THE LUNATIC DISPLAY
The title is your first clue that these essays are not serious or literary or, for the most part, attempts at understanding anything. (Not to get all hung up on Montaigne, but that’s what essays, by definition, are: attempts at understanding.) Almond, author of Candyfreak and the story collection My Life in Heavy Metal, makes noises about the “little thrush of beauty” that “unfurls” when a writer really nails it. He confesses to “an embarrassing yearning for beauty” and scolds his readers for “wolfing down burgers from Fat Food” when they could be purchasing art. “Hold your one and only heart to a higher standard,” he tells them. But this sort of preaching would be easier to take from a writer who hadn’t already inflicted upon his audience a description of “the more obvious, quotidian perks of fame, by which I mean the opportunity to ejaculate on Paris Hilton’s face.” Fame, by the way, is one of Almond’s titular obsessions. It surfaces early on, in the context of the book’s most satisfying essay, “Why I Crush on Vonnegut.” He quotes Vonnegut, whom he compares to a biblical prophet, on how “the star system has made us all ravenous for the slightest proofs that we matter to the American story, somehow, at least a little bit more than someone else.” Almond does not acknowledge it in the moment—he prefers, predictably, to judge the “lunatic display” of the reality TV show My Super Sweet Sixteen, “the terrible misery” inside one of the contestants, “her monstrous need to be popular”—but this seems as apt a description as any of his raison d’être. It would, for instance, explain his picking a fight with Oprah. In a series of increasingly puerile letters, he describes the talk show host as “just another zillionaire narcissist for whom fame (the illusion of unconditional love) has become the true goal …” Or it might explain his picking a fight with Red Sox fans, whom he asks, very publicly, to “Shut up. Shut-up-shut-up-shut-up.” It might explain his picking a fight with a popular litblogger, whom Almond awkwardly confronts at a literary convention and then, very publicly, accuses of secretly longing to be his “big, sexy daddy.” It might explain why, as an adjunct professor at Boston College, he sent an open letter of resignation to the Boston Globe in protest of an impending speaking engagement by Condoleezza Rice. It might explain his subsequent appearances on right-wing talk radio and Fox News. Or, finally, it might explain why he actually agrees to appear on a reality show. (The piece is filmed but never airs.) The idea, he admits, was to become famous. “Everybody who ever called me a loser, privately or publicly, would suddenly feel like losers themselves,” he writes. But he describes this “belch of Schadenfreude” (Almond’s phrase, but not one he ever turns on himself) as “a belief complex familiar to anyone who has attempted to put art into the world.” In other words, he’s no Sweet Sixteen. He’s a writer. Almond’s essays are quick to understand Americans—“infantilized by abundance,” needing “to look beyond themselves”—but painfully slow at understanding anything more personal.
(Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions by Steve Almond (Random House, 304 pages)
Rejected for publication, 2007(1)
1 Rejected on the grounds that the editor was friends with Almond.