Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Rules Do Not Apply

My stylish friend from New York had Ariel Levy’s memoir, THE RULES DO NOT APPLY, at the top of her list. So, when I saw the book perched on the shelf at our down-home, trusty library, I figured I’d best snap it up. I may live in the boonies, but NYC non-fiction keeps me fresh.

Of Levy’s memoir, I devoured it in the course of a few days. Cheryl Strayed read the thing in “one long, rapt sitting.” There’s a compulsion to the book’s style, an almost-addictive quality also present in Cat Marnell’s NYC tell-all, HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE. Levy’s memoir shares other qualities with Marnell’s; both analyze addiction, writing, and how to sustain the two. But where Marnell’s book languishes in the booze, the pills, and the name brands, Levy’s transcends a hip Manhattan life to encompass the realm of motherhood, the life of a New York City lesbian, and the landscape of a wild Mongolian steppe. Levy’s book is about living as an urbanite, a social climber, a hipster intellectual. It’s also about living as a daughter, a wife, a traveler, a philosopher, and a mother—even if that motherhood only lasted for a moment.

Ariel Levy, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, won the National Magazine Award in 2014 for her essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” The essay, published with The New Yorker in 2013, describes Levy’s decision to travel to Mongolia for an assignment – at five months pregnant. Empowered by the strength of her own body and the heat of her skyrocketing career, Levy promises herself the risk is worth it: I would teach my child the power of fearlessness,” she writes. “I would tell him, ‘When you were inside of me, we went to see the edge of the earth.’"
What happens over the course of The New Yorker essay – and THE RULES DO NOT APPLY – is brutal to read. Ultimately, Levy loses her child on the floor of a Mongolian bathroom in a hotel room. She’s alone, and for a few moments, the baby is alive. She snaps a picture with her phone. Afterwards, numb with grief, she shows people the photo of the tiny baby, born too early to ever have survived, and the essay ends with her guilt, her sorrow, and her shame. Just when you think you’ve got everything, the essay seemed to be saying, the rules suddenly apply.

THE RULES DO NOT APPLY: A MEMOIR is “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” expanded. In just over 200 pages, Levy explores her career as a journalist and, eventually, a New Yorker contributor. Complexity abounds in this memoir, whose style mirrors a chronicle by Joan Didion or Cheryl Strayed—the narration jumps in time and place, but remains anchored a singular, traumatic incident. From stories of Levy’s grandmother, Tanya, a bold Russian immigrant, to details of assignments from all over the world—Africa, Los Angeles, Maureen Dowd’s apartment—Levy shows us how she fought for what she wanted, and how, for the longest time, she had it all.

The book’s strongest passages explore with courage Levy’s long-term relationship with Lucy, a brazen, assertive gold star who takes the narrator under her expert wing. THE RULES DO NOT APPLY is punctuated with examinations of the wealth dynamics at play in the relationship, the roles each woman assume, and, most fascinatingly, Lucy’s decline into alcohol addiction. In that realm, THE RULES DO NOT APPLY is reminiscent of Sue William Silverman’s extraordinary memoir LOVE SICK: ONE WOMAN’S JOURNEY THROUGH SEXUALADDICTION. Both narrators explore the role of addict from the viewpoints of the psychologists they’ve worked with; the result is a revelatory discussion of addiction, made more personal – and hugely more interesting – by the medium—the essay or memoir form. 

THE RULES DO NOT APPLY belies its name, for the book, in the end, is about how the rules really do apply, however hard we try to escape their scope. Slurring words really does mean she’s drunk. It really does get harder to get pregnant as you age. And as Maureen Dowd shrewdly tells our narrator, “Everyone doesn’t get everything.”