Object Lesson: Dinah Lenney and the Essayist’s Dilemma
By Ned Stuckey-FrenchMay 24, 2014
The Object Parade by Dinah Lenney
DINAH LENNEY has done something smart. She’s come up with a solution to the essayist’s dilemma. She’s figured out a way to stay true to the form of the essay — digressive, skeptical, friendly, and brief — in the Age of the Memoir. New York publishers want a hook, an Amazon search term, a memoir that is an easy seamless read about childhood sexual abuse, life on the streets, substance abuse, and mental illness that ends with an Oprahesque overcoming of odds. They want success, accomplishment, drama, and celebrity. They want a platform. They’ve got no time for the quiet or the brief, the varied or the difficult. They don’t want essay collections.
What Lenney has done is disguise her essay collection as a memoir, though perhaps it’s the other way around. In any case, hers is a set of 32 essays, sandwiched between a prologue and an epilogue, each one about six pages long and focused on an object that has significance in Lenney’s life. These essays could be self-standing. Indeed, many of them appeared first in journals such as The Coachella Review, Creative Nonfiction, Defunct, Prime Number Magazine, AGNI, Brevity, and Harvard Review, but arranged here in a rough chronological order, occasionally looping back or flashing forward, they morph into a memoir.
But it is not a memoir that marches self-importantly from troubled childhood to triumph and success. Which is not to say Lenney hasn’t been successful — she has been very successful as wife, mother, actress, and now essayist and clandestine memoirist. But hers is a quiet success. The Object Parade is not the “memoirs” of a Hillary or Madonna. Nor is there any question here of a Frey-like stretching of the truth. We aren’t led to wonder about the truth, about the depth of the author’s addiction or the length of her jail term — there are no jail terms or addictions. (Well, Lenney’s sister has some problems, but they don’t lie at the center of this story.) Instead, we have the hard work of a well-lived life as told through some of the objects that have defined it — an inherited piano, a coffee table built strong enough “for a woman to dance on,” the green earrings Lenney’s mother said she would give her and then said she wouldn’t, the jeans and clogs that 20-something Lenney and everyone her age wore in the 1970s, and even the little scoops that came in each can of Chock full o’Nuts coffee. The scoops measured out the coffee at first breakfasts with the man who became her husband and the father of their two kids, and later the scoops served as “toy tea cups, building blocks, and Play-Doh molds”; now, though, she can’t replenish her collection, for as Melody at the Customer Service department of the Massimo Zanetti Beverage Company informs her by email, “Due to environmental concerns, we have discontinued putting a scoop in the containers to help reduce solid waste.”
Readers who have followed Lenney’s work know that she has not always measured out her life in coffee scoops. Her first book, Bigger than Life: A Murder, A Memoir (Nebraska, cloth, 2007; paper, 2011), was about her father, Nelson Gross, who was indeed bigger than life. He chaired the New Jersey State Republican Party, ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate, served as an assistant secretary of state under Nixon, and made millions as a real estate developer. In 1997, three teenagers kidnapped and robbed him, and then beat and stabbed him to death. Lenney wrote sensitively and honestly about the grief and anger that followed. Her troubled relationship with her father and his tragic death could have been at the forefront of this memoir, but they’re not. A letter to him is the one object that seems to have been created for this book, and it appears near the end, but it doesn’t overwhelm the book. Quite the opposite. It’s late, it’s imagined, it’s no longer than the others, it’s the only mention of his death, and it fits. Lenney understands that calling her collection a parade or setting the essays in chronological order will not of itself lend it necessary momentum, and knows that if she is to avoid rewriting her first memoir, she must find new ways of withholding, revealing, and creating suspense. She does just that. The letter to her father, for instance, pulls the past into the present, and it is followed by her own set of instructions, a kind of living will that speaks to the future of these objects. The real work of the memoir, by then, has already been done.
