Katie Roiphe is proud to call herself an “uncomfortablist,” meaning she writes pieces that make the majority of readers uncomfortable. In her newest collection of essays, In Praise of Messy Lives, chances are you’ll certainly feel uncomfortable – not from the shock of violent or pornographic descriptions (there are none), but rather from Roiphe’s caustic observations of our world today, whether she’s ruminating on single motherhood, Twitter wars, or John Updike’s sex scenes. “While getting my doctorate in literature,” Roiphe writes, “I was trained to do close readings of poems, and what I am trying to do in these essays is close readings of the outside world.” Though Roiphe’s probing nature may make some cringe, her sagacious observations and criticisms of our world today make for a worthwhile and engaging read…at least, if you’re a member of the intellectual, mostly liberal elite – which is exactly what Roiphe is.
Roiphe’s collection is divided into four sections: “Life and Times” (which covers divorce, single motherhood, and Americans abroad); “Books” (women writers, the Great American Male Novelists of the 20th century and their sex scenes in particular, Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, Joan Didion, the modern obsession with the incest scene, Susan Sontag, what makes a successful children’s book author); “The Way We Live Now” (Mad Men, the modern working woman, Maureen Dowd, celebrity profiles, Hillary Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child); and “The Internet, Etc.” (email withdrawals, the language of Fakebook, the culture of Gawker). And just like the title In Praise of Messy Lives indicates, Roiphe is not a fan of the comfort zone; instead, she prefers a certain degree of instability, challenge…messiness.
Perhaps the most controversial portions of Roiphe’s essays are those that concern motherhood and children. She has two toddler-age children from different fathers, neither of whom she is married to anymore, and frequently admits that, though she loves her children, she doesn’t give up everything for them. She believes that the modern child is overly coddled and regulated. “It seems,” she says, “that some of us are so busy channeling our energies into doing what is good for us, for our children, into responsible and improving endeavors, that we may have forgotten, somewhere in the harried trips to Express Yourself Through Theater or Trader Joe’s, to seize the day.” At fancy New York dinner parties, Roiphe says that she usually sits bored on the women’s end of the table, where they talk about diapers and organic milk. She admits that she’d rather be on the men’s end of the table, where the livelier, more substantive conversation is happening. This blunt honesty was refreshing and brave.
Though Roiphe’s writing remains strong and consistent throughout, the degree of interest I had for the content waned in places, particularly the sections about other writers as well as the sections about feminism. I’m reluctant to recommend In Praise of Messy Lives to a male who’s not interested in feminist intellectualism, though they would certainly enjoy a select few essays (I would recommend it to most men as it would give them a more empathetic eye into an intelligent female mind whose number one priority is not raising children – though I wouldn’t promise they’d enjoy it). This book will never be a bestseller, not only because it’s so controversial but also because it appeals to such a small sliver of our population – the liberal, affluent, mostly urban-dwelling elite. That population will engage with Roiphe’s acerbic discernment. Just get ready to be uncomfortable.