Triptych image: Walid Raad, “We decided to let them say, ‘we are convinced,’ twice”
Courtesy of The Atlas Group Archive
THIS IS RUNNING FOR YOUR LIFE by Michelle Orange is about an fMRI machine that reads your brain waves while you watch movie trailers. It’s about the death of Orange’s grandmother. It’s about Hezbollah. It’s about the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a giant punchbowl-shaped graveyard in Hawaii. It’s about author George Eliot’s fear of being photographed. If you aren’t interested in these topics, wait two paragraphs and you will be presented with another concept or fact to ponder.
The scope of Orange’s debut collection of essays makes it difficult to categorize. A rangy combination of memoir, travel journalism, and intellectual disseminations on anything from Ethan Hawke’s face to Norman Mailer’s take on nostalgia, the book is essentially a rumination on the absurdity of being alive. When the writing is at its strongest, reading Orange’s essays is like drinking a great cup of coffee. There is one clear, overarching flavor, but each sip contains an endless series of complex and unexpected notes that, by the end, leave you energized with a slightly overinflated sense of your own intelligence. Other times, the writing becomes watered down with underdeveloped ideas, and that energetic buzz can become merely disorienting. Because much of the writing in this collection is polished and brave in its examination of heretofore unexamined subjects — her essay “Pixellation Nation” will likely persuade you to finally read Middlemarch — the weaker writing is evident in comparison. If Orange had only given you the weak coffee, you may not know what you were missing, but you’ve had the great kind and it is hard not to long for more.
Orange is at her best when she is traveling and when she is not the main subject of her essays. Whether she is going to Beirut, the American Psychiatric Association convention, or an fMRI lab in a San Diego warehouse, she is an excellent observer, and when she is reporting on something outside of herself, she does so with confidence, clarity, and crackling sarcasm. In “Beirut Rising,” an essay that first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 2009, Orange travels to what used to be known as the “Paris of the Middle East”; by the time of her 2008 trip, the war-torn Beirut faced serious economic decline and Lebanon was listed as number 18 on the Failed States Index, just two below North Korea. As of 2012 it was still in the top 50. The tourism industry was busy, however, claiming that Beirut was back to normal. Orange’s guidebook boasts that “Beirut’s resilience” is nowhere “more apparent than in its reconstructed city center.” Because she is the kind of tourist to whom Beirut supposedly caters, Orange is able to explore just how false this claim is. She rents a hotel, meets friends and new acquaintances for dinner, and, after much effort, takes a car tour around Lebanon. One afternoon she goes with a friend to a club where the wealthiest Beirut citizens used to dine and which now resembled a “shelled-out bunker.” Once Orange and her friend are seated, the waiter “regretted to inform [them] that there is no longer a working kitchen, so [they] ordered sodas and a bowl of the house’s salted soybeans.” When they leave, Orange’s friend points to a spot next to the club where:
an anti-Syrian member of parliament had been killed by a car bomb in June of 2007. He died between the lighthouse rebuilt after a 2006 Israeli bombing at one end of the corniche and Hariri’s 2005 assassination site at the other end. The guided tour of Beirut’s latest misfortunes is nothing if not compact.
Getting the tour company to drive her through Lebanon takes Orange nearly a week because the tour itself requires at least two willing attendees, something Lebanon is quite low on. When she finally does take the tour, it serves mainly as a highlight reel of the destruction caused by the 2006 Israeli–Lebanon conflict. They pass several sites destroyed in the 2006 war, including the Mdairej Bridge — the tallest Middle Eastern bridge that was bombed by the Israelis, “taking out a 200 foot support beam and crippling Beirut’s supply traffic.” By the end of the tour, the guide herself breaks down in tears: “If I can speak openly — I am miserable […] I am very depressed. My whole country is depressed. We are frightened. Everyone is trying to leave but there is nowhere to go — there are no jobs, no money. We don’t know what will happen.” What happens is an explosion. Several days later someone sets off a bomb in a US embassy car a few blocks from where Orange is visiting an art museum.
In “Beirut Rising,” Orange allows the setting and people to speak for themselves without trying to assign a greater meaning to the moments she candidly portrays. In doing so, she creates a powerful and nuanced picture of the country’s turmoil and suffering. The bombing — which is only mentioned briefly at the end of the essay — could easily have been its entire focus, á la Fox News: how scary it was when it happened, how she felt before, how she felt after, what she thought about it weeks and months later. But as it is, the bombing is just one moment in time. Orange writes, “Even for me, even after just a few days, the moment was not unexpected.” After the bomb goes off, people immediately disperse and continue to go about their day as if nothing happened, and Orange follows suit. This simple, honest moment encapsulates both the horror and the everydayness of violence in Beirut, where a bomb going off — something that would shut down sites of destruction in the United States — barely stops people in their afternoon walk.