The book contains large and familiar kinds of narratives. There is, for instance, the move from East to West. She grows up in Westchester, starts out on her own in New York, meets the man she will marry, and follows her acting career to Los Angeles. She’s very generous in her descriptions of places. She gives us plenty of New York — Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, her family house at 1019 Esplanade in Pelham Manor — and even more of Los Angeles — its streets, restaurants, shops, the Pacific Coast Highway, and especially the Spanish bungalow with the red tile roof in which they raise their children. This story is also in part about Judaism and Christianity, or at least the working out of family traditions as she moves from the Jewish home of her birth into marriage to a Gentile. Her tussle here is with herself and whether to have a Christmas tree, which she sees at first as “a slippery slope” because “you can’t do it half-assed,” but the kids love it, her husband, Fred, puts on “the Weavers’ Christmas album, as his parents did when he was small,” and pretty soon she’s singing along. The children grow up, and we want those stories as well — Eliza the pole-vaulter who goes east to college, and Jake who picks up Lenney’s guitar (one of two she writes about), finds he can’t put it down, and adds his mom’s acoustic guitar to the electric one he was already playing. By the book’s end Jake is off to college too, also in the East. There’s the story of Lenney’s acting career — summer stock in northern New Hampshire, a musical review in a tiny theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, a union job at the Mark Taper Forum, Gertrude to a Claudius played by her good friend’s husband, and finally a recurring role on ER.Her years in Los Angeles and the business mean she could drop names if she wanted and keep us plied with voyeurism, but she doesn’t. There is one funny bit that’s indirectly about Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madame, but mainly about Heidi’s father, who was her children’s pediatrician. She also takes us to the ER wrap party and to a dinner party she hosts where she’s embarrassed by the bad politics and worse manners of her guest of honor, “Boy Journalist,” but that’s as close as we come to celebrity.
On a more micro level, the book is knitted together by the stories of the objects themselves. There is a small but sure and ongoing suspense in finding out what object she’ll tell us about next, for it becomes clear that there will be surprises: a spice cabinet with no spices but dozens of other treasures, or the mourning dove nest in the bougainvillea where life goes about its familiar, calming, seasonal patterns while the turmoil of her sister’s intervention and suicide attempt swirl about. Then, there is a pair of Halloween photographs, one of Lenney as a child and one of her daughter. Eliza is confused as to who is who, and the confusion prompts a lovely two-page prose poem of memories:
Why, it’s you, darling! Of course it is. You thought so, you say. You were confused — having to do with the snapshot upstairs — the faded three by five black-and-white in the bookshelves; and yes, you’re right — that is I, no question — I’m the kid with the gap-toothed grin and crooked bangs sticking out from under the cowboy hat: though how do I know? It’s not as if I remember wearing it.
The danger here, of course, is sentimentality — something Lenney is not afraid to risk, but consistently avoids, mainly by way of self-deprecation and humor. Take the essay about the collar worn by her and her husband’s first dog, a chocolate Lab named Roxy. She certainly waxes nostalgic about Roxy, but she also uses Roxy to take on the whole man’s best friend issue. Roxy was really her husband’s dog after all. It is Fred who could be heard singing Beatles songs to Roxy down in the basement: “Something in the way she moves, attracts me like no other puppy …” and “There are puppies I remember …” It is Fred who is convinced that Roxy thinks the “white stone pig with empty eyes” from the junk shop is her mother because she lies by it in the evening, “absently licking its rough, no-color hooves.” Lenney suggests Fred’s interpretation of this infatuation has more to do with the fact that Fred lost his own mother young than with Roxy’s psyche. She suggests that the pig is licked because the pig tastes salty. “But,” she tells us, “I couldn’t dissuade him.” Then, in a nice turn, she tells us about Roxy’s successor, Sully, a rescued mutt, who may not shit in the car like Roxy did, but in time grows just as old, lumpy, runny-eyed, and stinky. Then, when Sully, “who raised up Eliza and Jake,” passes on and Eliza heads off to college, Lenney decides she needs a third dog — this one another mutt, an “anxious creature” named Elphie, “given to squatting and peeing right in front of us like it’s performance art.” She follows Lenney around, not Fred, and when Lenney drags out Roxy’s old collar,
Elphie sniffs, grabs hold, and tugs; we face off then, I very stern, she duly admonished. Except she not one to give in easily, no, and she cannot resist a tentative lick. Not that she knows it’s a collar, or whose, or to pay proper respect. Nor does she think it’s her mother, oh no.
It’s me she looks to; and waits on; and loves.
