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Modern Love, Classic Problem

I always read “Modern Love,” short essays about relationships in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, usually right after I scan the “Weddings/Celebrations” section for announcements of marriages and confirmation ceremonies for same-sex couples. “Modern Love” essays are uneven: sometimes poignant or drop-dead funny, but other times overbearingly snarky or just predictable in a tediously overconscious-Easterner way, which I find is usually the case when the byline states “X is a writer living in [insert borough].”

The byline warned me today (“Raya Kuzyk is a writer living in Brooklyn”), but I still wasn’t ready for “Point 1: We Had Fun,” an essay that presented itself as a rollicking knee-slapper penned by a snarky young woman who–get this, nyuck nyuck–had been involved for over two years with a man engaged to someone else. This sad if unremarkable story was supposedly leavened by the author’s approach to the break-up, in which at a restaurant bar she pages through a PowerPoint presentation that includes slide titles such as “We Start Sleeping Together” and “It’s Just Taking Too Much Energy” but curiously omits sensibilities such as “I Feel Guilty,” “This Isn’t Right,” or “We’re Hurting Others, Too.”

You might think a modern jeune filles privileged enough to take marriage for granted, but conscious that it is not a privilege shared by all, would have just a little sensitivity to the moral implications of infidelity compounded with long-term deceit, but not Kuzyk. I read the essay three times, hoping to land on the moment where the narrator has a growing moment, like Emma’s famous “developement of self,” where she grasps, hey, you know, maybe other people are affected by my behavior. Maybe what I’m doing is wrong. She does conclude at the end that her approach to the breakup taught her she was “emotionless and inconsiderate,” but it’s a drive-by conclusion that doesn’t quite do justice to the violations of trust underlying this story. The essay ends with her realization that the breakup turned “ugly.” I suppose the next time she has a long-term relationship with someone involved with someone else, she’ll wrap it up much more tidily, perhaps with a brief Flash summary.

After I finally set down the Styles section (no same-sex couples in today’s “Weddings/Celebrations” section, either; oh grey Sunday) I began pondering the question of genre. I assume that “Modern Love” essays are nonfiction, and that things happened more or less as they are presented in these pieces, barring a little buff and polish here and there to make the truth of the piece read more smoothly. But I had never asked myself if an essay couldn’t be factually true in a superficial sense yet fundamentally false in other ways–even though, in workshops, the issue of the narrator’s beliefs or credibility do come up for discussion. (One of my better essays emerged from an instructor’s comment that she didn’t believe my feelings in a piece.)

If the external elements are true to life–he was engaged to someone else, she wrote a Powerpoint presentation, he had a second drink without saying anything and then left the restaurant bar to go home–is the essay true? Most of the arguments about the boundaries of nonfiction focus on this question, and here the answer should be an obvious “yes.”

However, what if the author is superficially honest about her own feelings, but not willing or able to see the deeper moral or ethical implications of an essay, which I suspect is the case in “Point 1: We Had Fun”? Even there, I conclude, it’s still a true piece, no matter how marred the essay may be by failures of craft.

Kuzyk’s essay reminds me that the truth of nonfiction is an elusive goal–a target for the writer never fully in reach any more than a writer can faithfully replicate the facts of an essay and still produce something readable and meaningful. I’m now simultaneously reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, both books that rely extensively on a thinking, emoting, powerfully present narrator. Yet just as these books selectively present the physical facts of their stories–the sculpting and winnowing that characterize nonfiction–they must also selectively present the emotional truth of the writers’ experiences. I have to believe that sometimes Sebald sat on a park bench and thought about his benefit package at the university or whether he should get his shoes resoled, and that Agee’s reverence for his subjects was privately tempered from time to time by a wish for a nice steak dinner and a convivial evening among the smart set.

It may even be that the central weakness of Kuzyk’s essay is its fidelity to the emotional truth of the piece at the expense of understanding how that truth would be interpreted by the reader. Kuyzk wrote a less than effective, even annoying essay (“annoying” to those of us who are irritated when the Times squanders 1,000 words on a lesser writer knowing that many other good essays never make it out from under the slush pile), but she doesn’t violate any boundaries nonfiction writers don’t cross a thousand times over, all in service to the truth.

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