Pain Is A Virtue: Chloe Caldwell’s I’ll Tell You In Person

It’s pretty much unspoken in the twenty-first century that any book or collection of stories about being, essentially, a fuck-up with no concrete life direction is going to be highly desirable reading material to most audiences in their 20s and 30s. That being said, Chloe Caldwell’s latest, I’ll Tell You in Person, is a love letter to anyone who has no idea what the hell she’s doing.

Starting with the poignant introductory quote, “I get it. Nothin’s ever happened to you–and you write books about it,” Caldwell sets the tone for the condemnation frequently thrown at those (often women) who feel compelled to write about the minutiae and so-called mundanity of everyday existence, ill-advised steak seeking and heroin dependency included. Feeling the need to constantly defend herself for preferring the genre that is the personal essay, Caldwell offers a prologue (“In Real Life”) that explains the genesis of her fascination with personal writing (a piece entitled “Mono No Aware” by Miki Howald from a book called Like Water Burning: Issue One).

It is within the parameters of this introduction that Caldwell calls out the most problematic issue with being a writer who writes about, well, herself–or at least a more caricaturized version of herself. As she laments, “I’ve learned this notion of not knowing where you end and the artist begins, while watching films and reading books, has a term: participation mystique.” This difficulty that not just readers, but those in one’s own life, have with separating the artist from the persona is elaborated on when Caldwell rehashes, “‘The thing about your essays is that they’re always about you,’ a past boyfriend said. ‘Well, yeah–personal essays are a genre,’ I retorted. ‘Ever heard of it?'”

But this knee-jerk reaction Caldwell has to defend herself against those who would attack her for either 1) writing them into her tales of shame or 2) candidly speaking about her most intimate traumas (drug addiction spurred on by acne-related self-consciousness chief among them) is not necessary. We all endure these moments of pain in our lives, and to be able to identify with someone else who so succinctly describes the general embarrassment and remorse associated with long-term living is nothing if not a comfort. Starting with “Prime Meats,” a tale that focuses primarily on the various problematic ins and outs of first getting a job in New York City and then actually sustaining it amid a busy social and drinking schedule, Caldwell ingratiates us into the innovative ways one can procure “extras” when her budget isn’t exactly flush. In this case, that innovation is through posting an ad on Craigslist (all the rage at the time of her jewelry store sales job, whereas, now, it’s more of a novelty item than anything else). With her cohort, Ana, Caldwell crafted the bait that would get men to pay for their steak dinner with no sexual expectations:

Steak and Scotch
Hey sexy bros, who wants to buy some prime bitches some prime
meat and drink obscene amounts of liquor? Let’s kick it. 
P.S. We’re psycho (in a fun way) and we want to
give you surveys

Of course, most people who responded had sexual expectations, ultimately leading to Caldwell’s mother cautioning, “I bet most artists don’t visit unknown strangers in a strange and unknown environment.” Though Caldwell’s mother is completely wrong, it spooked the Craigslist connoisseur enough to stop the experiment altogether.

From the schemes of the week that make life in New York interesting, Caldwell then covers the early days of her inability to control intake–of anything. And it all began, naturally, with Yodels. This propensity toward binging led to another means to fill a void: drug use. “I was addicted to everything and absolutely nothing. I reached for anything that would keep me away from being with myself. Whenever a drug dealer asked me, ‘So what do you want?’ I had to think for a second. I went in never knowing what it was I wanted.” The craving to distract and destruct is all too common, particularly among those who move to “the big city” expecting to be special and then somehow finding themselves going on interviews at Brooklyn Industries.

“Hungry Ghost” is a story entirely about “the Celebrity” Caldwell anticipates visiting her at her Hudson abode in the wake of the publication of her first book, Women. This “celebrity” is clearly Lena Dunham based on the description: “she’s somewhere on the spectrum between Eileen Myles and Beyoncé. You probably admire her too–or you might hate her and think she’s fat.” From there, we’re taken into the hyper-stressed mindset of Caldwell as she prepares for “the Celebrity’s” arrival, spending money she doesn’t have on candles from TJ Maxx and such. Ultimately, all this build up and anticipation in awaiting “the Celebrity” leads Caldwell to the following analogy: “In Buddhism, the term hungry ghost refers to the person whose appetite exceeds their capacity for satisfaction.” Even if Dunham had showed up, it would have somehow never met with the expectations Caldwell had allowed to mount. And, hopefully, in the wake of the Lena Dunham backlash (an “author” The Opiate has long not held in high esteem), Caldwell will distance herself from making proud claims about being published on Lenny Letter. But one supposes that’s neither here nor there.

