Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Somehow, a man who spent all eight years of the George W. Bush administration drawing political cartoons has just released a book without a single mention of our current president. And thank heaven for that. He writes about 9/11, God, his cat, obscure varieties of love, the circus, and mortality—with levels of thoughtfulness and musicality and wit that would make Colette kiss her fingertips, quelle beauté—and the lack of 2017’s politics is so refreshing that reading Kreider is like leaving a room full of coal smoke.
Whether Kreider would agree with me that this lack is a positive quality is uncertain. He doesn’t shy away from addressing political issues, analyzing the aftermath of the War on Terror with gusto and intelligence:
In retrospect, I don’t believe anyone was really “misled” about Iraq; they were given acceptable excuses, like the consensual lies agreed upon by seducer and seduced. To me there’s something almost optimistic about even the most cynical realpolitik explanations of the war, in that they all assume there’s something rational and calculated behind these paroxysms of insane race hatred that periodically seize all tribes and nations. The phrase War on Terror seems nakedly telling now; the U.S. expended four trillion dollars, thousands of our countrymen’s lives, and untold numbers of others’ in a mass national effort to defeat a feeling.
I imagine a mind such as his would love to seize and tear away at what’s been on TV and Twitter for the past year. But, then, perhaps not. Perhaps he wanted to write about the current state of politics, but his publishing schedule precluded the possibility. Or perhaps the current administration’s chaos and dysfunction are too tiresome for a writer who can wind an unrequited love affair around 9/11 and make both events seem equally momentous, without cheapening or overdramatizing either; a writer who can begin a paragraph with “I had rented a herd of goats for reasons that aren’t relevant here,” and go on to make rich, multidimensional observations about being known vs. being loved; a writer who opens up his brain and heart to explain how he flubbed an affair with a years-younger woman, and elicits empathy, not condemnation.
Let’s linger on that last theme, failed love, for a moment. The title of the book, and its lurid red cover, and even its release date (a week before Valentine’s Day of 2018) make it plain that the book is about love. I felt dubious before I opened it. Kreider’s writing about “girls” in his 2012 book of essays, We Learn Nothing (also from Simon & Schuster), made me uneasy. He seemed uncomfortably motivated by sex, by the old-fashioned idea of getting her into bed. I worried that he, like many men, categorized women by type: The Sex Object, The Momlike, The Sexless Professional, etc. I tend to see people as individuals rather than types, so it bothers me when men prove incapable of doing the same. I feel particularly sad about the wasted opportunity when the man in question is intelligent or funny or talented or especially, as Kreider is, all three.
I needn’t have worried. Either Kreider has evolved significantly since his last book, or I misunderstood him. Every word he has to say about women in this book rings with truth, particularly when the insight is hard-won or untidy. Especially interesting are encounters he has with Zoey, a sex worker who (successfully) propositions him after becoming infatuated with his comics, and the undergraduate students in the mostly-female college class he teaches, with whom he has zero interest in becoming sexually involved.
But a friend of mine, long married and the father of a young daughter, once told me that, although of course he still noticed women in their twenties, the thought of hitting on one of them just seemed “grotesque.” I remembered an article about a high school teacher who’d been convicted of having sex with several of his underage students, in which friends and colleagues were quoted as saying that he’d always thought of himself as one of them, a young person himself. Thinking of that story now, I saw him as less predatory than stunted, pathetic.
This view might seem naïve, but it’s certainly not a common one. That’s why Kreider is such an inimitable American essayist. He reliably, intelligently, wittily states the hesitated-over, the unspoken, the perhaps, the after-last-call-drunken-theory-of-the-universe that actually might have been brilliant. His ideas are sometimes risky or incomplete, but I’ve almost never encountered them anywhere else; in style, he sits on the shelf between the quick humor of Dave Barry and the gentle, erudite persuasion of Virginia Woolf. When reading Tim Kreider, I feel as if he’s stated what’s already in my mind.
