Profound Art Out of Awkwardness

From The New Yorker:

In a culture fixated on authenticity, it is easy to be persuaded to flout social pieties in the service of expressing your “true self.” But then you realize—whoops!—that nobody wants your true self.

. . . .

This specific, Zeitgeisty sort of mortification is explored in two new collections, “Look Alive Out There,” by the essayist Sloane Crosley, and “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” by Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of the novels “Prep” and “American Wife,” among others.

Sittenfeld and Crosley are amanuenses of liberal, white, female awkwardness.

. . . .

Crosley and Sittenfeld, homing in on women in their thirties and forties, give special primacy to embarrassment, both as a narrative constant and as a means of characterization. The shame their characters bathe in is atmosphere, and it is also portraiture: identity becomes a matter of what makes you squirm.

In one essay from “Look Alive Out There,” Crosley is forced into unwanted intimacy with a teen-age neighbor whose conversations she can’t help overhear. Jared’s voice, floating into her home day after day, inspires thoughts of both love and murder. In another, she plays herself on an episode of the television show “Gossip Girl” and feels like an idiot. (She is attempting to perform a version of Sloane Crosley scripted by strangers, which seems like an apt metaphor for social life in general.) In yet another piece, Crosley goes to a shiva in her building only to discover that she is mourning the wrong dead person.

. . . .

A chapter from “Look Alive Out There” concludes with the narrator standing in front of a French chateau while an employee carries her groceries inside; the employee, who is wearing a neck brace, insisted on helping, to the point where Crosley feared that her continuing refusals would give offense. Soon, the hotel’s owner appears in a fury: “She is injured!” she cries. “Can’t you see?” The Ugly American label drops over the narrator like a net, though the error she committed was an excess of politeness.

“Awkwardness,” Melissa Dahl, the author of the book “Cringeworthy,” argues, “is when the ‘you’ you think you’re presenting to the world clashes with the way the world is actually seeing you.” It is a word native to high school, that vehicle for myths of the self.

. . . .

“Awkward” serves as pop shorthand for a slew of identity-related concerns: Who are we? How are we perceived? How do the answers to those questions make us feel?

. . . .

The awkwardness signalled at here taps into a fear of confinement in an identity that has been damaged, that has gone bad. This awkwardness has less to do with the narrator’s unwanted proximity to others, or even to social expectations; instead, it inheres in her sudden, shocking proximity to herself. Crosley evokes a terror that may specifically target women, no longer quite young, who have consistently enjoyed education, choice, and opportunity. She conjures the feeling of an infinitude of options falling away to reveal a single—often mundane, possibly deadening—path.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Here are the author pages for Sloan Crosley and Curtis Sittenfeld.

As PG read the OP, he was reminded of several women he knew while he was in college (the administration had cleared the last of the dinosaurs from campus and it was, once again, a pleasant place to walk).

Intelligent, accomplished and insecure, these women were enjoyable conversationalists, but anxiety was never far from the surface. They were constantly aware of the possibility of a faux pas PG didn’t know existed.

Even the author photos for Ms. Sloan and Ms. Sittenfeld looked vaguely familiar though PG has never seen a photograph of either woman before.

A couple of additional excerpts from the New Yorker article:

“Was it possible,” one woman wonders in “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” that “she had been bored for the entire time she and Keith had lived in Houston? For her entire adulthood?”

. . . .

In the story “The World Has Many Butterflies,” a woman and her married friend play a game called “I’ll think it, you say it.” He picks out a target and issues the command; she unloads the vicious commentary. “Unless I tell you otherwise,” the friend assures her, “you should assume we’re in total agreement.” But when the woman voices her feelings for him—he is divorcing; she’s grown restless in her marriage—he unravels her image of their shared past. “I was never romantically interested in you. Never. At all,” he tells her, adding, “You realize, don’t you, that you weren’t saying what I thought? You were saying what you thought. I was just listening.”