JANUARY 17, 2020
THE LINE THAT GIVES Laurie Stone’s Everything is Personal: Notes on Now its title comes near the end of the book. “I like looking back to a time of jealousy because you remember wanting things deeply and desperately, and you remember a time you were shadowy to yourself,” Stone writes, “Everything was personal. The way the world worked was personal.”
Everything is Personal is a dispatch from the present: Kavanaugh, #MeToo, High Maintenance on HBO, the reconsideration of Dworkin and Sontag. The writer, who worked at The Village Voice for 25 years before becoming a critic for The Nation and NPR’s Fresh Air, shifts between pop culture review, memoir, and her own hybrid form of cultural critique. While reviewing HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Stone considers the “true north” of female friendship: “No one is willing to express the endless life of female friendship because part of its power is that it is a secret every female knows,” she writes.
Throughout Everything is Personal, it becomes apparent that Stone’s true north is to become the compass itself. Her primary form of navigation is between moments of recognition, like stations on a subway map in her beloved New York City. “You have to make the contemplation of a paper cut feel as exciting as climbing Mt. Everest,” she told The Rumpus in 2018.
The gospel of her work is layering. “More and more, I am patching together small sections and combining genres,” she says, again in The Rumpus. “People are calling this hybrid writing, where the writer freely moves between memoir, fictional techniques, criticism, travel writing, lists, letters, photographs, etc.” Stone claims she doesn’t care about meaning, although it’s obvious that meaning cares about her.
The overall effect of her writing is that of a collector. Stone’s autofictional 2016 book My Life as an Animal opens with a section on yard sales: “In a store, you imagine you are witnessing the birth of an object,” she writes. “At yard sales, you carry away a little of the person, and they are left with your expression as you gazed with admiration at something that was theirs.”
Stone collects phrases like surf-smoothed pebbles, the kind of pebbles a Boy Scout manual says you should suck on if you are stranded in the desert. “The things I want are never mine,” she writes. Her best phrases make grand pronouncements she can’t possibly mean, and yet in the moment of writing them, she does. Maybe this is the only way to cope with being stranded in the desert of language, where the perfect sentence can feel like a rare, fertile clearing.
Interspersed throughout Everything is Personal are hundreds of Facebook status updates, which Stone calls “The Clock.” Some of them go on for paragraphs, drawing on Stone’s old diary entries and favorite films, others address the Trump administration directly: “December 25, 2017 I asked Santa to kill HIM.” The alt lit movement tried to shape writing within the limits of emerging platforms, but skewed far closer to alt than lit. A young person’s genre, it did little to transcend basic nihilism or epistolary clichés. There is something so satisfying about a writer with the depth and experience of Laurie Stone embracing Facebook as a genre. The reader feels she is getting away with something forbidden.
“Laurie is also one of this era’s most gifted critical observers. Asking myself why that is, I realized it’s because she’s unintimidated by the internet,” writes Marco Roth in the book’s afterword. Stone is able to parse the nuances of the #MeToo era without ever coming across as reactive. She writes, “Bad people make good art. Turning away from a work of art or the artist who made it is a personal choice. Advocating for its removal from circulation is a social choice.” She adds, “There will never be a solid, agreed-upon notion of safety, and I don’t want to be protected from what you think it’s bad for me to know or do.” She may not agree with every argument made under the guise of #MeToo, but she doesn’t use this as an excuse to reject it outright. Instead, she offers insight into those who do: “Some historical perspective on the pushback against #MeToo by Daphne Merkin and Katie Roiphe: there is a tradition of girls being paid by boys to beat up the other girls.” When you live your life, as Stone does, between moments of recognition, it’s far harder to get baited into a literary career based on reaction. But she is never prudish.
“I’m up to here with the way piety and good-girl-itis attach themselves to women’s causes,” Stone writes in another section of Everything is Personal. Her feminism is as sexy as the extremely online left’s “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism” — feminism as, Stone insists, it was originally intended. “People want to modify their bodies because it excites them, because they feel more beautiful, because they are happier living as females, or males, or liquids, or ambiguously gendered humans,” she writes in a February 5, 2018, Facebook status. “Humans are technological animals with brains that transform their environments that in turn change them. Essentialism is manifest destiny under the guise of fake science.”
There are more than a few love stories woven through Everything is Personal. First, Stone’s relationship with her partner Richard Toon, the origin of which is described in My Life as an Animal:
At the artist colony where I met Richard, he was writing essays about museums, and I was writing stories, and one day he came to the door of the computer room, where I was sending emails, and he stepped over the threshold, and his gaze bounced off the shabby corners of the chairs, and I thought I had willed this, and I was afraid.
Later, Stone and Toon are buying a house outside Hudson, a house which seems to elude them (“The things I want are never mine”) and occupies Stone’s days like dreams of a distant lover.
The Village Voice, where Stone built her reputation as a critic, poses as another unattainable character in Everything is Personal. In grieving The Voice, which shut down in September 2017, Stone again reveals her tenderness for the unreachable — past, present, and future. She writes of her days on staff, “I feel part of something I have never felt part of before, not even in the women’s movement. Everyone has more cool and swagger than me. No one wants to be in love with a sure thing.” To be a writer is to be the chief recognizer of our own lives. When life doesn’t recognize us back, we feel most alive. As Chelsea Hodson writes in her similarly hybrid Tonight I’m Someone Else, “My love feels so good when I aim it at an untouchable person, but then I always touch them.”
Stone’s writing is fond of strays because she herself identifies as one. Even a pack of cigarettes on the sidewalk presents a somber decision tree. “A poor person who would buy them anyway might want these,” she tells Richard. He tells her to put them down. “I like the culture of the streets where people leave and take uneaten food and other things. I like leftovers: things too good to finish or waiting by the road for a ride,” Stone elaborates. Elsewhere in the book she writes: “Some people are strays and some people take you in.” Feeling like a stray with Laurie Stone is a way of belonging everywhere.