“Soul Killer,” which commences Part 2 of I’ll Tell You In Person, highlights this unique and beautiful ability Caldwell has to unironically contrast her white girlness against her inner hardened criminal. The first sentence, “I got a pedicure each time I promised myself I’d stop doing heroin–which is to say, I got pedicures that whole summer,” toes the line (no pun intended) between just the right amount of absurdity and genuineness. After moving in with her father for one of those periods that most millennials seems to be forced into, Caldwell’s skin became plagued with acne, a topic she’s all too familiar with writing about (the story originally appeared as “My Year of Heroin and Acne” on Salon.com). While some readers may not feel empathy for getting addicted to heroin solely because of a skin condition, Caldwell writes with such tortured chagrin that you, too, start to think maybe that lip pimple is reason enough to understand hitting the hard stuff. A season spent growing acclimated to the effects of the drug (which she never allowed herself to inject) found Caldwell plateauing. Her realization that she would need to shoot it up in order to continue feeling anything is what eventually forced her to wean off. Like her yoga teacher said, “What feels like nectar in the beginning turns into poison in the long run, and what feels like poison in the beginning is nectar in the end.”

Easily mistakable for the title of a Lana Del Rey song, “The Music & The Boys” is Caldwell reaching the farthest back into her past, recounting her place in high school as a boys’ girl, the kind you could hang out with sans worrying about any sexual weirdness (her novella, Women, possibly offers some insight into why). Name checking such dated references as You’ve Got Mail, Titanic and Gwen Stefani, Caldwell delights in these carefree memories of the past, with a specific emphasis on her then best boy-friend, Nat.

“The Music & The Boys” marks something of a decline in the quality of essays briefly, with “Failing Singing” an examination of Caldwell’s gradual digression from promising vocalist to fun-loving alcohol consumer. Subsequently, “Sisterless” is a somewhat schmaltzy examination of all the surrogate sisters Caldwell has taken in as her own over the years. “The Girls of My Youth” is an appropriate precursor to “The Laziest Coming Out Story You’ve Ever Heard,” with its allusions to the type of sexuality-blurring activities girls in their preadolescence and teenage years can engage in. This segue into “The Laziest Coming Out Story…” is a natural one, though both stories are, for all intents and purposes, lazy. After all, most people are in the same boat as Caldwell these days, who asserts, “I will never have a sexual identity.

An incarnation of the essay, “Maggie and Me: A Love Story,” first appeared in VICE, and details the blossoming friendship between Maggie Estep (who also appeared in the same collection as Caldwell, Goodbye to All That) and Caldwell after both found themselves in Upstate New York.

Caldwell’s strong (and arguably best) essay, “Berlin 2009,” concludes I’ll Tell You In Person with a powerful punch, emphasizing a common issue among longtime New York residents: an ennui that propels a strong desire to leave. In Caldwell’s case, having a brother who lived in Berlin was helpful to making the switch. A bad relationship with that classic breed of older man–emotionally unavailable–propelled Caldwell to take the plunge in partaking of a drastic environmental change. But upon arriving, it was as though she knew she had made a grave mistake: “It wasn’t my first trip to Europe. I’d taken other trips there, and they left dark memories. Maybe I just get depressed in Europe, I thought. It’s my major character flaw.”

In spite of having a partner in crime, Rain, while there, it was like having all that free time was what they wanted in a city that they knew–New York. When friends would ask Caldwell about how it was going, expecting tales of sexual escapades and drunken mishaps, she would ask, “Have you ever been anxious and depressed?” They would reply, “Yeah,” to which Caldwell would drive home the point, “Have you ever been anxious and depressed in Berlin?”

Of course, like so many girls of the Caldwell breed, she had to get back to New York after enough months spent in this form of purgatorial “vacationing.” On her way back, she thought to herself, “I was almost home. I was getting closer to knowing what that meant.” With I’ll Tell You In Person we’re closer to knowing who she is as a writer–persona separated from the actual woman or not.

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