Canadian-born writer/film critic/pop-cultural savant Michelle Orange launches “This Is Running for Your Life” with a meditation on youth and taste and nostalgia (also, Ethan Hawke’s face). She then moves on to a close reading of the Hollywood dream girl, Marilyn Monroe through manic pixie, an essay on her grandmother’s life and death, collected observations on the city of Beirut. She writes about photography, about brain-imaging, about San Diego and Hawai’i and Halifax. The result is a collection that’s original and engaging and weird and very, very smart.
Each essay is a kind of narrative patchwork, with disparate pieces assembled and artfully laid out for consideration. “War and Well-Being, 21° 19’N., 157° 52’W,” for example—arguably the centerpiece of the collection—considers the experience of being in Hawai’i, the state of modern psychiatry, shopping, World War II and the DSM-IV. The product falls somewhere between long-form journalism and collage: sprawling and brilliant and offering the illusion that only the best craftsmanship can—that you’ve crawled inside Orange’s mind, which happens to be gorgeous and funny and a marked improvement on your own.
In as much as the essays are simply “about” something—and when faced with the essays collected here, the concept of a single “about” seems painfully inadequate—they are about our tangled relationship to technology and time. A movie, a picture, a memory, a brain-scan: Orange is interested in how we document what we document and what it means that we do. Sometimes, the analysis tends toward the (relatively) straightforward and the casually academic. (A piece on “Photography, Memory, and the Public Image” considers the relationship of picture-making and history-making in an analysis both astute and pleasantly familiar.) Other times, Orange pushes further outside easy classification, blurring the lines between cultural theory and personal history, toggling effortlessly between facts and ideas and personal anecdotes about running and grandmothers and love and loneliness and the psychology of email-writing.
And this is her magic: what’s so brilliant about “This Is Running for Your Life” isn’t the profundity of any given insight (though there’s no shortage, if that’s your thing). What’s transcendent is the way Orange brings those should-be-incompatible registers together and builds, from the gaps between them, something more than the sum of its parts. (Rachel Sugar)
“This is Running For Your Life”
By Michelle Orange
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 338 pages, $16