Make it Scream, Make it Burn is divided into three parts – ‘‘Longing’’, ‘‘Looking’’ and ‘‘Dwelling’’ – and grows more intimate as the reader advances. In the first, Jamison reports on stories of loss and yearning (and her reaction to them). For example, she uncovers the history of 52 Blue, the ‘‘loneliest whale in the world’’ who became an avatar for the abandoned and anguished. She also dives into the lives of families who claim to have children who remember – and are traumatised by the loss of – past lives. In ‘‘Looking’’, Jamison considers her central question: how can she, as a writer, write the truth without reducing her subjects and their situations to caricature (or worse)?
This culminates with the eponymous middle essay, a reflection on James Agee’s mid-20th century non-fiction work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee was one of the first to explore the new journalism style (as Didion went on to do decades later) and consider the writer’s duty to witness and to capture the truth of a situation, as well as to understand that it may be impossible to do so.
In the final third, ‘‘Dwelling’’, Jamison turns her focus to her own life. This personal thread will be familiar to those who have read The Recovering, her memoir of addiction and creativity. She sheds her intellectual approach and begins what is, quite frankly, a stunningly beautiful literary exploration of her own life. This is the beating heart of Make it Scream, Make it Burn: her parents’ divorce, her alcohol abuse and subsequent recovery, her last relationship breakdown, her subsequent marriage, followed by step-parenting and new motherhood. These later essays by Jamison will make you sit down and ponder your own life.
She sheds her intellectual approach and begins what is, quite frankly, a stunningly beautiful literary exploration of her own life.
Jenny Slate’s approach in Little Weirds is of another kind altogether, a stream of consciousness veering between poetic, humorous and fantastical. Slate is a stand-up comedian, actress and writer, best known to Australian audiences for her appearance in Parks and Recreation and voicework for animated films including The Secret Life of Pets and Zootopia.
However, this is not your average comedian tell-all, nor is it the intimate yet hyper-real Slate you will find in her Netflix comedy, Stage Fright. As Slate states, ‘‘we both know quite well that it is risky to reveal oneself, but I am compelled to do it’’.
And in Little Weirds she does reveal herself. It is an oddly perfect title. The length of each piece varies, some no more than a few sentences and others many pages long.
There is a degree of continuity between the pieces, with several structures returned to, such as in ‘‘Letter: Dreams’’ (from the ‘‘Committee of Evening Experiences’’, governing her dreams) and ‘‘Letter: Super-ego’’ (from the ‘‘Office of Internal Affairs’’, governing what Slate should be allowed to talk about in public conversation).
‘‘I died: Listening’’ is a deft internal monologue of a woman listening to a man mansplaining, and realising that if she were to interrupt she ‘‘would have to weather the storm of his humiliation and frustration, and somehow end up feeling bad’’ about herself. Slate offers a cutting critique of our times. Slate also critiques herself, admitting later in the work that ‘‘having ‘no idea what’s going on’ is my central fear, most days’’.
Little Weirds is an expression of radical honesty, both a cri de cœur and a public invitation to explore Slate’s psyche. Doubt, anguish, loneliness and despair find themselves in the midst of friendship, lust, and relationships, and all are intertwined with a hint of social commentary. At one point, Slate notes ‘‘one man was gone from my life just about the time that another man pig-snorted his way into the presidency’’. This is a work meant to charm. Readers open to the whimsy will laugh and cry along with Slate.
Both Make it Scream, Make it Burn and Little Weirds depend on the honesty and vulnerability of their authors. Jamison’s is the more traditional both in terms of structure and content, and one suspects she will publish several more non-fiction collections such as this (she directs the graduate non-fiction program at Columbia University, after all).
On the other hand, Slate’s Little Weirds is, well, weird. It is a work somewhere between unconventional and unclassifiable, and most definitely a work understood through emotion, not logic. Read together or apart, these works will prompt thoughts in all directions.