It would be no exaggeration to say that, after a truly excessive bout of reading since graduation last Summer (oh my, it’s now 2017, which officially makes that LAST YEAR), I have come to the conclusion that personal essays are my new favourite thing. It became clear after a few pages of I’ll Tell You In Person, however, that I had not yet read anything like Chloe Caldwell.
Allow me to explain.
Take the essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters which I reviewed a couple of months back. This is a starkly different style of essay, one that, if pushed, I might deem ‘intellectual commentary’. Sure, there is one chapter squeezed in at the end of the book where the author discusses some childhood experience or other, but generally the author’s voice did not define the work. In fact, I remember finding this chapter pretty dull in comparison to the well-argued and profound thinking in the rest of the work.
Chloe Caldwell in I’ll Tell You In Person, on the other hand, has a narrative voice that remains present throughout. After reading this collection, I really do feel that I could spark up a conversation with her in the street and talk about anything, as though we’d known one other forever. This is because in this essay collection she discusses every manner of banal, intensely personal subject matter. Drugs, masturbation, acne, school friends, divorcing parents, hopes and fears: you name it, she tells you more than you need feel comfortable knowing.
There are 11 essays. The first, ‘Prime Meats’ is about her job search in New York City. She finds a job in a jewellery store and the essay mostly revolves around her fairly awful conduct outside of work hours. She drinks and takes drugs excessively; she posts strange adverts on Craigslist requesting to find fun men to hang out with who might buy her a steak; and she composes obscure surveys that her and her roommate insist any such Craigslist men fill in.
“How would you feel about incorporating steak into your sex life?”
Not good, Chloe Caldwell, not good.
In another essay, ‘Soul Killer’, she discusses her ongoing battle with the acne that took over unexpectedly at some point during her twenties. The unfairness of this derma-onslaught (after some blissfully acne-free teenage years, paradoxically) ties in with heroin use and general depression.
“The cycle went like this: The worse my skin got, the more stressed I felt and the more heroin I would buy. The more heroin I snorted, the worse my skin would get and the more stressed I would become. I couldn’t find the source of my sadness, my stress, or my acne. Each was feeding the others.”
Trying to summarise the content of Caldwell’s essays make me realise that what concerned me when I first started reading the collection was, indeed, true. Chloe Caldwell has a natural flair for writing exclusively about herself and I’d worried that such personal subject matter wouldn’t interest me. I’ll Meet You In Person, after all, is a collection of essays about relatively unremarkable events and a bucket load of feelings and questionable decisions; I simply hadn’t expected to feel especially positive about the whole thing. About a third of the way in, however, I surprised myself with the realisation that I was thoroughly enjoying the book.
Chloe Caldwell writes wonderfully and unapologetically, and the Chloe-centric quality to the content does not detract from the overall enjoyability of the collection. Having said that, she is hailed by some as being a feminist writer and I must admit that I can’t imagine my father enjoying the collection the same way I did, as a young female reader. I also must admit that whereas I think that the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters could have employed a more personal flair to his writing, I’ll Tell You In Person perhaps sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from the perspective that some deeper thought processes might have enriched the content.
Personal essays intrigue me on many levels, but above all I just LOVE that a writer might start an essay with the observation of one man’s hairy knuckles, then expands out to discuss the meaning of love, only to then return seamlessly to a discussion of those same hairy knuckles. It’s an art, in my opinion, and it’s one that grips me.
The story about hairy knuckles has yet to be written, but if it were written by Chloe Caldwell, I’d wager a bet that she would skip over the part about the meaning of love and probably go into some real detail about those knuckles before moving onto the discussion of other hairy things, most likely her own body parts. This could be seen as a pro or a con of Caldwell’s style, but it is no less riveting for it. This is a woman whose work will stick in my mind for a while and who I hope really does pass me on the street one day.