Chloe Caldwell once clogged Cheryl Strayed’s toilet. She also untangled Naomi Wolf’s jewelry. As a child, Chloe liked spaghetti before it was fully cooked, greenish bananas, and orange tic-tacs. Always wanting more. And here we begin to see what Chloe’s second book of essays, I’ll Tell You in Person (Coffee House Press; October 2016) is about: Chloe’s desire for more. More friendship, more love, more drugs, more sex, more New York City, more literature, and most of all, more life. Lucky for us Chloe shares this passion for life with the reader, and by proxy we experience more life too.
In the introduction, Chloe describes an experience when she was eighteen and sneaking into her brother’s room looking for Halloween candy or quarters to steal. She spots a random book on her brother’s bookshelf and begins reading an essay, “Mono No Aware” by Miki Howald. This is a central moment for Chloe, the moment of falling in love with the transformative quality of language and writing. “I inserted myself into her words and made her experience mine.” This is exactly what Chloe Caldwell does with her essays; she invites us into her life. “I hope you will project your mistakes and failures and heartache and joys into mine.”
In this second collection of essays following her novel Women, readers travel back and forth in time as Caldwell shares stories with language both stark and kaleidoscopically colorful. By the time you finish the first essay, “Prime Meats,” a hilarious Chutzpah-filled romp searching for men, sex, Scotch, and steak on Craigslist, Chloe feels like a good friend, the kind you’ll hopefully have at least once in your life.
In 2012, I read Steve Almond’s Rumpus interview with Caldwell and was immediately curious and smitten. Who is this writer just a few years older than my daughter having such a full life? I found myself a copy of a first collection of essays, Legs Get Led Astray, and ever since I can’t help but think about Caldwell whenever I step inside the Seattle Public Library. (For an explanation, you must read LGLA.)
Chloe Caldwell is a force. A quirky writer who shares personal details of her life and describes them in a way that never feels like TMI, it’s the opposite. You want more, the result of a trustworthy narrator and a skilled storyteller. I have been trying to find a way to compare Caldwell to another writer, but no one quite fits. Then it hit me. Vivian Gornick. These two writers fifty years apart are both ‘odd women in the city’ taking solace in what Gornick describes as “a salvation on the streets.” With a shared urgency to make sense of their lives through writing, inner worlds collide with daily encounterings, causing the reader’s desire to follow these writers everywhere.
The book is divided into three parts. The parts are untitled, allowing us to categorize themes for ourselves. “In Hungry Ghost,” Caldwell unfurls the drama and disappointment of an almost sleepover with a big time celebrity (not a writer). This celebrity was “somewhere on the spectrum between Eileen Myles and Beyoncé.” We receive just enough hints to figure out who the celebrity might be: “You probably admire her too — or you might hate her and think she’s fat.” Or “She’s read Women and publicly supported it.” We hear about the preparations for the sleepover, glimpsing Caldwell’s longings and anxieties, “I practiced my smile.” And we see the gift she selects for this celebrity at T.J. Maxx as “a half joke.” Caldwell’s friend Karina says, “She’ll love that! It’s the perfect amount of creepy.” This essay reveals Caldwell’s maturity and skill as a writer, describing the past with the throbbing immediacy of the present – I was rooting for Caldwell like I rooted for Greta Gerwig in Mistress America, who by the way should play Chloe should this book be made into a movie. When doom arrives, I am glad she has Fran, a supportive friend who says, “At least you didn’t buy new sheets.” It occurs to me after a second reading that this essay reads as a love note to the squadron of women friends who comprise the fabric of Caldwell’s life.
And this brings me to the penultimate essay, “Maggie and Me: A Love Story,” a recounting of the mutual love between Caldwell and writer Maggie Essep, however brief. Describing her friends’ excitement for this new friend Maggie, Caldwell exclaims, “I know this is a stroke of insane luck.” But the analyst in me is thinking, not really, because everything we learn about Caldwell reveals a woman who lives her life open to new experiences, random encounters, and friendships. Of course she would eventually find her way to Essep. In describing Vivian Gornick, book critic Dwight Garner says, “She is as good a writer about friendship as we have.” How funny, because I was thinking the same thing about Chloe Caldwell.
Emily Books and Coffee House Press has gifted us with a vibrant yellow book of essays written by a vibrant gifted writer. If you’re wondering what Chloe has to say because she’s only thirty, don’t bother. Chloe gets there first, “Who do I think I am to write about myself? Who do I think I am to be so solipsistic? Who the fuck am I?”
You are Chloe Fucking Caldwell, that’s who. More, please.