Legs Get Led Astray
by Chloe Caldwell
Two years ago, n+1 published What Was the Hipster?, an examination that attempted to put the moment into cultural context now that it was over. But since then hipsters have proven very resilient. Young, privileged white kids with liberal arts degrees who do recreational drugs and have a vague ambition toward bohemianism took over TV thanks to HBO’s Girls and Zooey Deschanel. The New Yorker ran a well-circulated post on “hipster lit” (all-male). Bon Iver won a Grammy. With the moment a decade old and undeniably mainstream, it can be tough to remember a time when it was cutting edge.
Enter Chloe Caldwell’s debut collection Legs Get Led Astray: a distillation of what might be deemed the high hipster period, from 2002-2006. Interpol was on every iPod. Antony and the Johnsons brought out the sensitive goth in all of us. The Black Keys could not be found on a single car commercial. And if you don’t remember the specifics, Caldwell will remember them for you, dropping more band names than a scenester at a basement show.
An essayist whose work has appeared on The Nervous Breakdown and The Rumpus, Caldwell’s nonfiction reads like the bucket lists of a rebellious early-twenties indie darling. She writes about heroin hangovers and attending orgies. She’s frank about her sexual exploits and masturbation tendencies. She captures an essence of trying to find her identity in an oasis of young bodies doing the same, testing mortality and making enough money for cheap rent and bodega Zebra cakes. Call it the haphazard lifestyle diet.
In the first essay, “Barney,” we’re introduced to Caldwell’s penchant for lists. Everyone from Dusty Springfield to No Doubt to Barney the Dinosaur gets name-checked, and the references are less obscure than ubiquitous. “I wanted to be Mariah Carey. Sometimes people told me I looked like her,” Caldwell writes, showing that for all its fetishization of the undiscovered, youth culture is common culture.
Emotionally, the essays often play as cautionary tales, warning of suicidal musicians who work at the Strand and that empty post-orgy feeling. But for every shocking moment in the book, there’s a mundane one—smoking pot and taking the L train—presented with such repetition as to fuse into the reader’s own rituals, past and present.
Legs Get Led Astray succeeds best when it escapes Williamsburg to focus on Caldwell’s babysitting exploits in Seattle. “My Heart Was Still Beating” and “The Penis Game” give intimate glimpses into a personality concerned less with getting high to Devendra Benhardt and more with the simple pleasures of playing make-believe with a three-year-old. The vulnerability and lack of slacker Romanticism in these pieces, as opposed to Caldwell’s others, gives Legs heart.
It’s still too early to declare the hipster era over (it may always be), but it’s not too early to ask if it’s produced art of lasting value. In the parts of Legs Get Led Astray that crystallize youthful rebellion shaded by suspicion of future responsibility, the answer is yes.