The Internet has permitted a rise in the proliferation of, and attention to, the personal essay. In a variety of venues, we are treated to long-form confessional tracts in which authors explore the intimate details of their lives as a means of (hopefully) delivering a valuable, universal message.
As with anything that experiences a precipitous uptick in popularity, there are many opportunities for failure, and this genre can fall victim to a unique brand of navel-gazing that adds little to our cultural dialogue. On the other hand, when the personal essay is executed well, it shines brightly, much like the first collection from Michelle Orange, a writer whose intelligent reflections have appeared in The Rumpus, The Nation, and The New York Times.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Orange has perfected the art of the personal essay, seamlessly weaving her own history with our collective experience, and effortlessly referencing dramas both small and large to back up her points. In these 10 diverse pieces, she elegantly combines historical, pop-cultural, and personal elements, taking readers on well-researched, accessible journeys through feelings and facts.
In “Have a Beautiful Corpse,” Orange brings an innovative perspective to our cultural obsession with dying young, articulating the rabid way we consume the lives of public figures, and referencing cultural touchstones like James Dean and Michael Jackson as counterpoints to her own experiences. In “Pixilation Nation,” she manages to combine the Abu Ghraib prison photos with George Eliot’s writing and John Fowles’s philosophical musings, then artfully shades into discussions of smartphones, Facebook, and Instagram. And while many readers would find an essay on running insufferable, in “Ways of Escape” Orange offers her readers a welcome take on solitude, youthful confusion, and the pain of growing up.
These expansive and complex essays not only demand time and attention, they manage to rejuvenate an often misused form. Orange reflects on our daily experiences and illuminates the consequences of modernity with a relevance and artistry not achieved by many of her peers. In so doing, she assists us in understanding what it means to exist in contemporary culture, whether that meaning is found in major historical shifts or small, intimate details.