Friday 20 September 2019

Yet another tale of artists' addiction appeals

Memoir: The Recovering: Intoxication And Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison, Grant Books, €28

Amy Winehouse died in the grip of her addictions and could provide no answers about whether it is possible to be both clean and creative
Amy Winehouse died in the grip of her addictions and could provide no answers about whether it is possible to be both clean and creative
The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

Frieda Klotz

Does the world need another addiction memoir? The answer depends on the memoir of course. It's a question Leslie Jamison addresses head-on at the start of The Recovering: Intoxication And Its Aftermath, the worry that she will simply retread a well-worn path.

However, with a panache that will become characteristic over the course of the book, Jamison turns the question on its head. A story doesn't have to be unique to be worthwhile. Instead, she argues, it's the universality of the addiction narrative that should win it followers - the fact that it tells a common tale.

The Recovering is, then, yet another tale of addiction and recovery but one graced by self-awareness and luminous writing. It also possesses a trait necessary in any good memoir, which is the writer's willingness to reveal herself and her family and friends for the story, a sacrifice worth making only if it is done well enough.

Coming from a pressure-cooker background, Jamison felt the need to excel from a young age. Her mother was a nutritionist and public health researcher, her "frequent-flier father" an economist who had many affairs as he worked to "alleviate global disease burden" (her italics). Affection was distant. She writes of her "godly brothers and their powerful reserve". Growing up she sought love and approval in achievement.

Jamison's experiences glitter with privilege - she studied at Harvard and travelled in Nicaragua, assisted by her fluent Spanish. But self-abasement threads through them. At Harvard, she was anorexic and cut herself. "Compulsion might find its roots in reprimand," she writes. "From a sense of being scolded by the world or found wanting by it."

As the story proceeds, she excavates the causes of her addiction and describes the whirlwind of her downward spiral. She turns over stories of other addicted writers and artists, looking for lessons. What she really wants is evidence that the myth isn't true, that artists don't have to be addicts to succeed. Is it possible to give up alcohol and still live an interesting life, she asks? Can a recovered alcoholic write well?

The answer she wants isn't easy to find as so many burned out - Jean Rhys, David Foster Wallace and Amy Winehouse all died in relapse or the grips of their malady. But Raymond Carver forged a second life, living soberly overlooking the Pacific, "fishing in the ocean and in strong clear rivers". Jamison is delighted to find a writer whose early brilliance existed despite his addiction and not because of it.

The later part of the book explores Jamison's recovery, and takes readers through her meetings at Alcoholics Anonymous. She introduces the characters she met there and probes their stories. She is obsessed with the thought that recovery will hold less interest than her story of descent. It's not true. She draws the changes in her life and relationship with her boyfriend, Dave, in exquisite detail, but her accounts of the lives of her AA colleagues lack the vividness of her own, and the second section does move more slowly than the first.

The Recovering is a study not just of alcoholism, depression and renewal but also an extraordinarily self-conscious look at how literature addresses those experiences. It's better than Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Spring, which treated the same subject but with less persistence and self-revelation.

Jamison's brilliance is most evident when she puts her finger on the complexity of human emotion. Even as she hopes to put it behind her, she gently evokes her nostalgia for drinking: "A balcony with Dave: the crisp tang and sugared nectar of Sciacchetra, a local white, the wine Pliny called 'lunar,' with the big moon over us and the waves breaking below, the faith we'd get married, the church music from another hill."

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