Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat + Obsession by Julie Powell.

Let’s start with the obvious:  I’m a blogger and a writer and a lover of food and dogs and Julia Child, and sometimes I can be deplorably unpleasant.  This is what is called a character flaw, but I think that — when combined with my devotion to my friends and my knack for color-coordination, let’s say — it adds depth to, well, my character.  As readers, we don’t need to like the characters we encounter; what we do need is for those characters to have some sort of humanizing trait that make us care about them.  For example, a huge part of what makes Neil Gaiman‘s iconic Sandman comic book series so incredibly readable is the fact that the major players are terribly flawed.  Their losses wouldn’t cut as deeply if we the readers weren’t invested in them; the same could be said about their gains.

In other words, likable characters are boring.

That said, I hate the Julie Powell portrayed in Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, a memoir written by the blogger herself.  I don’t say I hate this portrayal because I wanted the perkier, Amy Adams version; I’m putting it like this, in a vaguely diplomatic way, because I kind of feel as though I need to give Ms. Powell the benefit of the doubt.  I’m fully aware that the way we describe ourselves via our own writing is ineffably skewed… but maybe that’s my problem.  Maybe I read this memoir while banking too much on the dumb hope that Ms. Powell would eventually reveal herself to be — well, more fully realized.  I don’t care that she comes across as utterly unlikable, but she needs to throw me a bone or two in regards to the rest of her character.  And yes, that was an intended pun.

I’m getting completely ahead of myself.

Cleaving picks up a few years after Ms. Powell finished writing Julie and Julia 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (why the chronic need to subtitle everything?), as she’s tangled up in an affair with an old boyfriend that she refers to coyly as D.  Her husband learns of this and has a revenge affair of his own, but ultimately he doesn’t want to leave Ms. Powell, who herself feels no inclination to either end her affair or her marriage.  Instead, for reasons which are never adequately explained, she heads out of Queens to become an apprentice butcher in Kingston, New York.  When her apprenticeship comes to its end, Ms. Powell, still floundering, hits the road again, this time stopping in Argentina, the Ukraine, Japan and Tanzania; supposedly she’s traveling in order to learn more about meat, and how different cultures kill, cook and eat it, but really, she’s running from her husband, a fact Ms. Powell acknowledges.

Ms. Powell acknowledges a lot more than just this, though.  She depicts in great detail her escapades with D: bondage, biting and banging, oh my.  It doesn’t bother me that Ms. Powell loves being tied up, it just bores me; each so-called sexy scenelet seems to have been written strictly to provoke and show off.  It’s as though Ms. Powell is gleefully nudging the reader in the ribs and saying, “Did you get to the part where he throws me down so hard he bruises me?  What did you think about the part where we strip each other?  What about when we dry humped while my husband slept in the adjacent room?  Isn’t my sex life so hot?”

This self-satisfied aura pervades the entire book, and the frequency with which Ms. Powell congratulates herself in one fashion or another was utterly fascinating to me.  She describes herself as sexy, as alluring, as inviting.  At one point, when explaining why she so loves the text message, Ms. Powell writes, “With written words I can persuade, tease, seduce.  My words are what make me desirable.”

Not so, I say.

Ms. Powell’s words are interesting only when she’s writing about butchery and Fleischer’s, the butcher’s shop in which she apprentices.  Here the writing is almost lovely and at times quite fine, but once Ms. Powell leaves the shop behind…  the word self-absorbed comes to mind first, with masturbatory stepping on its heels.  Do we need two hundred odd pages of utterly dull, completely abrading twaddle about Ms. Powell stalking D after he’s dumped her, about Ms. Powell complaining that she doesn’t think it’s fair that she has to break up with someone she doesn’t want to break up with, about Ms. Powell forever checking her BlackBerry to see if D has sent her yet another racy SMS?  Not only that, do we need Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotation after quotation?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Buffy fan — I’m rewatching season two on Hulu right now, and I still laugh at the bitca scene — but do I use the show as a touchstone for my life?  And if I did, would I really write about it at length, knowing that the possibility existed that a good portion of my readers wouldn’t know what the heck I was talking about?*

Ugh.

Basically, what I’m trying to say rather poorly is this: a well-constructed story — whether it’s told on the page or on the screen, and regardless of if it’s fictional or factual — entices the audience.  Its characters must somehow impress themselves onto that audience, and the narrative must purposely propel itself forward.  Ms. Powell’s characters, though they are effectively real people, fail to enrapture, and her wandering wallowing is absolutely aimless.  Inertia is something that I can understand, as is engaging in contentious behavior, but I want to stress that I don’t think Cleaving‘s fault lies in Ms. Powell’s having had an affair, or for being torn between her husband and her lover.  Affairs make for great drama — would The Great Gatsby even have a story if it were not for the infidelities of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom and Myrtle?  The difference is that Cleaving is made up of melodrama, none of which is at all great.

* This is one of the first things that Steve Almond told me, as my college writing instructor, when I wrote a terrible, god-awful and humiliating scene referencing I Know What You Did Last Summer, which coincidentally also starred Sarah Michelle Gellar Prinze.
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10 thoughts on “Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat + Obsession by Julie Powell.

    • Thank you very much. I would hope Ms. Powell would disagree. I may not have liked her writing, but I do think a writer should stand by her work. Whether it is well-reviewed or not.

    • See, the butchering didn’t bother me. I did feel queasy after reading awful vainglorious paragraph after paragraph, but not after reading about taking an animal apart and turning it into meat. Or eating head cheese or drinking raw blood. (Is there such a thing as cooked blood?) Those parts were interesting. Everything else was not.

  1. I agree with everything you say. I hated the Julie Powell protrayed in Cleaving as much as I loved the Julie Powell in Julie and Julia. It looks to me like part of the problems is that Ms Powell is now a success and no loner has to listen to an Editor. If you read the Julie/Julia Project and then read Julie and Julia you saw a marked difference in the blog and the book-she makes countless Buffy comments in the blog for example, but none of them found their way into the book that I recall.

    • It’s hard to state that the characterization of an author in his or her own memoir is unlikable, particularly because that character is a real person. That said, the memoirist willingly makes him- or herself into a character, and a very specific one as well — it’s utterly unavoidable when writing about oneself. I can’t say whether or not Ms. Powell followed her editor’s advice (or even if her editor gave her advice on anything at all), but I can say without a doubt that this book is incredibly flawed. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a judgment on Ms. Powell herself, for the record. Just the Ms. Powell that appears on the page.

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