’s interested in contemporary women’s autobiographical writing across media. Because I know that’s not just me.