We might hope that the coincidence on the best-seller lists of Nora Ephron’s funny, sisterly collection of essays I Feel Bad About My Neck and Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, a book that explores the mendacity, incompetence, and corruption of the war effort in Iraq, or, this week, Bob Woodward’s State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III on the same subject, implies something encouraging about our national character—our realism and appetite for self-criticism. At least the success of these books reflects, beyond their intrinsic merit, our hunger for candor. Oscar Wilde said something about England being the capital of hypocrisy, but the US, outdoing England in many of the qualities we inherited from it, may have now surpassed it there, so that the rare appearance of truthfulness is gratefully rewarded wherever it should be found. Ephron addresses many commonplace hypocrisies, among them:
Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better. Even if you have all your marbles, you’re constantly reaching for the name of the person you met the day before yesterday. Even if you’re in great shape, you can’t chop an onion the way you used to….
Where books written for seniors are apt to be full of unconvincing cheer, Ephron’s charming book of self-questioning, confession, and resolve faces the reality that she’s sixty-five, dyes her hair, and is not happy about her neck, her purse, her failure at ambitious exercise programs, and other personal failures shared by many of us. She gives further salient examples of ways old is not as good as young: “We can’t wear tank tops, we have no idea who 50 Cent is…,” “I’m sorry to report, I have a mustache,” she’s shocked to discover she’s shopping in the same store as Nancy Reagan, and the true nightmare of the empty nest is that the kids “were the only people in the house who knew how to use the remote control.”
None of these confrontations with mortality is arcane, all are universal, and people of either sex can relate to them, despite the gender-specific nature of some of the complaints and the subtitle “and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman.” She dislikes purses, for example, and no doubt would be especially against them for men. Some of her observations concern regrettable tendencies in modern society, such as that “parenting” has supplanted the mere condition of being a parent. Where once you might have said to your children “BECAUSE I SAY SO. THAT’S WHY,” you now have to say “we should talk about this.”
Many readers of I Feel Bad About My Neck will be familiar already with Ephron the accomplished human being—director of successful films like Sleepless in Seattle—and the hapless heroine/narrator in her earlier writings, especially Heartburn, a novel based on the breakup of her marriage to the journalist Carl Bernstein, which also became a film, or her collected essays, Crazy Salad, among others. She’s one of only a few American essayists with a public persona—one thinks of Will Rogers, or Calvin Trillin, maybe Benjamin Franklin, Steve Martin, and Woody Allen.
Since Ephron is also a screenwriter, she comes to prose writing with the strengths of that too-often-dismissed art, especially a talent for incisive compression; this is a book of only 137 pages, of deceptive simplicity and accessibility confided in a sort of plainspoken Will Rogers manner. Life can be compressed into thirty-three handy maxims, among which:
Buy, don’t rent.
Don’t buy anything that is 100 percent wool even if it seems to be very soft and not particularly itchy when you try it on in the store.
You can’t be friends with people who call after 11 PM.
The plane is not going to crash.
Overtip. [Will Rogers himself, slightly more cynical, said, “I wonder if it isn’t just cowardice instead of generosity that makes us give tips.”]
In her chapter “On Maintenance,” she acknowledges that she is, as are we all, “only about eight hours a week away” from looking like a bag lady, with the
frizzled flyaway gray hair I would probably have if I stopped dyeing mine; with a potbelly I would definitely develop if I ate just half of what I think about eating every day; with the dirty nails and chapped lips and mustache and bushy eyebrows that would be my destiny if I ever spent two weeks on a desert island.
I’m not sure if necks are yet a preoccupation in Kansas, or if people outside of Los Angeles or New York could even find ways of spending eight hours a week on how they look, but most will respond to the underlying anxiety: anxiety is the shared emotion of Fiasco and I Feel Bad About My Neck, both books, and a slew of others, like Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese?, tapping the same national mood of decline.
Anxiety drives the appetite for still other best sellers. The voice of Ephron’s modest, truthful, confiding klutz is an interesting contrast to Mireille Guiliano’s in her lofty French Women Don’t Get Fat, another recent blockbuster characterized by a gloating tone of superiority and impatience with pathetic American women, their lack of discipline, and their lack of enlightened ancestresses:
The great majority of Americans are conditioned to demand and accept bland, processed, chemically treated, generally unnatural foods, which through packaging and marketing have been made to seem wholesome. I have no doubt that any people made to eat this way would in time become fat. Among the French, by contrast, a love of good, natural food is part of the universal patrimony.
Hard to enumerate the anxieties animated by these two sentences alone; Americans flocked to buy Guiliano’s book.
The hapless character Ephron has presented over the years may be the real Ephron, or not. The actual Ephron is praised by friends as smart, a perfect housekeeper, much prettier than the person she began depicting in Wallflower at the Orgy, her essays from the Seventies, a wonderful cook, etc., etc. It’s sound rhetorical strategy. Of all the ways of being funny, self-deprecation is more endearing than satire, and runs a smaller risk of backlash. Hyperbole gets a laugh too:
Your adolescent is ungrateful. You have a vague memory of having been accused by your parents of being ungrateful, but what did you have to be grateful for? Almost nothing.
Rueful discussions of depressing age-related discoveries are sure-fire ways to get a laugh.
For those who aren’t worried about their necks, she includes some gossip: the famous novelist who tells his one-night stands to help themselves to one of his books from a box by the door as they leave. (The name appearing in the galley proof has been excised in the published edition.) A real couple remains: the Jays, the then British ambassador to the US and his wife, the homewreckers disguised in Heartburn, are quoted here. There’s an essay about the endlessly fascinating topic of New York real estate, occasioned when Ephron’s rent-controlled apartment went to market value and her rent was raised 400 percent. There’s useful information—did you know that StriVectin-SD is “simply skin lotion?”
How delightful to dig out from the back of my shelf some of the cookbooks I used in the Sixties, like The Gourmet Cookbook, or the calendars of French cooking by Samuel Chamberlain, reminded of them by Ephron’s essay “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir,” which accounts for her life by looking back on her cookery manuals. All in all, this funny book offers the pleasures of recognition rather than discovery; in an anxious world, her epigrams have a serious, consoling utility, as when she writes, “There is nothing you can do. Trust me.”