The Recovering, over 450-odd pages and 14 chapters, is an effort to challenge the legend that alcohol and literary art are inextricable. Arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the age of 21, Jamison writes of being “drawn to the same unhinged sparks of luminous chaos” that had defined the work of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Denis Johnson. Addiction, in her mind, was something that enabled great writing, bringing illumination with intoxication, clarity with alcoholic cloud. And, as The Recovering documents, she became alcohol-dependent, got sober, drank again, got sober again, and then faced her biggest fear: that sobriety would ruin her writing forever.
Clearly, it didn’t. Jamison stopped drinking before the publication of her second book, The Empathy Exams, a collection of curious, luminous essays that garnered critical praise and sold more than 80,000 copies (a vast amount for the genre). So the primary mission of The Recovering, to prove that “stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart,” feels slightly undermined by its author’s own biography. That’s not its only inherent contradiction. The Recovering is a sprawling, compelling, fiercely ambitious book that considers excess with full control, and strives for both exceptionalism and utility at the same time. It’s a book that laments the sameness of literary drunkalogs, particularly when it comes to women, even as its publication represents the most significant new addition to the canon in more than a decade.
But isn’t contradiction part of being human? Jamison is more than aware that her account of her alcoholism and path to sobriety is nothing particularly extraordinary. That’s the point. The biggest obstacle she faces in writing an exceptional recovery memoir is that recovery itself relies on stories that are unexceptional, on platitudes, on cliché. In Alcoholics Anonymous, which is where Jamison got sober, “your story is only useful,” she writes, “because others have lived it and will live it again.” This is why, formally at least, The Recovering isn’t so different from other works in the pantheon of quit lit. Jamison’s incantation the first time she drinks alcohol—More. Again. Forever.—recalls the title of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir about addiction, More, Now, Again. The Recovering also bears comparison with Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, which Jamison has said she read in a single sitting a few years before she got sober, shocked by how much of herself she saw in its pages.
The parts of The Recovering that I found the most compelling were precisely the parts whose sameness I cherished—and whose sameness I suspect most of her readers will cherish, too. Not the reckoning with cult icons of literary boozing, but the parts about why Jamison drank—how it quelled her anxiety and made her feel alive. She documents the milestones in her academic career (undergrad at Harvard, a masters at Iowa, a Ph.D. at Yale) alongside her evolving tendencies toward self-destruction (cutting in high school, anorexia in college, drinking in postgrad). She’s ruthless in assessing how predictable this all sounds, given her advantages and her compulsion to overachieve. “It makes me cringe, looking back at my own theatrical production of angst,” she writes of slicing her own ankles as a teenager. Later, she deduces that her “ability to find drunken dysfunction appealing—to fetishize its relationship to genius—was a privilege of having never really suffered.”