Saturday, June 16, 2018

Unwifeable - Mandy Stadtmiller (2018)

Unwifeable is a memoir by Mandy Stadtmiller.  Stadtmiller was a recent guest on the WTF podcast.  I probably would not have read the book if I had not heard the episode. The episode effectively functions as a preview of all the most shocking moments in the book, and is a tour de force.  I highly recommend either listening to that episode or reading this book.

I would describe Unwifeable as post-chick lit.  It's still chick-lit, but with an edge of insanity.  It's about basically trying to find Mr. Right at age 30 and beyond, post-divorce.  Stadtmiller cuts a striking figure, and achieves a sort of grandeur in her commitment to fearlessly revealing all of the sketchy details of her romantic life.  She made her living as the weekly writer of a column about dating in the New York Post.  She writes of how she learned to develop boundaries in who she wrote about--her family didn't like when she wrote about them.  The only part of this book that feels a little underdeveloped is the story of what happened in her marriage, which is perhaps out of respect for her ex-husband.

There is a ton of gossip in this book that will satiate basically anyone, though it takes a certain person to want to read it.  There has always been a literary tradition of writing about one's romantic life, but few will do it without the disguise of fiction.  There is something pure and beautiful about writing truthfully on the subject of how fucked up of a person you are, and how you have tried to be better, and Stadtmiller deserves praise for many sections of the book.  She is, however, shameless about name-dropping, and sometimes her funny secret stories about celebrities tend to cheapen the proceedings.  Still it's very amusing to read about her dates with Aaron Sorkin and Keith Olbermann and her pseudo-romances with Moby and Hannibal Buress.  Perhaps the book will be adapted and Andy Dick, Gerard Butler, Courtney Love, Marc Maron, Joy Behar, and John Mayer can all play themselves in Player-like cameos.

There was, however, one glaring typo:

"'Mandy, you are a Kashmir Sapphire,' he writes, 'The famous sapphires of Kashmir are mined from a remote region high in the Great Himalayan mountains of northwestern India.  Lying at an elevation of approximately 150,000 feet.  These sapphires are so beautiful and rare.  Today with the exception of estate sales, fine Kashmir sapphires are virtually unobtainable, mute testimony of the degree to which they are coveted.  They are often categorized as a conundrum gem.  They form an exclusive class of its own.  And once they are cut, they make a beautiful jewel.'" (187)

Perhaps because this is such a beautiful passage, the typo feels more unforgivable.  I did look it up because I started to doubt my knowledge that the highest point on earth is Mt. Everest and that is somewhere just over 27,000 feet.  There is no place at 150,000 feet but the ionosphere.  It should be 15,000.  This, however, is an e-mail from a friend of hers, so perhaps the mistake was preserved.

Around halfway through the book, she references a movement preaching brutal honesty as its core, after being assigned a story on it:

"The piece is ostensibly about a new TV show centered around the concept, and will include an interview with the founder of the movement, Brad Blanton, and then a first-person documentation of my attempts to be 'radically honest.'
But it is Brad Blanton who blows my mind.
I talk to him on the phone, and he is unlike anyone I've ever interviewed.  He will literally tell you anything you want to know--including if he wants to have sex with your sister, the fact that he's let a dog lick peanut butter off his balls, even how much money he makes.  This is the theory of radical honesty.  He calls 'withholding' the most pernicious form of lying.  That is when you try to abide by the mores of polite society by not saying things like that you want to fuck someone's sister.
'Whenever something occurs in the world, there's always what occurred and then there is the story about what occurred, and then there is the meaning made out of the story about what occurred,' he tells me in explaining why most communication--filled with all of its half-truths, twisted perceptions, and withholdings--is so problematic. 'Most people stay lost in the meaning made out of the story.'
It's true.
I don't think about reality: 'I got divorced.' I think about the story I tell about it: 'My ex-husband betrayed me.'  And the meaning I attach to that: 'I am unlovable.  I am unwifeable.  I am a failure.  I am not worth it.'
Brad also forced me to look at some painful truths about my own anger and discomfort.  He tells me that you should just say what you are thinking about someone.  I tell him that I hate when strangers start talking to me about my height.
'So if someone says, "God, you look tall," do you get offended by it still?' he asks me.
'I don't get annoyed,' I say, 'It's just boring.'
'Well, boredom is anger and you haven't expressed your anger sufficiently to all those people who ask you about being tall,' he says.  'You still have a lot of resentment about people--and probably some resentment about being tall.  So when someone says, 'What's it like being so tall?' just say, 'Fuck you!  Eat shit and die!  And I resent you for saying I'm so tall."'
I crack up.  'Then I would appear like this easily hurt social leper,' I say.
Then he reveals the real key, the real magic of what he is preaching.
'You're worried about how you would appear, see?' he says.  'That's what you think your identity is.  It doesn't matter how you appear.  You'll appear differently in another half a minute anyway because people's registry of how you appear changes very dynamically.  For a while, you appear to be a leper of some sort, and a little while later you'll appear to be someone who's very brave and willing to talk about things honestly.  Later on, you'll appear as a kind of person to be trusted because you're not going to be withholding.'" (150-151)

This story most likely informs Stadtmiller's r'aison d'etre, which is, reveal everything in the hopes of helping others with what you've learned along the way.  In this case, she goes on to freak out at a department store clerk for her "shitty attitude."  Apart from this immediate implementation of radical honesty, the entirety of the book is an exercise in the practice, and is all the more worthwhile because of it.

Now only because we've also recently reviewed a memoir that included a Courtney Love anecdote, some excerpt must be included from the section detailing Stadtmiller's friendship with Love, and the ultimate redemption she appears to be experiencing in the culture.  As a student of bankruptcy law, however, I must include what I consider another typo:

"'I'm broke, Courtney,' I say. 'That's why I'm basically stuck at the Post, even if I wanted to leave.  Because I need the paycheck.  I'm barely surviving in New York.  I'm even thinking about doing bankruptcy.'
'Do Chapter 7 if you do it,' she says, without missing a beat.  'Chapter 11 is so pedestrian.'
I have no idea what this means, but she's got a bunch of gold records on the wall, so I'll take her word for it.
'You know, I used to be really broke when I was young,' she says.  'But then I started chanting 'Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,' and within two months I had two million dollars.  I'm serious.  Don't fuck around.  It's the only thing that really works.  Here, let's chant.'" (244-245)

Now it's possible that Courtney Love is referring to actual Chapter 11 business reorganization bankruptcy as pedestrian, but I believe she meant to say Chapter 13.  Granted she does have substantial business holdings but I would not characterize Chapter 11 as pedestrian.

There is not much else I think I can say about this book.  I wrote a note to myself to find an excerpt about "crazy impulses" but that is basically what this entire book is about, also: going through crazy impulses in your 30's and trying to find a piece of stability in this life.  In this case the story has a happy ending, and Stadtmiller appears to have moved her life in a more positive direction.  Yet how can we end reviews of memoirs?  The story is not over and life continues after the memoir.  The book is written in a very conversational tone and its 300 pages flow swiftly.  It will not necessarily go down in history as a classic of the genre but I have to believe that most people will find the majority of it entertaining, and perhaps even eye-opening.

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