Let me tell you about a book I recently read. I won’t spoil much; this is about the journey rather than the content.
Whenever I read a book, I think about whether it will get reviewed, and it helps me analyse it. How long does it take me to get into the book? Do I get the tone straight away? Would others read to page 150 to see it becomes interesting or would they have put it down first? (On the other hand, I also think “Maybe I dislike this part because I can’t identify, but I can see it is an interesting twist and I can still review it objectively.”)
In this case, we are looking at Jen’s life. Her life with Jim, with her friends Meg (and daughter Millie), and Pam, who includes some of Jen’s art in her show Break in Case of Emergency. But mainly, we see Jen at work, a foundation which seems to be full of women who “kept vision boards and gratitude journals. They drew up and signed household maintenance contracts replete with chore wheels and no-nagging clauses. They scheduled me-time and followed mindful-eating rules and wrote essays how their own regular attendance at yoga classes was really a gift they gave to their kids and about the importance of feeling compassion for themselves even when they broke their mindful-eating rules.”
It is supposed to be funny. This toxic work environment she is in, which is based on balancing people’s lives and positivity, but it really a lot of empty talks and meetings.
“And I couldn’t help thinking – and look, I’d been two hours cross-legged on a dirt floor with this woman. I laughed with this woman. I had held this woman’s hand and stared into her eyes. And I just felt so honored by the power of her presence, the sheer force of her survival, and so humbled by it. It’s a blessing to be humbled. It’s a gift. We forget this. But we can’t forget it. It’s a gift to be humbled.”
Jen couldn’t gauge for how long she had zoned out. Donna’s hands were teepeed, her head bowed deep, her bangles clattering in sympathy. Sunny was openly crying.
“And I couldn’t help thinking, I couldn’t help thinking – even though all that thinking threatened to break, just for a second, that lunar beam of concentration and communion between her and myself, even though it took me out of the moment for a moment, only for a moment – Lord knows I’m not perfect-”
“Amen, sister,” Sunny said, and sobbed.
“-I couldn’t help thinking, Leora, what is your excuse?” Leora stopped and nodded as she looked around the room. (…) Her nostrils flared with a suppressed sob, (…) inhaling, exhaling. She swept a tiny black hair extension behind her shoulder. She nodded some more. An argument tossed and turned inside her.
“And later on in, you know, the really grotesque comfort of my hotel room, later on, that question came up again. What is your excuse? The question reverberated through my dreams. In the morning, I heard that question, I felt it, I saw it as if it were written in steam across my bathroom mirror: What is your excuse?”
Leora raised her palms to the ceiling. “What do I mean by this? What is this question? What I mean is that if I can look this person in the eye, after all she’s shared with me, after all she’s been through, and knowing all that, and yet also knowing that she somehow finds the strength to get up in the morning, to work, to provide for her family, to cook and clean and mend and comfort, to care for herself and her babies, and her community when the whole world seems to have been so careless with her – has she not earned my gratitude for sharing so much of herself with me? I think we can all agree that she’s earned it. My gratitude, which I log as faithfully as an accountant, ladies, and so should you. And there, right there, a debit in the gratitude column. Make no mistake. So how do I pay that debt? Well, let’s start with how not to pay it. Let’s start by facing my greatest fear, and my greatest fear is to be ungrateful. To lose track of my gratitude. To run up a gratitude debt.”
Do you feel what I just felt in this long meeting? I shortened it for you. What is supposed to be a funny look at these pointless meetings and empty conversations these people (we?) seem to have, is sadly very close to the truth, calling for a more satirical tone. Instead, it is long winded, and, yes, we get bored. It may be the point, but do you keep on reading? I did. It was worth it.
The same patience we need to make it through one of Jen’s work meetings, is the patience and attention to detail Jessica Winter puts into the relationship between Jen and Millie. The motherly instincts and the bond between the two is obvious with just one short scene.
“Sucko,” Millie said to a lost horizon. “Wan daw sucko.”
“You want to draw a circle? I bet you can draw a circle sweetheart.” Jen slowly drew a big red circle.
Holding the crayon in her fist, Millie approached the page with the same patience and caution with which she would greet and pet Fanny. Millie stuck out her tongue in concentration and pushed her crayon across the page in what was intended as a swooping motion.
Jen reached over to grab an antique miniature globe off a coffee table and showed Millie how to trace around the circular pewter base.
“You know, I never thought about this before, Millie, but it’s really hard to draw a circle. You have to know exactly where to start, which is also exactly where you have to end, and you can’t really stop to check your work.”
“Daw Fanny, daw Fanny,” Millie was saying, laughing and rubbing Jen’s arm.
“That’s a good idea, sweetie,” Jen said, opening her eyes and taking the crayon from Millie. “If we draw Fanny, then she’ll be here with us.”
And this is where it gets more interesting. In this superficial life at work, Jen actually has a completely different focus. When she is late after a doctor’s appointment again, she is really coming from the fertility clinic. Again.
And this is when Jen becomes a lot more interesting. And the satire towards her workplace more obvious.
In the end, I knew how to take the loooong monologues, the ridiculous conversations, and annoying line managers. Just like in real life. And it does make you take a good look at a lot of the things we do, and talk about, and share online. In the end, books are supposed to make us think, it was just a shame it took over a third of the book to become obvious.
Break in Case of Emergency, by Jessica Winter
First published 2016