Lose Your Illusions

What If This Were Enough?: Essays BY Heather Havrilesky. Doubleday. Hardcover, 240 pages. $25.

The cover of What If This Were Enough?: Essays

Heather Havrilesky began her writing career in the early days of the internet, first as a columnist at Suck.com and then as a television critic for Salon.com. She has since built an extensive body of work examining American culture’s most insidious messages, perhaps most famously in her popular advice column, “Ask Polly,” in which she helps readers navigate alienation in an era of seemingly endless choice, the false narratives of American success, and the hard work of sustaining meaningful human connection. In her new essay collection, What If This Were Enough? (Doubleday, $26), Havrilesky expands on these themes, touching on topics such as marriage, parenting, aging, the patriarchal ghosts that haunt our culture, and the modern cult of endless achievement. I caught up with Havrilesky to discuss the wide-ranging influences on her work, how to untangle ourselves from the delusions of American mythmaking, and the day-to-day difficulties of living in a distracted and toxic age.

HELENA FITZGERALD: The book opens with an essay about John Updike’s “Rabbit” books. What do you make of Updike and his protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom?

Heather Havrilesky: Updike’s writing felt like Dickens set in America. I read Rabbit Is Rich when I was twelve, and it was the first time I understood what a book could be, how big a world you could enter. To me, Rabbit is the epitome of the fallen hero. Updike wrote so beautifully about America—the country as a character. American culture is a chirpy, terrible, insipid force that constantly drags Rabbit down. He attempts to connect but always fails, clumsily or violently. What I love is that, on one hand, you feel like Rabbit’s getting it all wrong, but on the other, you live inside his skin. You have this ineffectual patriarch who cannot understand his own emotional experience, and you end up feeling so sorry for him. In some ways, he’s an echo of Don Draper, but Draper never felt completely real, whereas Rabbit feels like part of my family.

Another essay compares Draper with Christian Grey from the “Fifty Shades” series. What cultural fantasies do these characters reveal?

In Mad Men, you have this used-up vision of what a man should be and what America should be. Draper has to reckon with what a piece of shit he is—what a cipher—and the fact that everyone knows he’s a masterful fake. It’s clear that the emperor has no clothes.

Grey, though, is a Barbie-like fantasy. He’s similar to Draper in that he’s a patriarchal Daddy figure who has all the money and power. He makes you powerless and you return to this childlike state, surrounded by luxury, and you own all this shit. It’s the fantasy of deliverance from an ordinary life. He represents the illusion that you can be perfectly satisfied doing the same thing over and over, that high capitalism will bring you pure delight and satisfaction every day until you die. You can fuck your husband in the same exact way again and again, and every time it’s, “Oh, you’re making me so hot, Mr. Grey.”

Draper’s story is a cautionary tale and Grey’s is a soft-porn illusion, but both underscore the ideas of The Great Gatsby: If you build your life around shallow things and your life amounts to a conquistador’s tale of acquisition, there is no satisfaction. If you became an inauthentic mess of a cipher in order to succeed, you’re not going to feel any joy.

And as you point out in the book, there’s a strong American message that if we don’t succeed, we have only ourselves to blame.

Yes, I encountered that message again and again as I was working on the book: If you don’t succeed, that means you aren’t strong enough, that you have no excuse to be alive because you haven’t created magic and fire doesn’t flow from your fingertips. So you get people who feel like, in merely navigating the ups and downs of a life, they’re failing miserably.

I think it’s important to live in reality: Maybe you’re in love, but you’re still going to suffer and die. Every moment is deeply flawed and ugly. It’s not art-directed and it’s not perfect. It can’t come close to your fantasies. And yet there’s something divine and intoxicating about tuning in to what actually is. I want to know that I’m going to die because that makes it possible to feel grateful right now. In the column, I try to get people to stop and feel the moment while they’re reading.

Heather Havrilesky, 2016.
Heather Havrilesky, 2016.

That’s almost a religious or spiritual idea. In the essay “The Miracle of the Mundane,” you talk about how the miraculous can be found in everyday life.

Spirituality feels like the shadow to everything I write. I use the word divine a lot. I believe that when you’re aligned with your values and principles, you’re tapping into something bigger than yourself. Sometimes I find myself wanting to write over and over, “The spirits of the dead are on your side.” But I find spiritual messages alienating when they come from other people. I want to write poetically enough that the reader can connect with this feeling without my having to say, “It’s magical and it’s the spirits!”

I saw a psychic once, on assignment for a magazine, and she talked to me in my dad’s voice. She said, “What are you doing with this guy?” about my terrible boyfriend. And I started crying because my dad used to say that about every man I ever saw. He always referred to them as “this guy.” It was like my dad was sitting right in front of me. I went into it thinking, “This is horseshit, it’ll be funny.” But my boyfriend completely believed it was going to be real. He said, “It’s going to be amazing, tell me all about it.” So I came home and told him: “She says I should dump you because you’re an alcoholic.” There are these haunting things that live in the periphery of your experience.

Your dad does seem to haunt this book. Can you talk about his influence?

I recently did an event and the moderator said, “Your dad is a big part of this book: You dedicated it to him, and he comes up in chapter after chapter.” I think I said, “Oh right, I planned that,” but the truth is I was stunned. I didn’t even remember that I had dedicated the book to him and I was unaware that he was such a central figure. Something about where we are right now—where I am as a feminist and where we are as a country—has to do with grappling with patriarchs. I wish that I could hash it out with my dad, but if he were alive, we might not even be speaking. I like to think he would know that Trump was awful, but my dad also really loved heretics. And in some ways Trump is the greatest American heretic ever.

My dad was in love with ideas, he synthesized his ideas through culture, and he was a great storyteller. He was an intellectual and he was also a flawed, strange, volatile human being—and very much a product of his time. A lot of the patriarchs that I write about in the book—Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Rabbit—all kick up memories of my father. A lot of stuff in this book dovetails with my dad’s story. But I haven’t figured it out. I don’t have any easy answers.

Isn’t that how a haunting works, that we aren’t aware of it until it’s taken control?

I think this feminist moment is about crawling out of the haunted house and saying, “I’m not going back in there.” That means letting go of your myths. It’s letting go of the myth of your childhood, and the myth of how precious you were to other people. You have to say, “All these people I love were also in some ways against me.” You ask yourself, Do I have to rewrite my history now? How do I reckon with these haunting forces?

On the other hand, Rabbit is still my favorite protagonist in any book, and he is also a blatant misogynist. But I don’t want to let go of my love for him. There’s an idea right now that we can slough off everything that contains archaic messages. We can be the Marie Kondo of our cultural life. But you can’t scrub out things that have been in the culture for hundreds of years. Instead, I can decide what I love and what I don’t love, what I want in my life and what I don’t. I can keep these relics around and cherish them even though they stand for a lot of fucking complicated things.

Helena Fitzgerald is a writer whose work has appeared in the New Republic, Hazlitt, Catapult, and the New Inquiry. Find her on Twitter @helfitzgerald.