Review of Julie Powell’s Cleaving

September 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

As my loyal readers know, I read Julie and Julia this summer, and just loved it. I read it in ideal circumstances: I began it during a layover in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and finished it when I got to California for my dissertation vacation. I love autobiography and memoir generally, not least because women writers so dominate these forms, but Julie and Julie still managed to surprise me with its quality. I enjoyed the film, too, although the “Julie” portions struck me as having little to do with the memoir I’d read — she was Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, ten years later. I missed all the wonderful scenes from childhood, so crucial to her trajectory in the book. I was sad not to get the opportunity to spend screentime with her family, especially her mother, who played such a complex role in the book. I wanted to see more smoking and vodka tonics with friends, a reminder that Powell was not yet thirty when she started the project, and that she had a life not solely defined by her day job as a secretary, or her domestic life as a wife.

I say all this because I’ve been reading reviews (remind me never to do that), and people keep saying things like, “Julie & Julia was about a woman doing her best to work her way through a worthy cooking experiment, while Cleaving is just about her naughty sex thoughts.” As far as I remember it, Julie and Julia was also about her sex life, at least as much as it was about cooking, how much she loves Buffy, and New York City real estate. The thing about a memoir is that it is a genre that creates space for multiple, simultaneous life-trajectories, and their occasional coming together throughout the narrative is the point. When Powell describes the books she looked at as a child, which gave her the proto-food orgasms now known to all food-loving young people, she is telling a story about her lifelong relationship with pleasure, not merely asserting an authentic and sustained relationship with the object that is Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. When, in Julie and Julia, Powell admits that she tries to impress a close friend with her knowledge of sex toys, she’s making a point about how she fears, every now and then, that her early marriage prevented her from fully realizing the full range of her sexual and romantic desires. This feeling of incompleteness is the stuff of so much women’s writing, from early lesbian literature, to Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love to my beloved Iris Murdoch’s odd plots of infidelity and miscommunication, most prominently laid out in A Fairly Honorable Defeat.

Therefore, it genuinely saddened me, although I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me, to find out last night, after I’d spent a wonderful day with Cleaving, that Powell got so much hate for this follow-up memoir, in which Powell’s affair is one of three central plots (the other two being butchery and her marriage, which makes it, by the way, all the way to the end of the book). Admittedly, one probably shouldn’t read this book if one is only interested in the mechanics of butchery, just as one probably shouldn’t read Elif Batuman’s The Possessed if one is seeking an introductory course in the Russian classics. One will find too much else, and I suppose, in a landscape of literary efficiency, short fiction, and the 4-Hour Workweek, one will find oneself resentful of said extra, formed, though it is, out of fabulously experimental lines of verbal enjoyment. I’m reminded of a scene in R. Zamora Linmark’s Leche in which there is a discussion of filing Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters in the section of the store that contains cookbooks. A sad but important commentary on the shrinking number of books in the local big bookstore franchise, complemented by a rise in adorable owl notebooks and college apparel. But I’m getting away from my point.

I certainly learned more than I expected to about butchery, because Powell’s descriptions are surprisingly easy to follow (she even offers a follow-along guide for one’s own body, and I’m a sucker for interactive literature), and because her anatomical metaphors are almost always worth pondering on. I’d commented re: Julie and Julia that her descriptions of meat cooking were veering toward Phoebe Gloeckner territory, right at the intersection of anatomy (de-boning a duck) and desire, and in Cleaving, this parallel of course takes center stage. Powell wants to understand her overpowering attraction to “D,” the man who can sexually dominate her in a way that would feel artificial within her marriage, because she knows (although commentators across the internet seem to think that their input will get her to shape up in a jiffy) that he is not actually in any way a serious candidate even for friendship, let alone for a relationship. She knows that it is a bad social calculation to cheat on her devoted husband, with whom she formed 90% of her adult identity. But one can’t only think in terms of social calculation. That is the crass logic of the market, the world of mass-produced lunchmeat in which butchery is a dying art. Powell has said that she wanted to call Cleaving the dying art, actually, and connect it to the dying art of marriage, and in some ways I wonder if this wouldn’t have made her logic clearer to the haters. But then I remember how much of the last three centuries the Anglophone world has spent policing women’s sexuality as it is mediated by the printed word, and I figure that’s probably just wishful thinking.

But then, the memoir takes pleasure in its status as a definitionally incomplete assessment of a life. Powell offers us a slice of her worked-for marriage, and a slice of grass-fed, artisan-butchered beef, and does her best to flesh out the social world that determines not the market value of either of the aforementioned, but creates the conditions for their intense desirability, and the beauty of them both. Elaine Scarry writes in On Beauty and Being Just that “The material world constrains us, often with great beneficence, to see each person and thing in its time and place, in its historical context. But mental life doesn’t so constrain us. It is porous, open to the air and light, swings forward while swaying back, scatters its stripes in all directions, and delights to find itself beached beside something invented only that morning or instead standing beside an altar from three millennia ago. This very plasticity, this elasticity, also makes beauty associate with error, for it brings one face-to-face with one’s own errors.” (48) Admittedly, Scarry, drawing on Kant, draws some distinctions between the aesthetic capacity, which leads us to art and nature, and the desirous capacity that attaches to individual human beings, but she is committed to the idea that both can be categorized as beautiful, and that our desire to find and follow beauty is good, even if it is often and easily appropriated by nefarious social forces. (For example, she cites people’s obsession with imitating the apparent beauty of movie starlets as a perversion of what is, at its core, a benevolent urge to find beauty in the world.)

Where the haters fail to give Powell credit is that she acknowledges her social error, of cheating on her husband and making their marriage more difficult, and her book is a serious attempt to understand what happened, why it happened, and re-locate what drew her simultaneously to the masculine world of butchery and sex with an old friend. She is an emerging writers and a flawed person, and I think that her story reveals much of significance about the contemporary cultural landscape, whether or not it translates easily into a romantic comedy. I understand why some readers are frustrated by what they perceive as narcissistic stories about sexuality that value an abstract complexity over accountability and social harmony (it’s a charge that often gets leveled against one of my favorite television shows, Six Feet Under), but I think that such stories do what stories are supposed to do: ask us to clarify what we are moved by, what we are shaken by, and what we’re looking for.

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