A GOOD LOOK AT HERSELF

By Christopher R. Beha

Published: March 3, 2013

“An Enlarged Heart” is a collection of personal essays written mostly over the past decade by the poet Cynthia Zarin. I assume the book is labeled a “personal history” for the same reason that collections of short stories are sometimes called “linked stories” or even “novels in stories,” which is that the reading public apparently prefers unified, book-length narratives to such hodgepodge. This is a superficial point, and the packaging decision was almost certainly out of Zarin’s hands, but I mention it up front for a couple of reasons.

To begin with, the book isn’t uniform in quality or even – seemingly – in intent. A few of the essays clearly show their beginnings as magazine assignments. Others have an occasional slightness that sits awkwardly beside, say, the fierce urgency of the title essay, about Zarin’s daughter’s bout with a rare and mysterious disorder, possibly an autoimmune syndrome, that can cause fatal coronary complications. Such internal inconsistencies might mar a book-length project, but they’re entirely forgivable in a collection whose high points are so good.

“This is what growing old is,” Zarin writes about first hearing the name of her daughter’s disease in a Cape Cod emergency room. “We think we will learn Sanskrit, learn Greek. Instead, what we learn is more than we ever wanted to know about things we wish we’d never heard of.” This theme – the passage from innocence to experience – is the closest thing to a common thread in her book. It is best treated in several essays about Zarin’s young-womanhood and her struggle to create a place for herself as a writer in New York. This leads me to the second reason it’s worth seeing this book for what it is: The personal essay about a young woman’s struggle to create a place for herself as a writer in New York is a proud genre that has recently fallen into some disrepute, and it’s worth taking note when it’s done this well.

When Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s character in “Girls,” announces in the show’s first episode that she has moved to New York to write not the great American novel but a collection of personal essays that will show her to be, as she memorably puts it, “at least a voice, of a generation,” this desire is treated as a kind of joke – one not undermined but improved by the fact that each episode of the show has the tone of a personal essay written by Dunham herself. Hannah’s ambition is of a piece with her general self-loathing and self-absorption. She suspects that her own life isn’t that interesting, but she can’t manage to look beyond it, leaving her instead to envy a friend who makes a book out of her boyfriend’s suicide. If only her boyfriend had killed himself.

Lest anyone think Hannah represents a type particular to her generation, Elizabeth Wurtzel – whose “Prozac Nation” made her the Lena Dunham of the mid-1990s – recently wrote an essay in New York magazine that could easily be written by Dunham’s character in 20 years. In fact, the essay’s subject was Wurtzel’s inability, at age 44, to stop living as if she were 24. Wurtzel praises her own “pure heart” and “uncompromised life,” while acknowledging that her refusal to grow up has basically made her life a mess. The essay was widely read and just about as widely mocked, contributing to a broader sense that we have arrived at a logical endpoint for a particular kind of artistic self-absorption.

All of which is to say that this is a good time for Zarin’s collection to come along and remind us that there is nothing inherently wrong with the self as subject, that a lot depends on execution. “Was anyone ever so young?” Joan Didion asks in “Goodbye to All That,” perhaps the greatest essay of young-womanhood in New York. “I am here to tell you that someone was.” Implicit in this statement is the notion that the author – Didion was still in her early 30s at the time – is no longer young, and that some lessons have been learned in the process of shucking off youth (lessons of greater sophistication than Wurtzel’s “In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous”). Zarin is now in her 50s, and she treats her younger self, bumbling around 1980s Manhattan, with a generous perplexity, all the while aware that she knows many things of which that young woman remains ignorant, not least of which is the meaning of “Kawasaki disease,” and what it might result in if left untreated.

There were moments throughout “An Enlarged Heart” that reminded me of Didion at her elegiac best, which is perhaps the finest compliment I know how to pay an essayist. Here is Zarin traveling in Italy with the man who will soon be her first husband:

“I sat on a flat rock below the house and thought about all the wonderful things I would write if I really was a writer, rather than pretending to be one, when in truth I was a woman who wanted to have a baby. All day my notebook sat idle. It was May then, too, and cold, and I wore a very expensive fawn-colored shearling coat I had bought in Venice, with money I had earned at the magazine where I then worked, writing about clothes – one of the only things, then, that I knew a great deal about, along with passages from ‘The Waste Land’ and some Yeats poems, which I liked to recite to myself, and a few lines from ‘Cymbeline,’ which I had decided perversely was my favorite play, not knowing or understanding that it was not a young person’s play and that I did not know the least thing about it.”

The magazine where Zarin wrote about clothes is mentioned throughout the collection, but it isn’t named until the book’s last and best essay, “Mary McCarthy’s Chest,” a reminiscence of Zarin’s days as William Shawn’s assistant at The New Yorker. “Memories of Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker” is of course yet another well-populated literary subgenre, and this essay may be read with interest by both fans of the tradition and those who have never heard of William Shawn.

Zarin writes here about her recognition that the New Yorker of that era ran on “the idea that what was most important was what was never spoken about.” Writers at the magazine, she notes, often kept the most vital information between the lines. It’s a lesson Zarin absorbed well. Finally the thing that distinguishes her writing here is its sense of discretion. Much is written, for example, about both of Zarin’s husbands, but there is nothing about how the first lost the part or how the second acquired it. This old-fashioned tact explains even the repeated reference to “the magazine” throughout the collection, which might seem coy in a different context.

For that matter, what’s so wrong with being coy? There is much to admire in Dunham’s literal and figurative exposure of herself, and it’s not Wurtzel’s fault that such nakedness becomes less attractive over time. But there is an art of withholding, as well as an art of disclosure, and Zarin reveals herself here to be a first-rate practitioner of it.

(Christopher R. Beha is the author of a memoir, ``The Whole Five Feet,'' and a novel, ``What Happened to Sophie Wilder.'')
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