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In Notes From No Man's Land: American Essays
, Eula Biss writes adamantly about a range of sensitive social issues including racial politics, social stratification, class struggle, the American schools and identity. Thanks to her gift for prose, even the most disturbing information Biss reports (upsetting statistics about Child Protective Services; tales of urban decay; racial paranoia among white suburbanites) is so vividly conveyed that these essays, almost without exception, are pleasure to read. There's neither the Sedaris-like pithiness (and adjoining emotional insincerity) we've come to expect from contemporary personal essays to be found here, nor is there any hint of academic snobbery to Biss' positions. Instead, these are 13 essays in which the author looks inward, examining her own experiences, biases, and education, and outward at an America that's as socially and racially Gordian as it's ever been.
Written in five sections, "Before," "New York," "California," "The Midwest," and "After," Notes From No Man's Land walks us, more or less chronologically, through Biss' experiences as a teacher in New York City, a reporter and receptionist in California, a graduate student in Iowa City, and a married professor living in Chicago. And while each piece showcases Biss' writing chops, some essays seem scattershot in their organization, and others are a bit too dewy-eyed.
It may be precisely because Biss' writing is so efficient and fluid that her observations can seem less keen than her prose style. Just as a sour note is particularly easy to catch in an otherwise pristine symphony, Biss has a tendency here to push too hard on her subject matter, writing blatant truisms where there should be subtlety and implication. In "Black News," for instance, Biss relates her experience working for a regional African American newspaper in San Diego, and she introduces the city this way: "Because the first place I went in San Diego was the beach, my initial assessment of the city was that it was almost entirely white. I would later realize that going to the beach in San Diego is like going to Wall Street in New York. [...] it is a place where the city's imagination of itself resides." This might be an extremely convenient way to delve into the complex racial dynamics of southern California, but the observation that San Diego — a former Spanish colony and a city that's next door to Tijuana — is a racially and economically complicated metropolis is hardly news. By positioning herself as the somewhat naïve narrator, Biss leaves room for discovery and epiphany here, but there's something premeditated and flat about it.
By contrast, the essays found in "The Midwest" section of the book are more organic and, as a result, more sincere. One of the collection's finest essays is "Back to Buxton," a fascinating and well-researched look at an early 20th century coal mining company town in Iowa that achieved a sort of racial harmony long before the Civil Rights movement. The essay "No Man's Land" rests on similarly strong research, and in it Biss tackles two issues that could not be more timely or more worthy of discussion in our major cities: gentrification and mass fear. Using national crime statistics, Biss argues that the typically white fear of "bad" neighborhoods stems not from experiential knowledge of danger, but from a widespread and utterly misguided notion that the risk of falling victim to crime is greater in ethnically mixed neighborhoods. And she approaches the divisive issue of gentrification as neither the cold occupier whose goal is to bring a gym and a Walgreens to her neighborhood, nor as the sappy, woman-of-the-people who moves to the neighborhood only to turn around and decry others who move there as well.
Ultimately, Biss' collection is good and challenging reading despite its flaws. "All Apologies" and "Relations" read somewhat like assignments for a creative non-fiction class, and her tendency to sentimentalize can be a distraction (as when a man the size of a linebacker wells up while telling her of how much it hurts when women fear him due to his enormity). Still, as both an analyst and an essayist, Biss has taken many risks here, not the least of which is writing a series of structurally unconventional essays about topics as controversial and thorny as race, class and poverty. That Biss addresses them head-on is admirable, and that she does so without being overly clever, cloying or inaccessibly esoteric is impressive.