The Dead Ladies Project is a sometimes rollicking, sometimes panicked, but always insightful and moving chronicle of a series of intellectual apprenticeships, with 'guides' ranging from writers to philosophers to editors to composers. To give her investigations flesh, Crispin visits European cities important to each of her mentors’ lives, making her study at the same time a journey, an Intellectual Grand Tour.
Dead Ladies sometimes falls down the rabbit hole of Crispin's own frantic introspection. (There's a reason she worries about 'retreating so far into myself I'll never see daylight again.') And it's all over the place in terms of subject matter: sex, politics, history, philosophy, existential dread, gender dictates, difficult travel logistics, etc. But that's exactly what it needs to be: a rambling polymorphous beast, as raw as it is sophisticated, as quirky as it is intense.
The issues she considers — the politics of remembrance; art and the demands of the marketplace; identity and privilege — are important ones. But she often only skims the surface, oscillating herself between memoiristic musing and moments of historical and literary analysis, in what feels in the case of the latter like a bid not to be taken for the kind of woman who writes only of her interior.
Crispin's technique of locating herself in the lives of adopted expats is a wonderful organizational device, but credibility is worth exploring. Her reading of Irish activist/actress Maud Gonne, for instance, is simplified to the point of distortion... Is Gonne — and are the other figures — conveniently tailored to suit the essayist's needs? How much this matters is up to the reader.
There are nine cities in all, inhabited by a scattered collection of writers, muses and artists who have little in common. Gradually, they begin to feel arbitrary and Crispin’s reflections on them seem superficial. It is not true, for example, that West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon contains nothing of its author, but to explain how her passions infuse its pages would take longer than the brief space Crispin allows.
Glibness aside, there is a powerful, belligerent urgency animating Crispin's quest: Can art save your life? The author takes admirable risks in exposing desperate interior states, but straightforward biographical details are hard to come by. Most information comes pre-packaged with emotion or interpretation, and as a result there isn't much space for the reader to form his or her own impressions.