Book Review: Vivian Wagner on Chloe Caldwell’s Essay Collection I’ll Tell You in Person


In her new book of essays, I’ll Tell You in Person, Chloe Caldwell has the voice of a best girlfriend confiding all of her deepest, darkest secrets—about acne and drugs, sex and binge eating. Caldwell makes it seem easy to speak with such a lively and intimate voice, but that’s only because she’s a masterful writer. It takes both a fair amount of guts and a fine sense of craft to create the airy, breezy, cavalier persona who inhabits these essays. And it takes even more skill—and heart—to make that persona likeable.

The collection begins with a kind of prologue essay called “In Real Life.” It’s a meta-essay about the process of writing and publishing, and about Caldwell’s discovery of and love for the personal essay form. It’s also an homage to an essay by Miki Howald called “Mono No Aware,” which inspired Caldwell to become an essayist herself. As she says, “I realized I’d found something I didn’t want to quit, something I desired, something I wanted to show up for.” Essay writing, in other words, saved her from herself, even as it gave her a way to express and create that self.

In the following essay, “Prime Meats,” she tells a story of her reckless young days in New York working for a jewelry store, drinking, hanging out with her friend Ana, and meeting men. She and Ana put an ad on Craigslist to help them in their pursuit of men. They don’t, however, want to date these men, at least, not exactly. Rather, they make it clear that they’re just looking for food and drink—scotch and steaks, specifically. Their ad reads as follows:

Steak and Scotch

Hey sexy bros, who wants to buy some prime bitches some prime
meat and drink obscene amounts of liquor? Let’s kick it.
P.S. We’re psycho (in a fun way) and we want to
give you surveys.

It’s a good laugh for a time, and Caldwell romps through this period with all of her signature candor and humor. The essay reaches its apex, though, when her mom comments that it’s a dangerous thing to be doing. Caldwell eventually takes this evaluation to heart, despite herself, and in the last part of the essay, she essentially grows up, seeing that part of her life with her mother’s eyes and through her own newfound wisdom. When she and Ana meet one of their previous “dates” on the street, they go for coffee with him. Caldwell says, though, “I had my guard up the whole time.” This turn is key to Caldwell’s style. It’s a moment of growing up, of realization, of change, and it casts a sympathetic light on all the Sex and the City-type antics of the rest of the essay. It’s a turn, essentially, toward likeability. And, as in several other essays in this collection, it’s also a turn toward her mother.

It is that kind of moment that makes me love Caldwell’s work. If it were all simply about the hapless adventures of her twenties, I’d get bored and annoyed pretty quickly. What Caldwell does well with each essay, though, is to bring in a perspective of age and experience, without coming across as judgmental about her younger self. In fact, she shows a remarkable sense of care, both for that younger self and for everyone else she writes about. It’s her deep and enduring compassion that gives Caldwell’s essays both their literary and their moral backbone.

All of the essays have a similar turn. In “Hungry Ghost,” for instance, she tells a story of preparing herself and her apartment for a visit from an unnamed famous person, referred to simply as the “Celebrity.” She is infatuated with the woman, buying candles she can’t afford and gift-bagging a book, The Writer and her Work, to offer to her. It’s a book, it turns out, that Caldwell’s mom had given her, but anything for the Celebrity, right? The Celebrity, however, never shows, and Caldwell comes back to earth, returns to herself, and reconnects with what really matters to her—true friends, family, and her own sanity. And reclaiming that book as her own is part of this process: “I groggily walked over to the bag, untied the ribbon, but the gift bag in the recycling, and put my book back on the shelf where it belonged.”

In “Failing Singing,” she tells of how she once took voice lessons and considered herself a singer. She doesn’t, however, like to advertise that fact: “Telling people you stopped singing is something you regret the moment the words leave your mouth. It’s meant to impress, but it backfires and disappoints. It just makes you look like a loser. A giver-upper. A has-been. Possibly even a liar.” What she discovers, though, is that she’s discovered a new love: writing. And in a beautifully-subtle moment at the end of the essay, she sees a photo of herself giving a reading and thinks, “I look like I’m singing.” It’s a moving scene, showing us both her fear of failure and her shy pride in at last finding her calling.

The final section of the book deals with her love of women and her conflicted bisexuality, and in this territory, too, Caldwell has a disarmingly good-natured voice that ends up exploring difficult, emotional topics. In “Girls of my Youth,” she tells stories of early experiences with girlfriends, both as friends and as proto-lovers. In “The Laziest Coming Out Story You’ve Ever Heard,” she offers a list of anecdotes and vignettes about her inability, finally, to understand her own sexuality. And in “Maggie and Me: A Love Story,” she tells about her friendship with slam poet Maggie Estep—a friendship that barely had time to begin before Estep’s untimely death. All of the essays in this section play with terms, expectations, and the sexual continuum, but ultimately they celebrate the power of love and connectedness.

Caldwell’s essays are fun to read, and by the end of the collection I felt like I’d made a new friend who’d invited me into a long, extended conversation that I didn’t want to end. So now I’m looking forward to her next book. And her next after that.

I’ll Tell You in Person, by Chloe Caldwell. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press/Emily Books, October 2016. 184 pages. $16.95, paper.

Vivian Wagner, author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.

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