Secrets unrevealed

The tell-all tale that tells little frustrates the would-be voyeur.

Aug 23, 2000 at 12:00 am

This is an infuriating book. Not because it’s bad. But because it isn’t — bad, I mean. I’ll get to that.

First, though, some background information. The author, Sallie Tisdale, a contributing editor of Harper’s, has published five previous books, most recently Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex (1994).

In this book, Tisdale is operating in hybrid territory — very trendy real estate these days — where autobiography and journalism meet. You learn about the subject by witnessing the writer experiencing that subject. That a Harper’s editor should be doing this kind of work is no surprise, since Willie Morris, surely the magazine’s most brilliant and — to some — infuriating editor, had a lot to do with creating the genre, some 30 years ago, under the aegis of so-called “new journalism.”

So there’s nothing necessarily new about “me-criticism” of the sort Tisdale is practicing, except for the number of people these days who’ve decided to practice it, and the kinds of subjects they’ve decided are OK to write about: everything from hut building to incest.

When things work out, the writing becomes interesting because of the intimacy of the revelations (for instance, when it’s about food or sex). Similarly, the subject takes on new meaning because it’s looked at in an intensely personal way.

That’s the case, more or less, with Tisdale’s Talk Dirty to Me, as it is absolutely true of Ruth Reichl’s marvelous Tender at the Bone (about growing up with food) or Anne Cline’s A Hut of One’s Own, with its beautifully personal account of building.

But when things don’t work, you get a pathetic, pull-down-your-pants plea for attention. Sure, people will look, but what — beyond voyeurism — is the point? Take Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, for instance, with its infamous father-daughter love affair, or Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, which includes a spill-all account of a years-ago liaison with J. D. Salinger.

Not that Tisdale’s present book is remotely as ill-conceived as those, because it’s not. Far from it, which is the infuriating problem.

The subject is fascinating, just the kind of thing that bears looking into for the simple reason that we are what we eat, in more ways than one.

“How we feel about food,” Tisdale writes, “is how we feel about our own lives.”

What we are as Americans — overfed, conflicted, profligate, enraged — has a lot to do with what and how we consume the stuff that keeps us alive, and also kills us into the bargain.

“American cuisine is an oxymoron, but so are Americans,” she writes. “We consume more good food and more bad food than any other group of people in history.”

Getting to the bottom of our contradictory food ways is key to getting to the bottom of our contradictory selves and what makes us the oxymorons we are. So far so good. But this is where Tisdale’s hybrid method gets in the way.

Information — if that’s what you’re after — is hard to find, since there’s neither index nor notes to identify the specific source of quotations. Chapters lack descriptive titles, presumably for the same reason you wouldn’t title the chapters in an autobiography. But whereas chronology might be expected to organize the account of a life, there is no such organizing principle here.

Neither is there a thesis, of the sort a journalist might proffer, so a reader could know what it is we’re after, as we sift through the facts.

The result is that Tisdale’s exposition is loopy and repetitive, and frequently sketchy (since some kind of Proustian self-revelation is the supposed real point). But come to that — the life — and things are no better, with incompletely rendered revelations often bordering on the cliché.

My heart sank, for instance, when we arrived at the “white-trash” confessional, or the account of quick-tempered, hard-drinking dad and beleaguered, over-taxed mom. I think I’ve seen this picture before.

Which is not to say the book doesn’t have its moments, and that’s the most infuriating of all. (Take the intriguing history of “whiteness,” for instance, as worked out in flour and sugar.) How could you not love a woman who reveals her age by saying she was born three years after the Swanson’s TV dinner, or who tells you, with Epicurean aplomb, that her favorite sandwich as a kid was Velveeta and Miracle Whip on white bread, fried in margarine?

Or who could write this about her mother: My weary, educated mother not only collected useless recipes but she bought craft kits and sequins and felt and fabric paint and Rit dye. She took up embroidery in middle age. I was disappointed in her when she did, of course. I was too restless for needles, too mad about the world. I wanted her to complain — not cook and clean, not sew. I was a fool.

Who wouldn’t be infuriated that a writer this good didn’t bother to do a better job?