Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Food for thought: On Marie Calloway's what purpose did i serve in your life

what purpose did i serve in your life by Marie Calloway what purpose did i serve in your life (4 June 2013) by Marie Calloway

I didn't really know anything about Marie Calloway before I read this book. I'd heard her name, and I had heard of her well-known story 'Adrien Brody' (though I hadn't read it), but I was (and remain) largely ignorant of the minimalist literary 'scene' she is part of. I mention this because it means I can't really assess what purpose did i serve in your life in context, only on its own merits as a standalone piece of work.

Calloway's writing is matter-of-fact, honest, often clinical and very candid. In a collage of short stories/autobiographical pieces, excerpts from conversations and Facebook screenshots, she describes a number of experiences, which range from a fling with a writer who is in a relationship (the subject of 'Adrien Brody'), forays into sex work in London, a threesome with internet acquaintances, and experimentation with BDSM (short, sharp excerpts which must be about the same person she describes in this article), to details of the start of her fledgling career as a writer, primarily her anxieties around whether she deserves success and attention, as well as dealing with the accompanying criticism. As she uses a pseudonym and changes people's names (although it's not much of an attempt to disguise them; it took me seconds on Google to identify the real 'Adrien Brody') it's technically possible to see these pieces as fiction, but in the act of reading them it is near-impossible to see them as anything other than non-fiction.

It's interesting to see Calloway and her peers hailed as the first wave of writers from the internet generation, because parts of this book reminded me a lot of stuff I used to write and frequently saw others write back in the day on Livejournal, Diaryland et al (more than a decade ago in some cases). Interesting to note how in those days, online journals had a very confessional feel and were more like no-holds-barred diaries, whereas now that everyone (not just the weird kids) is all over social media, blogging has become a much more impersonal, almost corporate thing, and writing like Calloway's is again regarded as unusually frank. Before this book I'd forgotten all about it, but I was reminded of a similarly candid and numb bad-casual-sex story I wrote up in my Livejournal years ago, which elicited a mixed response from my 'audience'. (I really wish I could find it for comparison, but I think the only copy is a printed version which is buried in a folder somewhere, probably at my mum's house.) I remember my friends writing about all sorts of sordid experiences in a similarly straightforward, if not quite so detached, style. Anyway, my thought was that it's quite easy to read what purpose did i serve in your life and think 'absolutely nobody would ever do that' or 'thank god I haven't had sexual experiences like that' but, if you imagine things that have happened to you and things you've done written down in this same detached, warts-and-all style...

At certain points I related to Calloway so much I felt I could have written parts of this book myself; at others I felt completely alienated from the narrative to the point that I found myself thinking 'surely things like this don't actually happen/people don't actually behave like this in real life'; at others I just felt really sorry for her. What I think I came to realise most of all over the course of reading this was that you rarely see writing this embarrassingly honest, and it really highlights how different and surprising the experiences of the individual can be. I kind of agree with those who've said anyone could have written this, but I don't think that necessarily has to be a bad thing or a reason to dismiss the book. In fact, I think it's a big part of what makes it interesting: so few people write about their life in this fashion, especially so publicly, that it seems fresh and different. Although whether you'll agree with that depends on your perspective, and what you're used to reading. Personally, I have encountered writing like Calloway's 'privately' but rarely in the public sphere or in widely read fiction/autobiographical pieces. It does very much feel like you're reading the thoughts of someone who is still processing and coming to terms with the effects of the very events she is describing (another way in which Calloway's book is very similar to those Livejournal posts of old); it even seems that you can sense Calloway maturing as the narrative progresses.

A few times in the book, Calloway writes about not being able to articulate what she really wants to say, and it feels as though the reader is expected to either infer this meaning from what surrounds it, or draw their own conclusions, like the critics whose vicious comments she displays in one chapter, superimposed over a gallery of her own 'selfies'. I find it similarly difficult to articulate everything this book made me feel and think. I found it so interesting, but can't really say I enjoyed reading it, as such - I sometimes found it quite exhausting/stressful, and that's the primary reason I haven't given it a higher rating. It's more of a piece of work to analyse and assess than it is a novel/biography/collection of stories to take pleasure in reading. In that, it is arguably closer to true art than most books. I may not have found this to be a technically 'good' book but it is certainly one of the most thought-provoking things I have read in a while, and I will follow Calloway's future progress as a writer with great interest.

Rating: 7/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Paperback

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