An exploration of addiction that blends memoir, cultural history, literary criticism, and journalistic reportage to analyze the role of stories in conveying the addiction experience, sharing insights based on the lives of artists whose achievements were shaped by addiction.
...there’s much about The Recovering that’s inventive: its careful braiding of memoir and literary criticism, its close observation of addiction and creativity, its comprehensive grasp of the way alcoholism provokes scapegoating, solipsism, fear, shame, and solitude. And yet the redemption story won’t be blown up, behaving as if it were encased in twenty feet of concrete. Familiar as it may be, the redemption story is what helps save her ... The Recovering is nearly 500 pages and has such an intense and clarified energy, such a bone-deep compulsion to work out recovery’s paradoxes, that you feel she could go on for twice as long. (And I would happily read that book.)
This ruthless, patient questioning of the narrative structures by which we make sense of the experience of suffering — where story arcs fall short, where they substitute false certainty for mystery, where they act as cover for more unpalatable or unspeakable truths — is ultimately the most important contribution of Jamison’s memoir, and deepens themes first explored in her earlier, celebrated book of essays, The Empathy Exams ... Jamison’s 500-page narrative is nothing if not classically beautiful: implausibly so, almost ludicrously consistent in its fierce freshness and poetry from page to page to page. Her language manages somehow to be simultaneously lush and piercing. It is richly imaged, delighting the senses with its descriptive texture ... There is some repetition and overlap in the weave of the narrative, its rowdy and eclectic cast of characters, from narc agents to jazz singers to psychiatrists to gin-blind poets, popping in and out at unexpected intervals. A story line is taken up, dropped, then revisited again just when the reader had begun to let it go. But if this ruminative, polyphonic mode may be cited by some as a weakness of the book, it is also necessarily its greatest strength. It embodies the aesthetic of resonance, of echo and call and response, that Jamison finds best fits the collective story of addiction.
The Recovering is in its way a successful synthesis of [William] Styron’s and [Al] Alvarez’s masterpieces ... Jamison’s greatest strength is her ability to show honestly the outrageous mental gymnastics every alcoholic masters in the attempt simultaneously to quit drinking and, above all, to continue drinking ... Jamison’s descriptions of drinking are so well turned and evocative that those who have just quit drinking, who haven’t found their footing as nondrinkers yet, might find them triggering. But this too is a compliment ... The prose is clean and clear and a pleasure to read, utterly without pretension. Although the subject is dark, Jamison has managed to write an often very funny page-turner ... I applaud Jamison for not romanticizing drunks, for her frankness about the destruction that alcohol and drugs can wreak on a great artist...But why not admit that booze has helped some writers find their best lines? Not because they wrote best drunk, but because the trauma of addiction might keep some nerves sensitive that otherwise become dull.