New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2017. 320 pages. $26.00.
There will certainly be many reviews of Abandon Me that praise Melissa Febos for her bravery, and that praise will be well-deserved. However, it would be misleading to say that all the bravery comes just from what she discusses (her sex life, her history with addiction, her childhood insecurities). While these topics do require a level of courage to discuss, it is the way that she approaches them that makes her work interesting and remarkable. After the age of irony and clever or snarky tweets, it is refreshing to see a work that is as earnest and heartfelt as Abandon Me. When Febos meditates upon the movie Labyrinth, for instance, without sarcasm or hesitation the reader is drawn in by both the genuine insight created and also the straightforward, unapologetic tone that Febos strikes. There is no backtracking or self-conscious giggle about rooting a reflection in a movie with puppets; Febos trusts her material and her reader to engage with the emotional core of the material.
Even through this earnestness, Febos manages to add in a complexity and density that keeps the work interesting as she gives an honest, sometimes sentimental examination of her life. After all, not every book ranges over as diverse topics as David Bowie, Borges, and Jungian analysis. These wide ranging interests help to make Abandon Me a lively, surprising, and distinctive book. In the aforementioned essay “Labyrinths,” for instance, Febos takes the movie’s basic themes of searching and identity and uses them to examine a sense of power and desire in both her own life and the movie. She cleverly uses the movie’s young protagonist as a stand-in for her own search for a strong sense of identity during her adolescence, allowing the reader both to connect to and laugh at the awkwardness and frustration of her teenage years. In the essay, Febos writes, “In the decade of sobriety that has followed, I have replaced my instinct for secrecy with an instinct for confession,” a dangerous proposition that could easily lead her work to devolve into flat self-indulgence, a kind of literary version of the selfie. But the focus on herself is offset by the precision and patience found in the structure and language of these essays. “Labyrinth” looks at the notion of searching through conceptual, emotional, and cultural lenses. The complexity of this discussion counterbalances the novelty of focusing on a Jim Henson movie.
In the title essay (the core of the book even if it is the last), Febos looks at her mixed-race heritage, her relationship with various family members, and an unhealthy romantic relationship. She finds a way to make sense of how her life can include her liberal, elite friends and co-workers as well as her down-on-his-luck biological father. She also manages this without choosing sides, giving context to her father’s family and a careful examination of her friends’ beliefs, behaviors, and interactions. To do all this while maintaining a sense of coherence is no small task. At well over one hundred pages, the essay demonstrates a remarkable level of discipline and reflection to allow all the storylines to both progress and interweave in a natural way.
The other element counterbalancing some of the more earnest moments of Febos’s writing is her clear sense of humor. The piece “Leave Marks” is a rare mediation on hickies that balances humor with a direct honesty. Lines like, “But even my tenderness for kittens includes an impulse to put them in my mouth,” are strange and funny in a way that establishes Febos’s distinctive voice and vision. Other lines like “the heart is a callous repo man” from the titular essay move a bit closer to being overly serious, but they still serve to make the book funny and surprising. These small moments provide welcome comic relief during sometimes heady or emotionally dense writing.
For much of the book, there is a genuine sense of weight and intellectual rigor. In a variety of essays, Febos reflects upon long-distance relationships and the difference between the idea of a lover and the actual experience of one. This marks a level of continuity from her first book, Whip Smart, which focused on her experience as a professional dominatrix. It also marks a natural shift, moving from material that was shocking to a more subdued but still engaging discussion of personal relationships. It’s a very logical move, setting herself up for a long career with an interesting arc rather than pushing the envelope in an unsustainable way. She has found a way to investigate universal tensions while straddling academic, theoretical discussions and more personal, confessional writing. She also is very candid while talking about her sex life, her drug addiction, and her brother’s mental illness. While these might seem like fodder for confessional writing, Febos treats them in a natural and understated way, never playing them for shock value. Instead, the focus is on Febos’s internal life, her insecurities, her growth, and her desire to find some kind of sense within her sprawling life narrative.
In particular, Febos’s inclusion of her father and her older lover creates an interesting parallel. Her hands-off father lets her examine both her roots and her wanderlust, and her focus on her older lover lets her consider both her self-awareness and her neediness. These dual tensions help to provide an engaging through line for a book with wide-ranging topics and very complex reflections. It shows a sense of maturity and discipline as a writer that gives the reader clear rewards throughout the book. It suggests that there is interesting reflection and research for Febos to share going forward. This makes Abandon Me an interesting study onto itself and a significant work from Febos.
It will certainly be interesting to track where Febos goes from here. It would be easy to view Abandon Me as a magnum opus. This long and sprawling book looks at a very large section of her life, and it covers very intense, very personal ground. After Febos discusses how she abandons her friends and support system in favor of the clearly manipulative lover, it has a kind of ultimate effect. There is a sense in which Febos overcomes the greatest obstacle of her life, and it also looks forward, thinking about examining her heritage and her life within the literary scene. All of this material makes the book one not to be missed.