Review: Leslie Jamison gets personal in ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’

"Make It Scream, Make It Burn" author Leslie Jamison.
(Beowulf Sheehan)

The essays in Leslie Jamison’s new “Make It Scream, Make It Burn” are fabulously quirky and unconventional.

We meet a globally idolized whale, reincarnated children and online avatar junkies in a simulated web world where anyone can become a billionaire, an island owner or a parent of triplets.

While the topics are adventurous, the nonfiction collection tackles the all-too-human topic of yearning and its oft-corollary, obsession. Both gurgle beneath the writer’s sonorous and captivating prose.

The author of “The Recovering” and “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison is a blend of memoirist, critic and journalist. Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Los Angeles, she runs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University. She writes not apart or from a distance but up close and personal, pirouetting the “I” — what I felt, what I heard, what I thought, what I saw — to great effect.

In 14 essays, she takes us through the valleys of Longing, Looking and Dwelling to a place of ultimate connection.

Little, Brown and Company
(Little, Brown and Company )

The first essay, “52 Blue,” showcases a solo whale dubbed “the loneliest whale on earth.” Immortalized in a New York Times story, the whale wanders the North Pacific waters “singing” an abnormally high-pitched sound, a seemingly endless, pining journey that attracted lonely-hearts fans the world over during the 1990s.

“The natural world has always offered itself as a screen for human projection,” Jamison writes about those who conflated their lives with the giant mammal’s.

“The Romantics called this the pathetic fallacy. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it ‘intercourse with heaven and earth.’ We project our fears and longings onto everything we’re not — every beast, every mountain — and in this way we make them somehow kin. It’s an act of humbling and longing and claiming all at once. Often, we’re not even aware that we’re doing it.”

We see that yearning, too, in the book’s next section, Looking, where Jamison explores the act of documentation — specifically Civil War photography (“No Tongue Can Tell”), the Sri Lankan Civil War (“Up in Jaffna”) and America’s Southern poor (“Make It Scream, Make It Burn”).

But we see obsession steer toward the pathological in the remarkable story “Maximum Exposure,” which chronicles a California photographer identified only as Annie who returns to Mexico to document the same subjects for 25 years.

Jamison senses a kinship with the photographer: “Annie’s impulse to keep expanding her project plays out a certain fantasy I’ve felt in my own work: to put no boundaries around my evocation of my subjects, to make them infinite, to let them keep going on forever. Representing people always involves reducing them, and calling a project ‘done’ involves making an uneasy truce with that reduction. But some part of me rails against that compression. Some part of me wants to keep saying: there’s more, there’s more, there’s more. It’s why I often write ten thousand more words than I was assigned.”

Her last section, the Dwelling, chimes best. Here the topics come from her own life; weddings (“Rehearsals”), eloping to Las Vegas (“The Real Smoke”) and stepmotherhood (“Daughter of a Ghost”). Finally, the stunning “The Quickening” juxtaposes the birth of her daughter with her former anorectic years. And it’s here where this intelligent and vibrant collection comes full circle.

“For me, the notion of making life scream is less about pain and more about urgency,” Jamison writes in Entertainment Weekly, explaining how this collection came about. “It’s about finding a kind of primal cry inside the ordinary house, the ordinary marriage, the ordinary morning. It’s about looking at something so closely that you feel it starting to smolder under your gaze.

“It was what I wanted to do in this book: Make life scream. Make it burn. Make it funny. Make it strange. Make it sing.”

Make It Scream, Make It Burn

Leslie Jamison

Little Brown: 272 pages; $28

Kinosian is a Southern California journalist and author and longtime Times contributor.