Recognizing your husband’s sentimentality, and your own, is an unsentimental thing to do.
Perhaps the most surprising corner this parade turns comes when Lenney makes herself into an object. This move is fascinating, and you don’t — or at least this male reader didn’t — see it coming until it is already there. It’s done indirectly through other objects such as mirrors or windows that carry reflections of Lenney and her daughter, through a little black dress and other clothing she once wore but can wear no longer, but it comes especially in the cruel honesty of her mother’s remark on Lenney’s 40th birthday that “your work depends on your looks” and “if you want to [work], dear, you’re going to have to get your eyes done.” She thinks about it. On ER she is as an operating room nurse confined by her cap and mask — she depends on her eyes. She visits a plastic surgeon to get an estimate. Then:
I arrive home from Beverly Hills all puffy and distraught and announce that it will cost about ten grand to make me gorgeous again. A birthday gift from my mother, I add.
Fred blanches, then tells me I’m absurd. Our children go to public school. We’ve never taken them to Europe. We haven’t saved a dime towards college or retirement and I’m destined to get old like everybody else in the world. The deposit was three hundred dollars? Am I kidding? Am I crazy? Can I get it back? But then he takes pity on me — my Fred, my hero — and tells me I don’t look a day over thirty-nine.
As a literary form, the essay has from the time of Montaigne (or perhaps from the time Seneca) been two things: first, the story of a mind thinking, an attempt to turn a subject over and look and look and look at it in order to figure out what you might really think about it so as to know what you think and who you are, and second, a conversation, a shared intimacy, a fireside chat between two close friends. Of the first, Montaigne said, “I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing.” Of the second, he said, “I am not building here a statue to erect at the town crossroads, or in a church or a public square […] This is for a nook in a library, and to amuse a neighbor, a relative, a friend, who may take pleasure in associating and conversing with me again in this image.” Lenney accomplishes both of these things through her innovative use of the second person. Her you is a sly and sliding you that allows her to talk to herself and to us, often simultaneously. You can get a hint of the second person’s flexibility in the passage I quoted above where she’s talking to her daughter about the confusing pair of Halloween photographs. In that passage, Lenney begins with second person or direct address (“Why, it’s you, darling! Of course it is.”), but ends up addressing either Eliza or us or herself or all three: “though how do I know? It’s not as if I remember wearing it.” Lenney uses this technique a lot, beginning with the opening line of the opening chapter:
Never mind that you’ve pulled your muffler up over your face; by the time you get there your nose will be red and runny and your hair will be flat with the cold, New York City cold, the kind the creeps up through the pavement and into the soles of your shoes, numbs your cramped second toes which happen to be longer than the first ones. That’s a sign, they say, of royalty, although you don’t feel royal, not when you live on the sixth floor of a walk-up on on Second Avenue, not when you can’t even consider taking a cab, last night’s tips being what they were.
By the end, unless the reader has especially long second toes and lives in a Second Avenue walk-up, we know she is not talking to us directly but is letting us listen to her talk to herself. This kind of talk without talking, this kind of talking on the page, has been popular of late. Kim Dana Kupperman, Heather Simons, and James Chesbro recently put together an anthology of 15 such essays for Welcome Table Press, You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person. Lenney does not appear in that anthology, but her accomplishments in the form were noticed by Dinty Moore, who includes a selection by her titled “All About You” in his Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers. Lenney warns us in Moore’s anthology that “‘you’ can be tricky — seemingly sloppy and unintentionally confusing — and is therefore off-limits in composition classes, and scholarly essays, and most reportage.” But she is an advocate. For her, second person is a way to have that most intimate of conversations, the one you have with yourself and the reader, which is to say, the essay. She announces this intent with one of The Object Parade’s two epigraphs, this one from Edmund de Waal: “I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life.” Here, through de Waal, Lenney is talking to herself and to us. Or perhaps she’s talking to her daughter, or her own mother is talking to her. Someone is giving something as a gift to someone. Perhaps it is a piano, or a coffee table strong enough for a woman to dance on. Perhaps it is a pair of green earrings. Or perhaps it is a book, this book, this lovely gift to us, dear reader — you and me.
Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and co-author (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). His articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, Guernica, middlebrow, and American Literature, and have been listed five times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.
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