March 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Things I've Learned from the Women Who've Dumped Me edited by Ben Karlin

Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me is a collection of essays (and a dialogue, and a couple of cartoons, and some diary entries and letters) by mostly famous or vaguely famous men. I wanted it to be filled with laugh-to-keep-from-weeping tales of brutal rejection and romantic woe. Or, even if the dumpings weren’t that bad, I was way more drawn in by the “women who’ve dumped me” part of the title than the “things I’ve learned” part.

The pieces in Things I’ve Learned are pretty funny, but I ended up disappointed by some of them. Each piece in this anthology should be a writer’s story about a particular woman who he was dating and/or sleeping with, who actually broke up with him. It’s not that I wouldn’t love to read about Neal Pollock coming all over his little cat, Gabby, in some other context -- but she wasn’t really a woman, and she didn’t really dump him (she died). Larry Wilmore writes about his baby daughter as “the love of his life.” Bob Kerrey writes about a figure skater he never met, who died, and who of course never dumped him, but at least she wasn’t a cat. Or a baby.

Stephen Colbert’s essay, “The Heart is a Choking Hazard,” starts with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer that “before I turned in [this story], I thought it best to turn it over to my wife to make sure I didn’t reveal anything too personal, say anything defamatory, or in any way appear to be holding a candle for my former flame. As a result, the story has been mildly redacted, but the heart of it is, I believe, untouched.” The punch line is that the story is almost entirely blacked out. With this amusing little schtick, I think Colbert has hit on a true critique of the collection overall. Several of the stories have the barely-concealed subtext, “I love my wife! My wife is so great! And long-suffering! And totally not fat, or old-looking, or nagging! The theme ‘women who’ve dumped me’ doesn’t at all bring to mind the multi-orgasmic Swedish anthropologist who was the first woman who made me think I might want children someday, or the girl I lost my virginity to whose youthful breasts I dream of at random moments when I’m hunched over my computer. You know what it makes me think of? When our little daughter was born and she seemed to like you better than she liked me, but then her first word was daddy. That’s what it makes me think of, honey!”

Ladlit guru Nick Hornby’s introduction is ultimately a paean to his wife -- e-mails headed “New plans for car tax” might sound boring, he claims, but back when he was in more tumultuous relationships, he “never had the time or the concentration to write books” or even to read them. “Everything was focused on trying to get my romantic life right… I get e-mails about fishcakes because there’s absolutely nothing to say about the other stuff: it just is, day after day, and that seems like a miracle.” Hornby’s High Fidelity was a great, quick read, but it rankled and haunted me for years because so many readers and reviewers found it romantic, and to me it was the story of a man who is threatened by passion (I might be paraphrasing, but I remember the protagonist thinking one of his exes was “too pretty, too smart, too witty, too much”), and who finally settles for blandness and mediocrity in the name of “maturity,” because god knows being with a stunning, exciting woman is immature. Interestingly, Hornby suggests here that, “Cynics might say these beautiful, fantastic women who have taken us on actually looked at us a few years ago, found us wanting, and have since come back to us, having argued themselves into believing that, actually, we aren’t that bad, all things considered.” Hmm. For the fictional characters in High Fidelity, it’s the other way around. 

I can’t help feeling that the pieces that are mostly about the greatness of the authors’ wives protest too much. After all, one of the most excellent true-life dumping stories in the book, Andy Selsberg’s “A Grudge Can Be Art” -- “Watching the person you want to touch, who doesn’t want to touch you, sleep in your bed, in your boxer shorts, is searing. ‘Awkward’ would’ve been a vacation.” -- was written by a man who now lives (happily, I bet) with a fiancé and (live) cat. I meanly suspect that the authors writing about being “dumped” by their baby daughters and the like are scared of stirring up bad blood with candid tales of past heartbreak. In some other cases (Neal Pollack?), maybe the author simply had no experience as a dumpee, or none that equaled the interest value of ejaculating on a loyal pet.

I had the same qualms about Fired!: Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, & Dismissed (Annabelle Gurwitch, Ed.) -- every piece in that volume should have been a tale of getting fired. Not of a job so bad that the writer quit, and not a survey of the author's zany job history, but a story true to the title, in which someone else decided that the author wasn’t good enough and canned him. Period. Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame (Robin Robertson, Ed.) has a slightly better track record, because shame is a broader subject than getting fired or dumped, but even that book could have been nipped and tucked to get rid of the half-assed confessionals by writers who had never actually been humiliated or weren’t willing to level about it. I can’t be the only reader who picks up titles like Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me or Mortification or Fired! because I’m looking forward to a little healthy schadenfreude. In fact, many readers drawn to such titles are probably feeling vulnerable and wounded. We want to laugh until we feel better, and we want to know that famous or vaguely famous people have been shamed, fired or dumped.

The actual dumpings in Things I’ve Learned are satisfying and soothing for the rejected and dejected reader, like scratching a mean itch. But there’s no reason we should have to weed through disingenuous paeans to some dude’s wife or baby to get to the good stuff.  

Things I've Learned from the Women Who Dumped Me edited by Ben Karlin
Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 0446580694
240 Pages