Beyond Ink and Whiskey
Leslie Jamison's newest work is full of feeling and analysis that leads the way to truth
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
In Leslie Jamison's tome, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, the author traces two threads, merging them at well-chosen points to underline a few revelations about desire, acceptance, addiction and what it leaves in its wake. Here Jamison is historian, critic and memoirist, unflinchingly writing her own history of self destruction while simultaneously investigating a broader history of drugs and alcohol as tonic that spurns creativity. Jamison's clean and insightful prose makes “poet,” seem just as apt a designation for this expansive work.
From her first experiences drinking, to her last, it is memoir that grounds The Recovering, and also what makes it compelling, underlining the themes that emerge in the stories of all the other writers and artists that orbit Jamison's own narrative in the massive work of more than 500 pages. Those stories include those of David Foster Wallace, Billy Holiday, Jean Rhys, Amy Winehouse and others—each illumining something of the confounding experience of longing and addiction, the nature of art and the vital experience of story.
Jamison—whose trajectory is almost annoyingly topflight for a writer—bounces between Harvard and the University of Iowa, with some dark tenures in Nicaragua and Milan. Relationships are unpacked but the heart of the work is the grip of alcohol, its reputation as the literary choice of romantic self-destruction. Jamison quotes theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on addiction—it's not so much the substance itself so much as “the surplus of mystical properties” that people assign to it. The literary world's stale, drunk heroes—the dead white men—need to be abandoned for new myths. Besides, the real drudgery of addiction doesn't get sublimated in Jamison's writing—she uses her literary power for such vivid descriptions as “drinking as seepage toward death.”
As Jamison grapples with her own recovery, she worries that accepting sobriety means accepting trite banalities. What readers discover in The Recovering instead is that story takes flight with sobriety—that's when the discoveries happen. They are sometimes simple, but always beautiful, helped along by the precise, poetic writing. The examples are boundless, and are reiterated enough times to drive home the logic. Yet, they are so well-written, really, that it’s hard to tire of the them, like, “when I asked my own diary, drunk, Am I an alcoholic? I was trying to answer a question about desire: When does ordinary craving become pathology? Now I think: When it becomes tyrannical enough to summon shame. When it stops constituting the self, and begins to construe a lack.”
All that being said—readers must be invested in the topic to make it through some of the more staid explications of the lives and addictions of history's creatives. In some longer, deep dives into the stories of artists I had only a passing familiarity with beforehand, I found myself counting the pages until we returned to Jamison's story—where the connection to the material felt less academic, the emotion more heightened.
But Jamison's treatment of all the material is rigorous and true—and even hits on some unexpected depths that connect addiction to broader social issues. The years of work that are evident from reading the end product—whether that is research, or lived experience and years of self-searching—give this book vitality. Many truths collide to bring home the richness of some “single-entendre truths” as Jamison puts it, and some much more nuanced ones, too.
Leslie Jamison discusses The Recovering this Tuesday, April 17, at the University of New Mexico as part of her 17-city book tour.