The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison had a lot of good things about it, although I had a lot of questions at the same time. It’s part memoir, part discussion of addiction in literature and society, and Jamison moves back and forth between the two throughout the book. I found the personal story compelling: Jamison’s narrative is not that dramatic, as she herself acknowledges, at least compared to what many addiction narratives are like, but she makes it interesting because she’s a good storyteller. I like her writing and her voice; I’m happy to listen to her tell personal stories no matter what they are.
Many sections of the literary/cultural discussion of addiction were interesting, but these began to feel repetitive after a while, and towards the end, I began to skim through these. She brings back authors again and again, and I know she has different points to make about them each time, but it still felt like too much. The book is around 450 pages, and it began to feel too long. It doesn’t help that we learn she wrote her dissertation (or is writing, I’m not sure) on the topic of recovery narratives, and the historical material in this book came from that research. There nothing necessarily wrong with this, but these sections felt significantly less interesting to me than the personal ones. At one point she drops an essay that didn’t get picked up by a magazine into the book, and I think presenting the material this way to the reader is a mistake.
She does have fascinating ideas on the problem of how to make addiction and recovery narratives interesting. Addiction stories are so often the same, more or less; they have the same structure even if the details vary. This is part of the point of Alcoholics Anonymous, the telling of one’s story and listening to the stories of others to understand that they are fundamentally the same. But this doesn’t always make for originality and uniqueness, if those are one’s goals. Jamison was trained to value the new and different, and AA taught her the value of the familiar, and even of the cliche. Other questions are about whether one loses creativity in sobriety (no one doesn’t, is her answer) and whether narratives of recovery can be interesting. The answer to this one varies, but her own story of recovery is interesting, her attempts to find joy and excitement in what seem at first to be the horribly mundane details of everyday life.
The other question this book brings up is one of privilege: Jamison’s experience of addiction as a white woman is very different from a white man’s, on the one hand, and from men and women of color, on the other. She addresses this directly: she writes about how a certain kind of artistic drunkenness is tolerated and even admired in men, while it is not in women, and also about how people of color are vilified and imprisoned for their addictions. I found her discussion of her own privilege satisfying, but it seems a fair question to me whether this is the addiction story we want to spend 450 pages reading about. I can see why some readers might want to focus on other kinds of stories from different types of people.
But, obviously, this book offers so much to think about. Jamison is a weirdly provocative writer, as I know some people felt her previous book The Empathy Exams was troublingly self-absorbed, although I loved it. I guess I like self-absorbed writers as long as they write well and are interesting. And, as Jamison does, as long as they recognize their own self-absorption in some way. You can’t like personal essays and memoirs without being able to tolerate a large degree of self-absorption, and I do love those genres.