IN THE INTRODUCTION to her new collection of essays, Katie Roiphe notes with no small amount of disingenuousness that “I am aware that there are an unusual number of people who ‘hate’ my writing, and that I have done something to attract, if not court, that hatred.” It’s an impressive show of eyelash-batting from a woman whose first book, 1994’s The Morning After, argued that this new thing the media was calling “date rape” couldn’t possibly exist, because she, Katie Roiphe, didn’t personally know anyone who had experienced it. In an argument that prefigured the current political landscape in which terms like “legitimate rape” are parsed, Roiphe surveyed her surroundings — the highbrow-intellectual New York City in which she’d grown up, and, subsequently, the similar milieu of Harvard University — and concluded that rape itself wasn’t a problem; women who dissemble in order to deal with their shame at having sex are.
Since then, Roiphe has made a solid career of being contrarian about nearly everything related to gender, feminism, sex, and power. A show set in an ad agency in the 1960s is a hit? Katie Roiphe wants you to know that people like that show because we hunger for a time before political correctness and feminism made everything bloodless and bland. Herman Cain is in the news for sexually harassing an employee? Katie Roiphe is here to tell you that dirty jokes make a workplace exciting, and anyone who disagrees is a crusty old prude.
The ranks of Roiphe’s non-fans who nevertheless continue reading her work (raises hand) will likely continue to swell with her new book. In Praise of Messy Lives underscores that, though a nimble writer, she simply hasn’t bothered to expand her perspective much beyond herself and her immediate circle of similarly employed, respectably moneyed, self-consciously bohemian friends and colleagues. The same self-certainty that drove her, almost 20 years ago, to issue a blanket dismissal of the shockingly high incidence of rape on college campuses now compels her to look at a range of mostly unrelated topics — travel, literature, betrayal, Internet culture — from a vantage point that never extends beyond her own shadow.
The collection pulls together essays published over the last two decades; literary considerations of John Updike and Margaret Wise Brown shoulder up against thoughts on Internet addiction and remembrances of college romance. The throughline, as suggested by the book’s title, is the question: What do untidiness, conflict, and loose emotional ends bring to the project of living? Cheating, divorce, fabulism — all are explored, and in many cases lauded, not only for the necessary cultural upheaval they catalyze, but also for how they push back against what Roiphe terms “the responsible and improving endeavors” that constitute the lives of her middle- and upper-middle-class peers.
This pushback is a firmly Roiphe-approved project; the idea that American social and popular culture has become egregiously sanitized is a recurring theme in many of these pieces. In the quasi-title essay “The Perverse Allure of Messy Lives,” which originally appeared in slightly different form in the New York Times, Roiphe writes about what the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men says about its viewers. She had never seen the show until an editor asked her to write about it, but never mind &mda...read more