Naomi Guttman reviews Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NYC, 2017, 221 pages.
Review by Naomi Guttman
In publishing a book of creative non-fiction essays focused on the self by a young author, a publisher takes a gamble that the writer’s voice will be so original and compelling as to capture an audience in the crowded field of the personal essay. In this case, the voice is that of Durga Chew-Bose, a first-generation Canadian, transplanted to New York City.
Born in Montreal to parents who had emigrated from India, Chew-Bose grew up in the home of comfortable professionals in an uncomfortable marriage. As the only dark-skinned girl in her school, Chew-Bose felt her otherness when “friends” made hurtful comments about her skin-color, for example, professing envy that she was always “tanned.” While her sense of being alien in a world of admired white girls was rooted in this experience, her outsider status may also have been accentuated by the fact that she was a nascent writer, a day-dreamer who loved reading and mulling over language.
The book opens with its longest piece, “Heart Museum,” a rambling portmanteau of an essay which acts as an introduction to the book’s “I.” As a string of associative meditations, the essay’s early paragraphs hearken to the anaphoric structure of “Song of Myself,” amplifying through repetition the wonder at the very basic fact that “our hearts don’t stop until they do.” The essay becomes an exhaustive tour of Chew-Bose’s own “heart museum,” which is to say, her history, family, relationships, and vulnerabilities. While its leitmotif is the unconsidered way in which we live only by grace of the heart, an organ that functions without our direct involvement, the heart is also a metaphor. The essay’s lyricism draws attention to narrative as an imposed fiction, a privilege of reflection, as opposed to living, which we experience moment-by-moment. That said, while I enjoyed the impulse behind this exploration of the minutiae of existence, it was a somewhat exhausting choice with which to begin the book.
The many other shorter essays go more deeply into particular elements of identity: in “D As In…,” she explores the effects of the continual mispronunciation of her Indian name and the instability of the “I.” My favorite essay, “Since Living Alone,” explores the dialectic of loneliness versus solitude and the kismet of living in a city, surrounded by others who are facing similar realities: “We’re all just here, bungling this imitation of life, finding new ways of becoming old friends.” Chew-Bose’s gift may be in underscoring the understated wonder of the everyday: in the essay “Summer Pictures,” she treats us to a her habit of looking at the audience during a movie screening to enjoy the “blue light flickering and reflecting off of strangers’ smiles or rounding with sinister effect the shape of their eyes. Each person’s face becomes the moon. A theater filled with moons: halves and crescents, some full.” But sometimes, my pleasure was interrupted by the fact that the book could have used more editing. Is it fussy of me to want an editor to catch the use of “to lay” when what was meant was “to lie,” or to change a preposition at the end of a long sentence from “of” to “on” so that it makes sense?
Perhaps the essay even more than the poem is first and foremost a letter to the self; the challenge then, is to make the self interesting. “How can an ‘I’,” she writes, “contain all of my many fragments and contradictions and all of me that is undiscovered? […] If you are someone whose first-self intrigues others, writing in the first person necessitates that you grow fascinated with yourself. …” It may be that Chew-Bose needs to become more fascinated with herself or more fascinating, have more life experience, or choose rather—as many writers do—to eschew the autobiography for fiction for a time so that facts won’t get in the way of a good story. A book of essays on the details of a single life risks making too much of a thing, making judgments and presenting opinions for the sake of sounding authoritative. Mostly, however, Chew-Bose straddles that line admirably; mostly she is charming in her desire to be liked, to be understood, and to understand herself.
Naomi Guttman’s latest book is the novella-in-verse, The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera (Brick Books 2015). Reasons for Winter (Brick Books 1991), won the A.M. Klein Award for Poetry. Raised in Montreal, she writes, teaches, and cooks in Central NY. Find out more at her website, Naomi Guttman.
- Ian McGillis writes about Chew-Bose’s home in Montreal and her years in NYC in “Writer to Watch: Durga Chew-Bose,” Montreal Gazette, 9 June 2017.
- Thora Siemsen asks Durga Chew-Bose about the Virginia Woolf origins of her title in “Durga Chew-Bose on the Power of Uncertainty” at The Creative Independent.
- Naomi Guttman interview in Brick Books.