The Recovering: Intoxication and Aftermath

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The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
544 pages
In The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison's immersion into the consuming murk of addiction and the sparkling sea of its literature—the novels of Jean Rhys, with their abject heroines haunted by lost children and lovers; the short fiction of Raymond Carver ("painful and precise, like carefully bitten fingernails")—the author asks "if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart."

It's no mean feat, morphing the alcoholic's plodding modus operandi ("More. Again. Forever." as Jamison puts it) into sentences that surprise and shimmer, but she achieves it here frequently: "Booze helped you see, and then it helped you survive the sight," she writes of her youthful devotion to this sodden mythology. "I idolized the iconic drunk writers because I understood their drinking as proof of extreme interior weather."

But even hurricanes get dull if you suffer through enough of them. About halfway into the book, Jameson admits, "I'd gotten sick of how melodramatic I was when I was drunk"—by which point the reader may share that sentiment—"but now sobriety seemed to come with melodrama of its own: I was a martyr." The self-involvement of the addict will not be dismantled by an effort as mundane and Herculean as not drinking. Reading the autobiography of Bill W., a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jamison contemplates "narrative relapse": the tendency to reassume the aggrandizing storytelling of the drunk, even when sober.

Jamison connects her insatiable appetite for booze with her yearning for male attention, and in at least one case the two needs converge, in a boyfriend who imbibes—and analyzes his own psyche—as much as she does: "We were like two twenty-four-hour archaeological digs happening side by side—just when you thought we'd pause for lunch, we went deeper. It was no wonder we got drunk so much; we just wanted a fucking break." Sobriety, as configured by the 12-step model, requires relinquishing this grinding fascination with the self, this conviction that one's story is special and original, and striving instead for humility—the recognition of the shared experience of being human. The Recovering is Jamison's attempt to reconcile her relentless intellect and singular voice with the things that have healed her: fellowship and surrender. 
— Ariel Levy