The Gin Closet


Here is a short and incomplete list of topics covered in this book: Alcoholism. Prostitution. Self-mutilation. Extramarital affairs. Eating disorders. Incest. Pregnant strippers. Rape. Child Molestation. Estranged family members. Sexual experimentation. Physical abuse. Abortions. Death. Suicide.

If reading that list seems emotionally exhausting, imagine what reading 270+ pages of that feels like.

Hint: not great.

Note: When I originally wrote this post, I kind of went off on a long rant that had less to do with the book and more to do with the author (whom I admire) and some old struggles with writing that I had projected onto her. It's bothered me ever since, those thoughts being out on the interwebs, and not particularly cohesive or articulate thoughts at that. It was a passionate venting sesh, but that's not really what this space is for. So while the original post probably lives on in an internet cache somewhere, this one has been shortened to focus on the book itself. Which, unfortunately, isn't too much less venty, but at least much more focused on the book in question.

Almost every negative review of The Gin Closet says the same thing: Jamison is a beautiful, poetic prose writer, but the language doesn't save the story. The story in question is the bleak character study of a young woman, Stella, who goes to live with her estranged aunt, Tilly, an alcoholic.

For people who have not met real-life Stellas, it should be stressed that this is the worst kind of person to know. They're like a black hole of victimization. She gets into shitty relationships with unavailable men, works a terrible job that she hates for a verbally abusive boss, associates with emotionally unstable acquaintances but seems to have no real friends, and has a hero complex that leads her to helping people worse off than her in a way that she inevitably comes to resent.

The part of the novel told from Stella's perspective mostly details how she collects tragedies in her life as trophies of having experienced painful things. She's very much intellectually aware of which things are supposed to be painful to a person (eating disorders, loving married men, abortions) and acts like the personification of a heat-seeking missile as she goes about acquiring them. Worst of all, she never seems to actually feel the pain herself. Instead, she parades these newly acquired experiences around in front of unsuspecting audiences with the very specific intention of making them feel her pain for her.

Unfortunately, The Gin Closet doesn't glean any lessons from its troubled cast or shed light particularly well onto any specific experience. It doesn't get to the heart of any one issue because it's too busy relentlessly heaping shit on top of shit. A prime example? There's a throwaway, a throwaway anecdote about how Stella walked in on her teenage brother having sex with a girl while cutting himself. Yikes.

I really have made it a point in recent years to not write reviews about books I hate or for that matter, to not even finish books I hate. But I think that finishing and writing about this one has helped me to realize that a style of writing I used to admire back during my MFA years may in fact have been something that perpetuated my unhappiness at that time in my life. Now I know that I want to read artists who choose happiness instead of cultivated depression in their life and work. Who choose adventures over disasters, choose facing fears over giving into them, and who choose the struggle to get better over a study in circling the drain. At least they have something to teach me.

2014 '50 Books' Progress: 9/50