Review: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s essay collection The Empathy Exams examines both people’s capacity for empathy and the feeling’s uses and limits. In these essays, which consider tourists in inner-city LA; different approaches to female suffering; and the sufferers of Morgellons Disease, a skin condition that mainstream medicine dismisses as paranoia, Jamison asks not only if we feel others’ pain, but also what good comes of it.

In the title essay, which relates her work as a medical actor to her experience getting an abortion, she notes that “empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.” Setting the tone for the collection, it asks: In trying to feel others’ pain, how can we avoid laying claim to experiences that we can’t imagine, or excuse ourselves from the task of providing comfort and improving the situation?

Throughout these essays, Jamison moves smoothly between storytelling and analysis, between herself and the world around her. “In Defense of the Saccharin(e)” ties cultural shifts away from sentimentality and toward irony to her early flawed attempts at fiction, and uses artificial sweeteners as an analogy for sentimentalism while relating her own profuse consumption of them.

Jamison uses the writer’s “I” as a surface to reflect on empathy, or storytelling, or as a ligament connecting different parts of the essay—not as a gimmick that makes the essay more about the writer’s affectations than its subject. “How can I express my faith,” she asks in “Saccharin(e),” “that there is something profound in the single note of honey itself?”

She often addresses the challenge of language and narrative. In the acknowledgements, she thanks a mentor for teaching her “that the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.” In “Devil’s Bait,” the essay about the skin condition, she wonders how she can empathize with the sufferers of Morgellons Disease without accepting the validity of their condition, and notes the difficulty of writing without taking a stand one way or the other: “Every twist of writing is an assertion of doubt or reality.”

In Jamison’s weaker essays, this attention to self, language and narrative become a hurdle rather than scaffolding. “Morphology of the Hit” uses Vladimir Propp’s structure of the folktale to tell a story she otherwise could not, that of her getting mugged and having her nose broken in Nicaragua. She acknowledges the difficulty of telling this story, but the essay’s self-awareness—“So now I’ve given away the ending.”—drowns out the insights that it should support, and the “I” is more intrusive than insightful. The problem with the essay becomes its subject, but does not make it interesting.

In “Fog Count,” about a visit to a man imprisoned for mortgage fraud, Jamison throws fairness aside in her effort to empathize. She portrays Charlie, the prisoner, as an innocent man scapegoated for the financial crisis, and makes no attempt to see the story of the IRS agent whose investigation led to his arrest, except to wonder about his curiosity for taxes and share Charlie’s speculation that he “was a kid who got his head flushed down the toilet; maybe he thinks Charlie was the kid who flushed it.” How empathetic is it to empathize fully with one side of the story while condemning the other?

An essayist, free from the reporter’s standards of objectivity, should still display a healthy skepticism toward everyone, even the apparently downtrodden, as Jamison does in “Devil’s Bait.” In light of her one-sidedness, her declaration that “a powerful rhetoric insists that we can only be delivered from our old scars by delivering new ones” rings hollow. This is one of few such mis-steps in The Empathy Exams, but in a collection that otherwise wields and examines empathy so intelligently, they deserve special scrutiny.

In the essay about the LA tour, after a participant poses for a photograph with an inner-city native, Jamison notes that “He can pack up his own heightened awareness like a souvenir.” Here, as elsewhere, Jamison skewers the way many of us exploit empathy to feel good about ourselves. (This reviewer’s as guilty as anyone: the New York Times’ reportage on war and poverty have provided me with righteous indignation but failed to turn me into a humanitarian.) The Empathy Exams has many triumphs, but condemning the false equating of awareness and achievement is its greatest.

Published in April by Graywolf Press

West Fork by Tom McKay

Tom McKay’s novel West Fork is narrated by Jim Blair, a young college graduate who in 1968 takes a job teaching in rural West Fork, Illinois and, without much of a plan, stays there for twenty-seven years.

Over that time, relationships bloom and end, Jim makes friends and earns respect in West Fork, and the world changes, changing the rural Midwest with it. School districts consolidate. Farmers sell off their land. The metal factory starts producing plastic products, and hiring mostly Mexican workers.

The novel’s story and characters hold promise, but McKay drowns them in inept prose. Many sentences try to be clever but are simply annoying: “I could tell that the problem with her foot was not nearly so severe as the problem with the foot I had stuck in my mouth.” There’s a surfeit of attention to “the light in her eyes as she spoke” or “the softness in her eyes”—those two examples appear on the same page. Characters don’t just say things: they say things “earnestly,” they “reply weakly,” they say things “in a lame effort to find [their] way into the conversation.” There’s nothing inherently wrong about a novelist having fun with language, noticing people’s eyes, or using dialogue tags other than “said,” but used indiscriminately, these tools become clunky and distracting.

The plot is often choppy as well. Some relationships come and go too quickly to register, and a reunion in the novel’s last chapters strains credulity.

There are moments of beauty, though. Listening to a counter-cultural lover talk about the Vietnam War, Jim notes that “I kept just well enough informed about Vietnam to know that I hated everything that was wrong and knew nothing about what was right.” It’s a rare glimpse of this novel’s themes, which, if developed in better prose, could have made West Fork a competent debut novel.

Published in January by Augustana College’s East Hall Press

 

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