Orange is similarly successful in her essay “War and Well Being, 21° 19’N., 157° 52’W.,” in which she travels to Hawaii to cover the American Psychiatric Association convention. The American Psychiatric Association convention largely centers around the impending release of the DSM-5 — the newest revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a compendium that more or less provides psychiatrists with diagnoses codes for insurance companies and charts people’s “changing relationship to what is considered normal — socially and individually, emotionally and behaviorally.” By sitting in on various panels and workshops, Orange exposes the shockingly dysfunctional men and women in charge of defining what is considered normal. The psychiatrists responsible for the DSM-5 have so successfully alienated the psychiatrists who created the previous edition of the DSM, the DSM-IV, that many of the latter chose to go to another conference site entirely, “where a shadow conference made up of DSM-5 rejects was taking shape.” Meanwhile, the psychiatrists at the main conference claim that any feelings of sadness that last more than two weeks should be categorized as a major depressive disorder and must be medicated. Pharmaceutical companies, though not “officially” tied to the APA, have filled the exhibition room with 20-foot ads for the latest antianxiety and antidepressant pills. One psychiatrist gives as a healthy example of mourning, “I was never funnier than at my mother’s funeral” — and when another psychiatrist has the gall to ask for help with his own emotional turmoil over the death of his wife, the rest of the conference stares at him silently until the doctor running the lecture tells him to go join a study group on “prolonged grief disorder.” As in “Beirut Rising,” Orange portrays her observations in a thorough and nuanced manner, supporting her statements with concrete examples and delving deep into the issues she presents.
Orange seems less able to turn that sharp reporter’s eye on herself. “War and Well Being, 21° 19’N., 157° 52’W.” loses steam when, like the psychiatrist at the conference, the author brings in her own relationship to mental illness. At the end of the APA convention, Orange takes a break to go clothes shopping. She mentions that the last time she worked in a clothing store, she was in the middle of some kind of mental breakdown; she becomes suddenly coy and disjointed in her description: “An incident in a sandwich shop had left me in a heap on the bathroom floor […] I tried therapy, briefly, but it was too late for that […] Here’s the gist: at twenty-nine, I broke down and became a woman.” Without context these statements lose their meaning and the reader is left with a tidal wave of questions. What happened at the sandwich shop? Why was it too late for therapy? What did it mean to you to actually have a breakdown? Fans of Joan Didion’s work may enjoy Orange’s choice to leave these questions unanswered, but in this reader’s opinion, without these answers the portrayal of the breakdown reads as vague and general. It morphs into a clichéd phrase as opposed to a personal experience that is relevant to the point of the essay and, in turn, seems an unused opportunity to build a real-life connection between the shaming and drug-pushing culture of psychiatry and its effect on the general population’s attitude towards their own pain and depression.
This lack of clarity is most apparent in Orange’s essay “The Dream (Girl) Is Over.” In this piece, Orange attempts to sum up the phenomenon of the cinema’s “dream girl” in over 60 years of film but does not define what a dream girl is, other than to briefly suggest that she is a woman who is pretty and sexually unattainable. Orange offers but one specific example: Marilyn Monroe. Is the traditional dream girl a femme fatale? Is she the girl next door? Because Orange aims to cover 60 years of cinema in 30 pages, she also blows through entire decades of film with overly simplified and easily contradicted statements. For instance, her take on the dream girl in the late 1970s is that there was none: “What there was little room for during those years was fantasy: the male gaze had been bagged and tagged as part of the feminist project, and to think in terms of a traditional ideal was to earn a lashing with someone’s discarded Wonderbra.” What about the Bond girls or Lois Lane in Superman or even Princess Leia in Star Wars? Or, in the realm of TV, Charlie’s Angels — a show about women whose entire purpose in life was to do the bidding of a man they had never seen, all while keeping their hair sumptuously teased and their breasts exposed. An examination of each idea in greater depth, if only to prove the central points being made, would have really served “The Dream (Girl) Is Over,” making it a piece as strong as the others. Instead, this essay skims the surface of the ideas it presents and reads as more of a stream-of-consciousness exercise than a cohesive argument.
But even when the essays in This is Running for Your Life are more scattered than successful — and the majority of them are very successful — Orange displays a brazen disregard for form that is exciting to read. She is unafraid to push boundaries, and when she is thorough in thought, the writing is engaging and enlightening. Orange possesses an intelligent, exciting new voice, and her work will undoubtedly strengthen over the years.