Who may have her thumb on the scale: Jennifer Weiner thinks very highly of Chanel Miller as a gifted young writer, and we aren't here to tell you she's wrong.
On Sunday, October 13, Weiner reviewed Miller's new book, Know My Name: A Memoir, for the New York Times Book Review section. (Weiner's review had appeared on line several weeks before.)
"Miller is a poetic, precise writer with an eye for detail," Weiner writes in her review. She also says the following, and we won't tell you these judgments are wrong:
" 'Know My Name' is a beautifully written, powerful, important story. It marks the debut of a gifted young writer."We aren't literary critics around here, but we aren't going to tell you that these judgments are wrong. As it turns out, Miller's mother is a writer, one who has written four books in Chinese. Based upon the memoir in question, it sounds like Miller came of age with the thought that she too might become a writer. Her book seems to the work of an actual writer from its first few words on.
That said, Miller is also a young writer, and her book was written during a somewhat peculiar era. We're referring to this era as The Age of the Novel. It's an era during which the liberal world has been constructing novelized versions of highly important real-world events, sanding off all complexity until we're left with the primal anger, fear and loathing traditionally associated with the world of the fairy tale.
According to Weiner, Miller is a gifted writer, but she's one who is also quite young. There would be no reason to expect such a young person to overturn or challenge the cultural oddities of her time and her place, and it seems to us that she doesn't do so—not at all—in her well written new book.
Upper-end mainstream reviewers like Weiner aren't going to notice such facts. Consider the passage, shown below, in which Weiner attempts to capture Miller's strengths as a writer:
WEINER (10/13/19): “Know My Name” is an act of reclamation. On every page, Miller unflattens herself, returning from Victim or Emily Doe to Chanel, a beloved daughter and sister, whose mother emigrated from China to learn English and become a writer and whose father is a therapist; a girl who was so shy that, in an elementary school play about a safari, she played the grass. Miller reads “Rumi, Woolf, Didion, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Banana Yoshimoto, Miranda July, Chang-rae Lee, Carlos Bulosan.” She rides her bike “through the Baylands … across crunchy salt and pickleweed.” She fosters elderly rescue dogs with names like Butch and Remy and Squid. She rages against a form that identifies “victim’s race” as white. “Never in my life have I checked only white. You cannot note my whiteness without acknowledging I am equal parts Chinese.”In that passage, we're told that Miller isn't just a gifted young writer. We're told that she's also been a reader—and that she fosters elderly rescue dogs with names like Butch and Squid.
Perhaps a bit oddly, we're also told, or seem to be told, that Miller "was so shy" when she was a girl that "in an elementary school play about a safari, she played the grass." Weiner seems to present this as a fact, as a fact on a par with the factual statements about Miller's mother and father.
Did Miller actually "play the grass" in a grade school production? We're prepared to assume that she did. That said, a slightly less accepting reviewer might be struck by the way Miller "unflattens herself" with this revelation.
Depending on where you start counting, the claim about that grade school play is the very first claim Miller makes in her book. After a brief Introduction, in which Miller reveals her age, her Chapter 1 starts like this:
MILLER (page 1): I am shy. In elementary school for a play about a safari, everyone else was an animal. I was grass. I've never asked a question in a large lecture hall. You can find me hidden in the corner of any exercise class. I'll apologize if you bump into me. I'll accept every pamphlet you hand out on the street. I've always rolled my shopping cart back to its place of origin. If there's no more half-and-half on the counter at the coffee shop, I'll drink my coffee black. If I sleep over, the blankets will look like they've never been touched.There follows a third paragraph which seems intended to demonstrate how shy—or perhaps, how thoughtful and understanding—Miller is.
I've never thrown my own birthday party. I'll put on three sweaters before I ask you to turn on the heat. I'm okay with losing board games. I stuff my coins haphazardly into my purse to avoid holding up the checkout line. When I was little I wanted to grow up and become a mascot, so I'd have the freedom to dance without being seen.
"My whole life I've counted in tigers," she writes at the end of this third paragraph. She is now on the second page of her thoroughly written new book.
Is Miller so shy that she played the grass in a grade school production? For ourselves, it's hard to know how to react to the several claims lodged within that statement.
For her own part, Weiner accepts this declaration on face. She seems to say that it's merely one part of the way Miller "unflattens herself" in her book.
That said, Miller never exactly explains why she starts her book with a page-long rumination about how shy she is. A more searching reviewer might notice that this opening passage defines Miller, not simply as shy, but also as the most accommodating person who ever appeared on the earth:
She hurries away from the checkout line with her purse all a mess, then puts her shopping cart where it belongs. That's how "shy" she is, based on her own self-description!
Miller does strike us as a gifted young writer, and writers gotta write. That said, she starts her book, not merely by unflattening herself, but also by presenting herself in a rather peculiar light.
She won't ask you to turn on the heat, nor will she tell the barista that there's no half-and-half! This is a rather peculiar self-portrait, but Weiner is willing to plow right ahead. She repeats its first presentation as established fact and sees no reason to wonder about the way Miller "unflattens" herself.
As noted, Miller is a very young person. With perfect justice, Weiner describes her as "a gifted young writer."
Miller is gifted but young. For ourselves, we would never expect a young person to straighten out the cultural foibles and failures of the floundering adult culture into which she's emerging.
We especially wouldn't expect that of a young person who is writing about having been sexually assaulted, and a duly constituted jury unanimously decided that Miller was sexually assaulted in the aftermath of a Stanford frat party in January 2015.
We would never expect such a person to overthrow the cultural practices which define this, The Age of the Novel. It's an era in which our liberal world is strongly inclined to discard plainly relevant facts; to perhaps invent inaccurate facts; to stress wholly irrelevant facts; and to ignore the most elementary bits of logic, all in service to the need to construct simplified stories designed to encourage anger and loathing by creating simplified, highly familiar, standardized heroes and villains.
Again and again, our floundering tribe's novelized stories have tended to bleed into the realm of the Brothers Grimm—into the scary, familiar realm of the fairy tale.
We wouldn't ask a very young person who has sustained an act of sexual assault to address this peculiar, unhelpful tribal culture. We would perhaps think that major journalists might be able to take such steps—and then there's the (former) president of Stanford University, on whose campus this act of assault occurred.
Why did Miller, a gifted young writer, start her book with that slightly peculiar, perhaps self-flattering act of self-description? We can't answer that question, but we can say this:
In Miller's book, but also in major reviews, some elementary facts have disappeared and some obvious questions have gone unaddressed. Beyond that, one apparent villain, if it's villains we need, has been allowed to slide from the scene.
Tomorrow, we'll start asking why.
Tomorrow: A pair of terrible numbers