Marie tests Lin, as is her habit, annoying him with her need to be desired as well as championed. “I feel like I felt how you felt when you were lying in the bed not wanting to leave,” he writes to her, after she ends a druggy party lying on Lin’s bed, not wanting to leave. Lin is attempting to communicate empathy, but the abstraction-free style, whereby nothing is taken for granted, suggests a language, after centuries of wanton proliferation, reset to its basic verbs, pronouns, and prepositions. Like couples rebuilding a decimated relationship, Calloway’s characters seem trapped in a specialized therapy session, an endless series of Imago exercises. I feel this when you say that; I hear what you’re saying and it makes me feel this. Most often those feelings are: awkward, embarrassed, worried, lonely, confused, humiliated.
A similar dynamic begins to define the relationship between reader and author. Calloway addresses the reader privately, occasionally expressing concerns about her “career,” a concept indistinguishable from her story, her arc, her sprouted mythology. Of her mentor Marie tells us that she “would probably always feel stifled and overshadowed unless I were to somehow totally disavowal [sic] Jeremy Lin from my life and career, and accept all of the difficulty and pain that would bring. I wondered if I would ever be able to reconcile my ambition to be a serious writer with my desire to be loved.”
Calloway might have worried about awkwardness as much as her character does. Transitions, behavioral logic, and attempts at self-analysis creak or have a studied glibness. (“I did block him,” Calloway writes of one Internet creeper, “but then I got bored and started talking to him. Then I realized I want more pictures of me, so I said he could take mine.”) Marie’s voice sometimes veers from zombie reporter to second-year grad student. “Sex work experience three” opens with a diaristic salvo:
"I need money for BareMinerals foundation and MAC lipstick and soy lattes and pizza. If I earn money I will no longer be a financial burden on my parents; I will be productive and accomplish something. I will be a commodity, and I will be in demand and valuable. I am so beautiful and young that men will pay three hundred dollars to have sex with me; sex work will reify my youth and beauty. I have no friends and nothing to do except school and this will give me something to do and a way to study other people besides through the Internet. I’ll find out for myself what sex work means, and what kind of men pay for sex and why they do it."
Writing about the HBO show Girls for the New York Review of Books, J. Hoberman suggested that its creator, Lena Dunham, has “tapped into a vein of tragicomic sexual naturalism in which, as in the novels of Czech writers Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima, social constraint (here economic) makes sex, however messy, the lone arena of freedom.” Though it’s tempting to draw Calloway into this same arena—where blood and other fluids are spilled in search of a connection strong enough to obliterate its parties, their worries, their disparities, their fakery, their endless, obscuring refractions—the Dunham connection feels more complicated. The photos, the threesomes, the drugs, the men eager to tout and publish Calloway ASAP, all remind me of Hannah Horvath’s e-book deal with the editor of a pop-up press played, in Season 2 of Girls, by director John Cameron Mitchell. Where’s the sexual failure, he chastises his protégé when she turns in a draft focused on her female friendships. “Where’s the pudgy face slick with semen and sadness?”
More than once I have heard expressed by other women—particularly woman writers—the wish that Calloway and her book simply didn’t exist, that we might all just ignore it. It’s a weary wish, not a malicious one: It would just be easier, they sigh, and maybe better that way. I confess that being asked to write about this book inspired in me a similar wish—that the email had not been sent, that I would not have to decide—and mine was as useless. The experience of reading what purpose did i serve in your life, which rides the line between performed and genuine vapidity and malign naiveté so closely that the distinction between them blurs, is by turns dull, titillating, appalling, riveting, and as head-spinning, in Hoberman’s phrase, as “a hall of mirrors in which Girl Power and female powerlessness are endlessly reflected.” It is not, in other words, easy to turn away from. Easier, perhaps, to catch a shattered glance of oneself.
What Calloway depicts most persuasively is a young woman’s intrigue with herself—her transient powers and her highly exploitable weaknesses. Though she makes sexual discoveries, somehow freedom has little to do with it. Rather than sexual ecstasy, Marie reaches for her camera; pornographic shadows flicker around every coupling. In a book describing at least a dozen sexual encounters, Marie’s orgasm count never budges. When it appears, the word “love” has a random, retrospective quality: Marie might claim, two stories later, to love the partner from two stories back, but we can only take her word for it. Sex may be one arena of freedom, these stories imply, but the page is where the bloodied seek a rematch.
Finally, the book’s emphasis on scene suggests a failure of story: With the size and feel of a coloring book, what purpose did i serve in your life appears as an outline of sorts, something preliminary. An exercise in self-portraiture as modern self-mythology, it’s a book I can imagine appreciating best at 19, while taking cover in some furtive bedroom from the betrayals of young womanhood. But I’m not 19, and neither, anymore, is Marie Calloway. That was young once.
what purpose did i serve in your life by Marie Calloway. New York Tyrant.
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