When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding, a way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender. The Dead Ladies Project is an account of that journey.
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.