The essays in Sean Wilsey’s lively, often humorous, sporadically insightful collection More Curious are full of the strange: Marfa, an artist-heavy town in Texas (probably) named after a Dostoyevsky character. A cross-country trip in a truck that can’t go faster than 50 miles an hour. Brown rats, which, over several decades, have killed off most of the other rat varieties in New York City. “Obviously,” he writes in the introduction, “the title…is a play on that old saw that truth is stranger than fiction.”
The best of these essays step on their strange subjects to reach insight, achieving the depth of thought that gives an essay its strength. “Using So Little” explores Wilsey’s passion for skateboarding and bemoans the newer, corporatized form of the sport, which he finds antithetical to its solitude and minimalism. “No Work for Me,” about living in New York City as “life began, eerily, to resume” after 9/11, draws parallels between that time and post-earthquake San Francisco, and quotes a column from the time saying that people shouldn’t congratulate themselves for their bravery until the “novelty” of the disaster wears off.
More often, though, Wilsey recycles truisms or stays stuck on the quirkiness of his subject. He does so earnestly, and in clear, lively prose, but it’s still disappointing.
In “The Objects of My Obsession,” about haggling for appliances on Craigslist, Wilsey remarks that “Consumerism and the ease it promises is pagan. The purchaser becomes a sort of emperor. The Viking that serves him is a willing slave.” Okay, so consumerism, like other social vices—nationalism, religious fanaticism, misogyny—can promise us power we don’t normally have, appeal to our egos, and make complex things seductively simple. That’s true, but I’ve heard it before, from tumblr posts and moralizing speeches, and Wilsey adds nothing.
Likewise, in “Travels with Death,” a rollicking yarn about the cross-country trip mentioned above, Wilsey contemplates the point of the trip and comes off rhapsodic and vapid: “You can’t con your way to a higher place. Only a higher station. The con man does not have an eye on the long term. The long con is only so long. The length of life. Heaven or enlightenment or the weary soul’s deserved rest: non-con-to-able destinations.” It’s a fun read—particularly when Wilsey ascribes a personality to a hotel chain’s cowboy mascot—but that statement seems more like an attempt at depth in a comic sketch than part of a fully developed essay.
There’s nothing wrong with “merely” telling a good nonfiction story. But to write an essay and not an anecdote, a writer needs to find meaning behind a story. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion doesn’t just smirk at the antics of hippies in Haight-Ashbury (though she does plenty of that). She also uses what she witnesses to reflect on the social breakdowns of the 1960s, writing about something beyond herself and her immediate subject, and, when she encounters a simplistic thought, refutes or develops it until it becomes something more.
Wilsey never claims that More Curious is Slouching Towards Bethlehem. So I may be at fault here for bringing misguided expectations to a decent book. But the introduction, which opens with a quote on the dangers of utopianism and laments the fading of America’s post-Cold war potential for improvement, had me expecting more about America and less about Wilsey and his immediate surroundings (like the house he’s refurbishing in “Objects”).
The best essays in More Curious dig deep into their subjects. The worst tell a funny story, throw out some asides, and move along. While often falling short of a good essay, everything here makes for a fun read.
–Available July 15th from McSweeney’s Publishing (at which, full disclosure, I was once an intern)