Review: Portrait inside My Head

Phillip Lopate is not exactly a household name, but he is one of the great living essayists. Against Joie de Vivre put him in the pantheon on the heels of his great books about his body, bachelorhood, and teaching in Harlem. His anthology of other people’s great essays — The Art of the Personal Essay — defined that pantheon.

His latest collection, Portrait inside My Head, is a melange of his memories and opinions, true to his essayistic principles and skill as a writer. Readers familiar with Lopate’s earlier work will instantly recognize his persona, with its kindly and research-inclined ethos. He has neither the x-ray vision of Zadie Smith nor the neurotic energy of Hunter S. Thompson, but something about his rich, fluid writing is thoroughly delightful; I’ve described him before as a cross between Sontag and Sedaris. Portrait is a minor work (basically an “uncollected writings”; it opens with an apology for lacking a theme) but a minor Lopate work is still a gift.

The first essay is a bittersweet story about Lopate and his wife trying to provide their daughter with “memories” — a word, Lopate observes, parents are encouraged to conflate with “price”, which matters little to children. The bulk of the story is the time the Lopates dropped $200 on a meal their daughter hated. The premise is ironic but the prose is not. Lopate carefully reconstructs his motives and feelings. It’s not quite as funny as he might intend and certain sentence constructions drag the reading experience down. Still - a more than auspicious start to the book; it is smart, touching and enjoyable.

Lopate keeps hitting that level of accomplishment. He somehow turns an essay with the sententious title The Lake of Suffering into a worthy read (it’s about his daughter, who spent her first few years hospitalized; the Mount Sinai ward his family essentially lived out of is the lake). He has a sweet reflection about rewatching films and changing his mind about them. His career in political activism ended with a TV interview where he saw a bird across the street and preferred to watch it than continue answering the reporter’s questions. A lengthy essay about his years writing poetry would, you’d think, be self-indulgent, but moves right along, has a few memorable snapshots, and provides neat insight into the artistic scenes he participated in. I didn’t get much out of his discussion of Stendhal, but his rant about a German author, On Not Reading Thomas Bernhard, is hilarious and deeply perceptive about his own thinking about reading (an example: after finishing a Bernhard novel, he spent months waiting to be asked about it).

Lopate has made his goals as an essayist clear in interviews and articles: an essay should “track consciousness”. It should be an “exercise in doubt”; the goal is not persuasion, but discovery. To understand Portrait, you should know that Lopate is the best practitioner of such thoughtful essays.

What makes Portrait— and pretty much anything Lopate writes — so good is complicated. One part is how willing to admit fault Lopate is. Mary Karr said that every book should be better than its writer. Unlike real life, where spur-of-the-moment cruelties, errors, and regrets pile up endlessly, a book can be fixed as it is written. A writer has infinite chances to leave his best self, and only his best self, on the page, and to make sure before publication that it is a product of his kindest and most generous self. Lopate does this.

Another part is that the essays are deep without being difficult. Lopate is a soi-disant non-perfectionist about his prose. But his thinking is great. Reading him is, as the New York Times described it, like listening to an interesting story-teller. It’s never a canned story, but he is never improvising. He has already plumbed all the depths of the issue that he needs to master it, and his range is wide. From Robert Moses’ legacy to lessons from teaching children in Harlem, Lopate has a facility with concepts that matter to him, issues and worries that he does not hide the amount of time he has spent worrying about (how lovingly he writes about movies in Portrait!). The reward is a clean, meaningful presentation. One never feels that a Lopate sentiment has been tossed off.

Lopate has spent a lot of time familiarizing himself with everything he writes about, including his own feelings and experiences, on a depth I rarely do; one feels how intimately he knows everything he writes about, how much time he has spent polishing the contours of his knowledge of it, how much it must have consumed his mind — he is able to present impressive nuance and depth with a conversational ease (best exemplified in Portrait by Confessions of a Wishy-Washy Liberal). He masters the topics he writes about by investing a lot of self-conscious thought in them — how to make this part clear? What do I feel about this complication?

Lopate wrote an obituary for Chantal Akerman overviewing her 40-year film career about a day after she died a few months ago. It was quite good. In its quick publication schedule and commentary on filmed drama, it was not unlike a magazine writer recapping a TV show from the night before. But Lopate had been a fan throughout Akerman’s career, and over decades spent so much time turning Akerman’s movies over in his mind, considering his reactions to them, that the piece read like an expert giving a short, accessible talk on a controversy in his field.

If Lopate’s popular profile is somewhat lower than Joan Didion’s or Marilynne Robinson’s his influence is still greater. It was Lopate who first put forward that an essay should give the reader insight into the writer’s consciousness, now taken as a truism and guiding principle of personal essays. Lopate, like Didion, is very old and probably will not be writing much longer. It may be worth it to have Google Alerts for each of their names, honestly, so we don’t miss anything they publish. As Susan Sontag said about Simone Weil: anything that comes from this particular mind is worth reading.