When I read a collection of stories or essays, I expect most stories to be good, a few average, maybe even a clunker or two: a range of quality, in other words. Inconsistency. More importantly, I hope for least one piece of writing that smacks me into next week with its language, its execution, its depth, or its ideas. A story/essay that I want to evangelize about on the subway.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have that experience with New Zealand writer Ashleigh Young’s essay collection called Can You Tolerate This? Ms. Young tackles loneliness, sadness, and describes her sense of not quite fitting in. She shares such health problems as back pain, anorexia, bad eyesight, depression, and hikikomori: the Japanese idea generally translated as “acute shut-in” or “social withdrawal syndrome.”
Young generally writes on a small canvas that focuses on the personal rather than the political or broader, journalist aspects of some idea or situation. Among her collection’s 20 essays, almost half are only 4 or 5 pages long and resemble meditative prose poems that are narrowly focused on one topic. Using such a small canvas might also reflect her poetry background.
Sadness is a compelling theme that Young confronts in many of these stories. As a teenager, she used to walk on the beach and hold imaginary conversations with Paul McCartney. “My sadness is a magnet in my chest pulling everything into it, my sadness is a great dog with loose folds of skin.” She admits to being an introvert and diffident and having trouble dealing with sounds. She connects her obsession with running to her hunger issues.
In ‘Bikram’s Knee’, one of the collection’s longer pieces, she takes a yoga class to address her “stark loathing” of her body and eating issues. I loved this description of going off her meds:
“At first, stopping my medication is like the rush of forgetting that happens immediately after an exam. It leaves you like a single breath. As days pass I being to feel short, hot sparks inside my head. . . . With each spark there is a feeling that I’m falling backward through my head—there is so much space to fall through—and jolting onto a different floor of my body.”
My favourite essay, ‘She Cannot Work’, resembles a short story that describes an unidentified woman who is having trouble carving out enough time to work on an unspecified project. Since she already told her partner that she had abandoned it, she now feels too embarrassed to admit reviving it. Its enticing allegorical aspect invites us to place ourselves in her situation. We become co-conspirators against her partner:
“When they were first living together, she would sometimes daydream that the man would have a terrible accident and not come back for a few days, and in that time she would be able to finish her project.”
Most artists and writers and readers can relate to the universality of this story. I’m looking forward to such “fictional” essays because this one was very well-done.
Another enjoyable essay was ‘Can You Tolerate This?’, about a series of chiropractor sessions for her back issues. She explores the misconceptions and misgivings about this black sheep of the medical world, although she eventually accepts that being “touched . . . is a kind of trust in itself. Trust is something that moves about between you, that rises to meet [your doctor].” Her chiropractor has genuine interest in his patients: “And you feel the thing you so often feel when you meet someone like this—that you have done nothing to deserve this niceness.” This essay also features my favourite line in the entire book:
“There is too little difference between the beginning of a kiss and the beginning of a neck adjustment.”
‘Katherine Would Approve’ describes Young’s job as an office factotum at the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society where she experiences an ironic twist on the problem of meeting one’s dead heroes. In ‘Wolf Man’, she deals with hair on her upper lip and on her arms. Although the topic sounds fruitful, the essay seemed undeveloped. ‘Window Seat’ describes sitting between two loquacious seniors where the woman from the title mentions her cross-dressing brother, her experiences as a biker in her youth, and her various health conditions. The woman claims to be a healer: “now, I’m going to tell you about you.” Young remains sceptical even after the old lady somehow uncovers the name of her dog.
Although her odd quirky family, especially her father and her two brothers, received star billing in many of these essays, these family-based essays were the least compelling: well written mostly on the surface of her relationships with them. For example, her brother JP, an amateur musician who tasted a bit of minor fame in her small city, has terrible eyesight. Working as a bus driver, he suddenly lost a contact lens as he was transporting a large group of high-school girls down a treacherous mountain road in Denver. Another essay, ‘Big Red’, relates a god-awful red military bomber jacket that JP wore to the point of embarrassment.
Any Cop?: Good writing in an uneven collection that featured one short story that I loved. She offered me a delicious salad, when I wanted a five-course meal. Maybe in her next collection.