As an example, one of the better-known pieces included in his last book, “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” advised New York Times readers that they were likely faking their excessive busyness to look important, and that filling one’s life with activity to the point of frenzy is less to be admired than avoided. I had believed both these statements privately for years, and reading them in Kreider’s words gave me permission to change my life. Since I read that essay, I have worked hard and rewardingly, but never full-time, and I strive not to use the word “busy” in relation to my own life. The parallel statement in I Wrote This Book Because I Love You arrives in “Our War on Terror,” in which Kreider’s unrequited love for his married friend Lauren waxes and wanes in the same cycles as post-9/11 hysteria and Iraq war protests in New York. Eventually, his connection with Lauren becomes a valuable, sibling-like friendship.
Somehow we successfully navigated the transition from being friends to what you might call Platonic lovers to something we don’t have a name for: exes who never dated, friends without benefits. We have fewer words in our language to distinguish kinds of love than we do for distant cousins.
At the time I read these sentences, some weeks ago, I was in the throes of drafting a hybrid essay predicated on this very point: that some kinds of love are odd and blurred and do not always slot into neat categories. I wrote 2,500 words and did not successfully make the point he made in a single sentence. It’s possible that, overall, I am a poor choice to review this book; Kreider puts his finger on some of the same ideas I have made gospel in my own work and life, so a certain circuit in our two brains appears connected to the same source of electricity. A sentence from “The Dilemma” also deftly describes me:
One thing that makes decisions like this so paralyzing for me is that the immediate, concrete problem gets tangled up with the big abstract ones, which is a handy aptitude for an essayist but can make it hard to order in restaurants.
But then, who else could understand his words so well but another writer who refuses to be busy?
Kreider presents himself a little more gingerly in this book than in his last, a little less abrasively, and it contains no illustrations at all (drawings of himself and his friends were sprinkled throughout We Learn Nothing). I didn’t miss them, exactly; the words were enough. But I did miss the visual insight they provided me on Kreider’s view of himself: his detailed depictions of himself as egocentric or hapless or drunken were made with such great skill that not only were the drawings pleasurable to look at, but they helped me see the author in addition to hearing his voice as I read.
Romantic love (or lack thereof) is not the only love-topic explored in the collection, but Kreider’s sharp intelligence and humor pervade it all. An essay that won Kreider much attention when it appeared in the New York Times, about his passionate relationship with his cat, is a highlight. “But then who’s to say what is or isn’t an “appropriate” object of affection?” he asks.
I’m not going to validate social conservatives’ slippery-slope warnings by making a plea for legalized man-cat marriage here, but I will maintain that my relationship with this animal is not wholly unilateral or imaginary; there is some reciprocity to it. It is not like keeping the TV on all day or being best friends with Jesus; someone else is there.
He dusts off some fair journalism skills with a long essay about his anonymous involvement, in early childhood, in a research experiment later published to significant fame. “Some days self-awareness mostly seems like a source of embarrassment, enabling you to watch yourself fucking up with greater clarity,” he notes. One short meditation, “On Smushing,” extends to encompass a love of all creatures, I believe; toward the end, after squishing ants and stinkbugs, and removing mice from his house with methods both humane and unintentionally cruel, he helps some raccoons escape a hot Dumpster. “Whenever I think of all the harm I’ve done in this world,” he concludes, “through cruelty or carelessness or just by the unavoidable crime of being in it, I try to remember how I felt standing there, watching them go.”
In rare moments, these essays can feel too light. The opening essay is about traveling on a circus train, and only a little bit about life and death and bigger things. But the penultimate essay is about God and religion, and I don’t know another writer who could cover these topics so satisfyingly in 20 pages. He argues that Christianity has declined in its reach and popularity such that our culture can no longer use its ideas and stories as touchstones. And then where are we?
A culture and an intellectual tradition that endured for millennia has disappeared as abruptly as dance cards and men’s hats…we’re a people without a culture, except for whatever we can salvage from the vast crapscape of pop songs, kids’ movies, sound bites, and memes that now constitute our noosphere, like the survivors of some disaster scavenging the shambles for food and medicine and finding only Wacky Packs and Band-Aids.
Or maybe this is just my twentieth-century pessimism talking.
Despite that pessimism, reading these essays, so untouched by the screaming, honking political moment in which we live, feels like living in a kinder world for 200 pages. In this world, heartbreak happens and a capital-D Dilemma’s horns puncture one’s backside, but with humor, a few beers, and a really old cat, we can make it to the next sunrise.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, the Offing, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.