According to the writers of And Just Like That, HBO’s fascinatingly appalling Sex and the City reboot, it’s really perfectly easy to find contentment as a middle-aged single woman. In episode four, the recently widowed Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) returns to her old bachelor-girl flat, a place she kept on (because she is rich) untenanted after her marriage. There, having slept soundly for the first time in weeks, she pulls on a long tulle skirt that makes her look a bit like a fairy, and heads out to her local bodega to pick up a free coffee from its kindly owner. There is, we can’t help but notice, a spring in her step now, and thus the hapless viewer receives the message loud and clear. Happiness, it would seem, is only a simple matter of determination. Stride briskly on in your favourite outlandish clothes, a paper cup in your right hand and a mobile phone in your left, and daily rapture will be yours.
In her new book, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, the American novelist Jami Attenberg has a lot to say about writing; ostensibly, her first work of nonfiction is determined to stare hardest at the creative life, and all that such an existence involves (in summary: a lot of hard work, a certain amount of luck, and very little cash). As the daughter of a travelling salesman, she’s interested, too, in a certain kind of transience. For many years, she found it hard to settle. Attenberg was 45 before she owned a bed; she once slept in 26 different places in seven months. In the end, however, she just can’t help herself. The truth must be told.
Ultimately, her memoir is about what it is like not to have, nor even much to want, all the things that are supposed to make a woman complete. If it is wonderful to be free – to be the kind of unicorn that judges yourself, not according to the putrid benchmarks of a sexist society, but by your own standards – this doesn’t mean that it isn’t also, sometimes, painful. For Attenberg, as for Carrie Bradshaw, happiness and being alone are not mutually exclusive. But as she also notes, expressing such a truth in public for the first time may still “feel like a specific kind of death”. Her memoir is, in other words, a powerful antidote to pernicious fantasies of the tulle-skirt-and-soya-latte kind.
I don’t mean it as a criticism when I say that Attenberg’s book has an untidy, artless structure. Yes, its narrative, which moves repeatedly back and forth in time, is often in danger of seeming repetitive, and perhaps it comes with one too many Zoom meetings (it is something of a pandemic book, I think). But such restlessness reflects its subject matter: the sublets that come and go; the thousands of miles travelled in pursuit of minuscule sales at bookshop readings (it wasn’t until 2013, when her fourth novel, The Middlesteins, appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, that Attenberg had anything even approaching a literary hit). When success arrives at last, our one-time couch surfer finds that she cannot say no, and thanks to this she attends literary festivals all over the world, and teaches creative writing in Vilnius, Lithuania. Flying causes her intense anxiety, but still she does it, relying on Xanax “borrowed” from friends – she has so many! – to see her through.
What she needs, she comes to realise, as the “vibrations” of her youth begin at last to subside, is a home. She doesn’t want carpets strewn with toys; marital cosiness (smugness?) isn’t for her. But there is a moment, staying with a friend in Evanston, Illinois, when she considers the contents of a family-size refrigerator – six packs of yoghurt, freshly squeezed juice, an entire drawer devoted to cheese – and experiences a pang of envy. Where is her place? For a long time, it will be a loft in (pre-gentrification) Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a ramshackle cavern, all thin walls and exposed pipes, described in a love letter that is one of the best pieces of writing in her book. Finally, though, this won’t do. It’s in New Orleans that she will buy a room of her own, one that comes with a view of hummingbirds and loquat trees. The resistance you detect in her as she writes of this beloved house – she always had a room of her own in her head, she insists – only makes this the sweeter as you read of it.
Similarly, her cheeriness – her absolute disdain for self-pity – only serves to make the sad parts of her book seem the more plangent. Those who love Attenberg’s novels – for me, All Grown Up (2017) is one of the best, most spirited and most enjoyable books ever written about a mostly single woman – will recognise her tone here, even if parts of this work do border on self-obsession (not that I particularly blame her for being self-obsessed; this, too, is something society forces on women, for we can never live up to expectations, falling back always on self-recrimination, self-improvement and, worst of all, hour-by-hour analyses of our moods). Attenberg recounts it all – the bad men, and the bad friends, the sexual assaults and the restaurants that won’t provide a table for one – in a way that is at once a kind of reckoning, as dramatic as this sounds, and effortlessly casual. Haven’t these things happened to all women? If they’re grave, they are also quotidian.
She’s very funny, and it’s this that makes her marvellous. When a man with whom she’s about to have sex for the first time – “we made our way towards nudity” – suddenly produces a brown paper bag in bed, all she can wonder is whether there’s a sandwich in it. In fact, it contains an unrequested sex toy. I laughed out loud at this. Here is the kind of determination I favour. Life is funny and grim (or, if you prefer, grimly funny). Forget this and, like the writers now desperately trying to make Sarah Jessica Parker relevant again, you’ve got what Attenberg would doubtless call Bad Art.