The Dead Ladies Project – Jessa Crispin

I spent this past weekend in Woodstock. I am not quite recovered from the whole experience, but I’m getting there. Slowly. Mostly wondering things like, “Why doesn’t the air smell like patchouli now?” and “Where is my vegan bacon?”

Today’s book is Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project (subtitle: Exiles, Expats & Ex-Countries).

I don’t remember where (or what) I first read about this book, but I remember being incredibly excited to read it. It seemed like it would be right up my alley, possibly a good comp title when I’m sending out queries, and and all around good read.

The copy from the inside flap:

When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground a Pnd took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding, a way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.

The Dead Ladies Project is an account of that journey–but it’s also so much more. Fascinated by exile, Crispin travels an itinerary of key locations on its literary map, of places that have drawn writers who needed to break free and start afresh[…]”

The ellipses marks the place where it starts telling you where she went and who she wrote about, how Crispin delves into history, autobiography, and literary analysis.

It seemed like this book would be Crispin’s version of my book: a solo trip that would be checkered with intelligent discourse. Where she destroyed her life, I merely paused mine. Where she traveled through Europe, I traveled through the States. Where she sought literary locations and used them as a springboard for theory and/or analysis, I sought the bizarre and did the same.

Similar veins, different books.

I was, as I tend to be, a bit wrong. The basics are there, yes, but the differences between each “basic” illustrates the range that can occur between two people who did similar things.

Her reason for journeying? She was suicidal, depressed, and looking for something. A way out? A reason to live? An answer to a questions she never tells us?

My reason? I wanted to see the country. I wanted to grab onto a moment of freedom before retirement age, when I would be stuck tottering around the country with limited mobility and limited funds.

With just that difference, our trips permanently diverged.

But this blog isn’t about me and my book-in-progress, it’s about reading, understanding, and analyzing the books of others.

Did I like this book?

Yes, I did. I would read it again. Crispin’s writing style is often very dense, both in paragraph structure and vocabulary. This is not a beach read that leaves you feeling inspired or pleasant, this is a read that you have to pay attention to… which is hard, as there’s very little breathing room in here. You’re being ambushed, assaulted, by her words.

It’s a good assault, mind you, but an assault nonetheless.

She did a literary twitch that I noticed most recently while reading Victor la Valle’s The Changeling–which makes me wonder if this is  a new trend, or I just happened to read two similarly twitched books back to back. (P.S. Go read The Changeling.)

Almost every section of Crispin’s book, whether a two paragraph aside or an entire chapter, ended with a dramatic, echoing sentence. An ironic twist. A verbal curtain closer as the director pokes his head out to give you a sly, almost-imagined wink. (La Valle does that as well, at least in TC, but only at the end of each chapter.)

But, for me, what started out as a solid closing technique became predictable, being almost… unwanted. Because I knew that each time I neared the end of a piece, I’d be getting that sly wink. Which began to feel disingenuous. Which gave little breathing room to a book that was already causing you to struggle for air.

(Before you begin to think I’m complaining about the density and constant nut-punches of this book, let me say that I do not know Crispin’s motivation for this book, nor her through-line of emotion she wanted the reader to experience. This could have been exactly what she had planned from the get-go and, if so, she did a stellar job. I just personally need breaks every so often.)

Other notes…

The people she picked to focus on each chapter were fascinating. I learned more than I expected to with this book and, when I read it again, I’m sure I’ll pick up even more.

I didn’t like how she portrayed herself. She came off as angry through much of the book, angry and sad. Angry and sad and confused. But so much of the book was devoted to talking of others (and very little of her actual trip), that you often forgot you were reading what may have been a travelogue. In sum: I didn’t enjoy spending this trip with her as a person, but as a mini-biographer, she was excellent.

On a more personal note, one of the plot lines of this book was her seeing an unnamed married man, one who lied to her and treated her poorly. (What would you expect? Flowers?) Her behavior around this man and his wife, who contacted her mid-trip, was… not ideal for me. I believe in respecting relationship boundaries, no matter how shitty things are. It made me think to myself that, should I ever meet this woman, I wouldn’t want to be friends with her. I wouldn’t want her around my husband, or my friends’ partners. Which made this book all that much harder to read.

I have to appreciate the disclosure, how personal this sub-story is and that she is willing to share it with us, despite the reader-judgement. But there’s little regret or reflection on the pain she is helping cause as she herself is being a recipient of it, and that makes her irredeemable, at least in this book.

And… I think that’s all I have to say on this. Quotes below for your reading pleasure.

On Berlin:

“To all those whose anxiety dreams play out as trying to steer a careening car while trapped in the backseat, come to us. We have a cafe culture and surprisingly affordable rents. Come to us, and you can finish out your collapse among people who understand.”

“The wife: revealed. The lover slips her name, I google until I find her, and then I fire off an e-mail to her to confirm. She writes back. And then again. And again and again. Every day when I wake up, a little bouquet of missives from the wife. I know everything about her now, she’s revealing her soft underbelly in the hopes that I’ll take pity and retreat. I hold back my own information, I reveal only the smallest bits. Mostly, though, I lie.”

“Hannibal was a brilliant military mind emerging from the fringes to nearly take down Rome. Margaret Anderson was a small-town girl who managed to center herself at the heart of modernism. The only discernible difference lies in the number of elephants employed.”

“I bet Morrigan misses Maud Gonne. I bet she wishes people would make offerings of the cut-out heart of the occupier, rather than fresh-cut flowers and incense. I bet she wishes people would ask for more rivers of blood and fewer inner senses of self-worth.”

As an awkward side note, if you enjoyed this book, you should read Stranger on a Train. And if you enjoyed Stranger on a Train, you should read this book.