Not a Path, But a Labyrinth: Claire Dederer’s “Love and Trouble”

Claire Dederer would like you to know that she’s no longer sad. Or no: It’s not that she would like you to know exactly, it’s the answer to a question, but the inquiry seems appropriate. Late in her memoir Love and Trouble — the final chapter — she describes a trip she made with her best friend Victoria during “the rainy-ass winter of 2015” to Utah’s Spiral Jetty. “We were both as sad as ever,” she writes, “but making elaborate travel plans was a kind of bulwark against the sadness.” Indeed. Love and Trouble is a book of sadness: “a mid-life reckoning,” or so its subtitle insists. Its power, though, resides in Dederer’s refusal to sugarcoat, to tie up the loose ends, to pretend there’s a world in which our trouble passes, in which we may, finally, be reconciled. “Of course, I’m in despair, both politically and in the way any writer is sad,” she laughs, over the phone from her home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she lives with her husband, environmental journalist Bruce Barcott, and their two teenaged kids. “But I’ve returned to my baseline; the wild sadness has abated.” There’s both relief and longing in her words.

Love and Trouble begins in 2011, shortly after Dederer’s first book, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, was published. In her mid-forties, at loose ends, she finds herself drawn, increasingly, toward the girl she used to be. In part, this has to do with her experience as a parent; her daughter is twelve — or “just around the age you were when you started going off the rails.” At the same time, this tendency to identify, she recognizes, is too easy, too overt. “I was trying very hard,” Dederer says, “to write a book that would articulate hard-to-tell situations without resolving them too neatly.” A book, in other words, that would embrace complexity without the need to render it as parable. “We tend to read memoirs as proscriptive,” she suggests, “as if our lives were lessons. Poser was received a bit that way.” With Love and Trouble, then, the intention was to “push back” against the expectations of the genre, beginning with structure. Dederer did not want to write another memoir that came with its shape encoded, in the way Poser develops each chapter around a yoga position. Rather, Love and Trouble eschews the idea of unity altogether, in favor of chapters that often read like a succession of connected essays, while also appropriating existing templates (the case study, the abecedarium), which makes for a sequence of borrowed forms.

That this keeps us on our toes goes without saying, but isn’t that the point? “In general,” Dederer admits, “I’m not a plot person, although I’m interested in scenes.” The distinction is key, especially in regard to memoir, which is less about story, really, than the interplay of memory and reflection, who we were and who we have become. “Scenes are important,” she continues, “because they place us; they allow the cozy and voyeuristic experience of entering the writer’s world.” Still, the expectation that this should lead somewhere was one she wanted to deconstruct. “We have the sense,” Dederer argues, “that the transformation of the narrator is the essential story of every memoir. That’s how Poser is written; each scene leads to some sort of realization that moves the narrative along. But here — the deepest trope is that we don’t change, that we remain who we are. I love that first book, but it was way too epiphanic. I wanted to do something else this time.”

What Dederer is referring to is danger, which motivates Love and Trouble in nearly every way. Among the precipitating incidents is an encounter with a writer from California at a literary festival in the Midwest. In his car, en route from one event to another, she realizes they are flirting, and even more, that it feels good. “[W]hat’s the worst thing you have done?” he asks, coyly, when she says she’s never cheated on her husband; she smiles and tells him: “This.” It’s an electrifying moment — not only because we understand, in this instant, exactly what’s at stake, but also because of the matter-of-factness of her voice. This is hard stuff to write about, desire and fidelity, the back-and-forth of love and obligation; it plays a central role in Poser, too. With Love and Trouble, however, Dederer has no interest in resolution, nor in coming off as nice. “An important inspiration,” she recalls, “came from David Shields, who says what interests him in nonfiction is seeing a brain try to solve a problem. I took that idea and applied it to memoir. It was most helpful because it allowed me to recognize that asking questions could be enough.” That there are no answers is as it should be; “I thought domesticity was a path,” Dederer admits, “but it’s a labyrinth.”

Much of Love and Trouble balances these midlife complications with the ghost or glimmer of its author’s younger self. “That horrible girl,” as Dederer calls her, emerges in short selections from her diaries, but more than that, she is a kind of animating force. It’s not that Dederer wants to go back: At thirteen, she was molested by a friend of her stepfather’s; while in college, her name and number were graffitied on a campus bench. In any case, it’s not enough to make a place for her; the real conundrum is the emotion she stirs up. “Something in there,” Dederer notes, “is ungovernable, especially when it’s sex we’re talking about.” This is, as it must be, a feminist issue: what amounts to a double taboo. On the one hand, there’s adolescent sex, which is always problematic, although for a child of the 1980s — Dederer was born in 1967 — this was often couched in terms that emphasized liberation. Then, there’s middle-aged sex, which she addresses with humor and grace. “I was forty-five,” she writes. “You wouldn’t think that people would want to occupy my vacated body — who wants to take up with a body that’s half a century old? … But apparently a vacated body, and the attendant frisson it creates, is just that alluring.” The feeling of being vacant is, she points out, both existential and practical. “Part of the story of this book,” Dederer says, “is that she’s overwhelmed by doing so much work. For years, she has defined herself in terms of being useful. The crisis starts when there is nothing she has to do.”

Such tensions emerge not only in the telling; Dederer is describing real people, real relationships. As she did with Poser, she anchors Love and Trouble in her family. “Every time we fight,” her husband tells her, “I can see you going down the road to divorce, I can see you weighing it in your mind.” The confrontation is so recognizable, so intractable, we feel it as our own. “I didn’t want,” Dederer says, “to do a lot of explaining or solving. I wanted to push against that impulse. One thing I especially wanted to avoid was smoothing out or signposting. I wanted to say: Here, this is the experience, make of it what you will.” The result is not merely a self-portrait, but in many ways a depiction of a modern marriage, in which love and lust, frustration and exhaustion, overlap in an ongoing dance of veils. It’s no coincidence that her husband was one of two people she asked to approve the manuscript (the other was her best friend, Victoria); “I couldn’t do it,” she acknowledges, “without a sign-off from him.”

At the heart of this, of course, is trust: the trust between a couple, yes, but also between a writer and her readers. There is no room for easy answers because we have moved beyond the realm of easy answers, narrative or otherwise. Dederer makes this explicit in a chapter called “On Victimhood,” where after detailing her agent’s reaction to reading of her “teen sluttishness” (“Why?” the agent asked), she moves into truly uncomfortable territory about her desire to be loved. “It pains me,” she informs us, “to write these words more than any other words in this book: I liked it. … The premise of this book is that I was wild and unhappy as a teen, and my unhappiness stemmed from my sex-crazed nature. But what I really felt was what I feel now: Life was hard.” There it is, the blurring of the past into the present, the realization that self-knowledge does not necessarily settle anything. All of us move through this world carrying our history, our memories; it’s not just baggage but identity. “Obviously,” Dederer says, “I like questions I don’t know how to answer. I wanted to be loved and I still do. But for this book, that ‘love me’ voice was problematic. I was less interested in seducing the reader with every line than simply saying what is true.”

The Barnes & Noble Review

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