Measure, Measure Your Life in Data – and Tell Us All About It
Time of death: May 18, 2017. That’s when Jia Tolentino’s commentary, “The Personal Essay Boom is Over” went live online. Her observation, which focused on the shrinking editorial manpower dedicated to publishing personal essays, deemed the genre oversaturated and cheapened by the internet’s endless hunger for content and natural tendency toward sensationalism.
Time of resurrection: December 11, 2017. That’s when Kristen Roupenian’s viral piece, “Cat Person,” was published by Tolentino’s own employer, The New Yorker. While not technically a personal essay – Roupien’s story was fictional – it bore what Tolentino considers the genre’s hallmarks: trauma, confession, explicitness.
The personal essay won’t die. Whether it’s comatose, ventilated by outlets that prize intimacy, or extrasensory, lingering just past mainstream perception until it spooks us, the form has survived past its logical prime. And now more than ever, its triumph depends on paradox: delivering idiosyncrasy while establishing universal relevance, whether sociopolitical or philosophic.
In Beyond Measure, a collection of essays exploring the metrics by which humanity abides, Rachel Z. Arndt’s prowess jostles against these extremes. At once, she delves into the nuances of living with narcolepsy, a tribulation half a percentage point of Americans share, and serves up contemporary tech-obsessed ideation, documenting a fixation with monitoring and optimizing existence her millennial peers will find relatable.
“Elliptical,” the collection’s third essay, is where Arndt first hits some kind of stride. In it, she discusses her regular morning workout, and the narration spins until it reaches a Sisyphean crescendo: “I grow dizzy...but I won’t stop and wait to climb back on because I’ve already climbed on...habit is repetition is habit, to come back the next day to verify I can still do exactly what I did the day before.”
Here, Arndt stares into infinity, hurtling toward cyclical dizziness that should feel familiar to most of us, our lives defined by routine, minutes slipping into hours into days into months into years until death. It’s thinking about the latte effect while you’re standing in line at Starbucks, waking up with a daily alarm on Saturday, brushing your teeth just before drinking coffee. And her prose tumbles forward beautifully, prodded by pedal pushing asyndeton that leaves you gasping.
Her opening essay, “Sleep,” finds Arndt firmly planted in the personal, as she describes her experience undergoing sleep studies. Reading her prose feels like listening to your best friend describe their latest bizarre nightmare. You should, in theory, care. And it should, in theory, be fascinating. But neither obligation is met, and Arndt drifts ever toward self-indulgence, particularly within the narrative’s last paragraph, which would suggest literal navel-gazing, save for a layer of fabric: “My dress’ defined waist and black zipper made me feel like I’d accomplished something. But had I? I stared a little more...Had I?”
“Sleep” isn’t entirely without merit, but I can’t help but wonder whether its primacy was granted based not on strength, but convenience, a way to guarantee context for Arndt’s later essays about narcolepsy. Regardless, its placement is regrettable, obstructing a casual reader’s view of Arndt’s dark humor and remarkably fresh perspective on technology’s existential implications.
Likewise, essays like “Awake” and “Leaving” trudge forward, hazy with plots that occasionally dip into the past without clarification and laden with detail for detail’s sake. None of Arndt’s writing is particularly light-hearted, but these narratives inspire a sense of unease that never builds to anything, tension without release. Maybe she intended to create empathy, infusing her pages with enduring fatigue so readers could feel it, too.
Cue “Waiting,” the opposite of almost everything that’s come before it. As always, Arndt reflects on time, but now she’s preparing to withstand her first judo tournament in nine years. Aside from her narcolepsy diagnosis, it’s the first time readers learn something unique about her.
Arndt’s pacing is excellent here – after spending pages waiting for her first match to begin, she dispatches the results in three staccato sentences: “I fought every woman there, I won, I left. I left on the three-hour ride with the teen boy, who’d missed his ride home. He couldn’t believe I’d never been to Arby’s.” Her spotlight lingers on moments only so long as they remain captivating.
Everything beyond that essay is electric, sometimes literally. “Wind” opens with a simple fact: “When lightning hits water, the electricity spreads outward across the surface.” It seems innocuous for two seconds, about how long it takes Arndt to reveal her family is sailing atop that water. In two sentences, she’s fired a pistol that makes what follows frantic, bodies tripping over themselves to race toward safety.
While the personal essay’s vitality remains controversial, I contend that personal essay collections come with the distinct advantage of being able to skip whatever you don’t care for without losing too much context. That said, some essays particularly worth not skipping include “Match,” “Exchange,” “Yardstick,” and “Briefly.” In each, Arndt survives the personal essay paradox and escapes with immeasurable grace.
header image: rik vander sanden / flickr