Essays on Famous Lives and Perceived Parallels

Book review: All the Lives I Want, by Alana Massey

New York magazine columnist and cultural critic Alana Massey writes a collection of strange but compelling essays about “her best friends who happen to be famous strangers.”

They’re amusing, some reach impressive analytical depth, and yet they’re inconsistent in hitting their mark or striking the right balance. I found myself thinking at some point during almost every essay that she was either reading way too deeply into something, or else didn’t go deep enough.

For example, on the feud between superstar rappers Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, she knows that what seems like a throwaway eye roll of a public fight is actually a layered, nuanced issue about being a successful, innovative, competitive black woman in a man’s world and industry. “The revolutionary genius of a woman is inherently suspicious to mainstream media, and even more so if that woman is young and black.” This essay could’ve and should’ve been so much more, but it’s too brief to really get into all the issues it actually comprises.

I’m guessing there might be a limited audience to this book, considering the subject matter – essays analyzing cultural impact and messages, work output and connection to personal life, and the underestimated effect of gossipy stories or salacious details about personality and relationships of celebrity figures including Winona Ryder, Gwyneth Paltrow, Britney Spears, Fiona Apple, the Olsen twins, and a few literary icons like Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

The celebrity essays are on the whole better; I found both the Plath and Didion pieces underwhelming and disappointing. The former includes much searching of Goodreads for Plath quotes ranked by popularity and analyzing why those are the popular ones. I don’t want to read that. And the latter was weak, as much as Didion was clearly an inspirational influence on this writing style, both structurally and content-wise.

Massey’s hook and talent is drawing parallels between these women’s lives and her own, not in a covetous way as the title would indicate, or at least not covetous once she’s safely out of her teens and the Courtney Love obsession is past, or softened. The interplay between the personal and the public, her life and the celebrity’s she’s linking with, don’t always work and can be tedious. Again, in her essay about appreciation for Joan Didion and more specifically her novel Play It as It Lays, this was most evident.

I’m definitely the audience for this book – I’m guessing I’m within two years of her age, and we both pay attention to many of the same famous strangers in the news. We share (some) tastes in music (why Lana Del Rey deserves any coverage, I’ll never understand) and literature. We’re both New Yorkers. But sometimes I found myself cringing at either her revelations or what she deemed important or meaningful.

I love a good melding of memoir and culture essay, but this verges on the too-revealing. There are many stories from her time working as a stripper in Manhattan nightclubs and a brief, uncomfortable mention of her first sugar daddy that seemed superfluous and unnecessarily provocative; or they belong in their own, differently-themed memoir.

Oddly, I looked her up after reading this, as I wasn’t familiar with her work yet she’s written for an array of contemporary publications. I was charmed by her writings and musings on Twitter. Kind of more so, or more consistently, than writings throughout this book. I think I like her style and many of her observations, but I don’t think these pieces were the best of what she’s capable of.

Sometimes she has illuminating moments that spark deep understanding about feminism, a woman’s place in the world, the specific difficulties only she knows, and how she’s perceived, famous or not. This one stopped me in my tracks:

“I have not seen a fraction of the cruelty that the world is capable of, but I have trembled often enough in the aftershocks of my own resistance to a world built to break me to know that female brutality is not just an acceptable response, it is the most sensible one, too. But my heart is home to docile rage because I am afraid: afraid I don’t know how to wield my own viciousness with any expertise and afraid that once I do know how, I won’t stop until the fire I set can be seen from space.”

In examining her wistfulness for what else the world had to offer as she was growing up, she wisely observes her attraction to suburban, middle-class Detroit as it’s portrayed in the novel and film The Virgin Suicides as …an indicator of how green I thought the grass was on the other side of wherever I stood.”

The standout for me was “American Pain,” about Anna Nicole Smith. It’s sharply but rather brilliantly subtitled, “The Suffering-Class Spectacle”. I loved it all. I would read her book-length analysis on Anna Nicole if she’d write it. Maybe because I also was fascinated by her during the same period Massey references, when Anna had her eponymous early reality show on E! from 2002-2004. I understand the same attractive, personal pull that made Massey write these pieces in the first place.

She describes a “moment of poignant clarity”, quoting ANS from the first episode of The Anna Nicole Show : “You know those bumper stickers where it says, ‘Shit happens and then you die?’ They should have ’em where ‘Shit happens and then you live’ because that’s really the truth of it,” she says, shaking her head at the volume of violent stories plaguing the news.”

She notes how Anna Nicole got two expressions mixed up, how she often jumbled but was somehow so charming and enthralling and innocent. She was a strange, incoherent enigma of a person who had some shining moments and a tragically sad life.

So it’s a mixed bag. There’s good, there’s bad, there’s poignant, there’s heavy-handed. I bet whatever she writes next will be better.

One personal but extremely obnoxious pet peeve: she calls smoking indoors “a tragically lost art.” A tragically lost art?! Gross. Come visit Austria, where they have foully reeking smoking rooms even in companies, walls are stained brownish yellow, and sometimes you can hardly breathe for a cafe being so choked with smoke – even outdoors. Get outta here with that unnecessarily melodramatic nostalgia.

Maybe this would’ve been better if the cultural observations of others and memoir aspect were allowed to be separate stories.

All the Lives I Want:
Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers
by Alana Massey

published February 7, 2017 by Grand Central Publishing (Hachette Book Group)

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository.
It means I get a small commission if you buy via these links. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

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