On Jessa Crispin’s “The Dead Ladies Project”

dead ladies

The Dead Ladies Project is a collection of essays centered around Jessa Crispin’s travels in the shadows of the writers she’s fascinated with. The subtitle, “Exiles, Expats, & Ex-Countries,” almost doesn’t manage to touch what’s actually going on in the volume, which is nothing less than Crispin coming to terms with the afterimages of these literary figures that she’s tracing across a couple continents.

This isn’t a review so much as it is a recommendation. The literary essay as a form, steeped in reference and argument and confession and affect, is almost a lost art. Not lost as in “no one can find it” but lost as in “taken by a tidal wave.” The thinkpiece, the confessional, and the linear argument/college term paper published as cultural criticism have all become so dominant that they’ve pushed out more considered (hell, more elegant) essayistic forms.

I blaze through reading all of those genres, but Crispin’s book was maybe the slowest read that I’ve had in a long time. That’s not because it’s difficult (it’s not easy, I will say), but rather because it requires the reader to think along with it. Crispin is profoundly open about how she feels about herself, and she gives us many scenarios that frame those feelings: being a mistress, crying in an airport, taking taxis, becoming fascinated with black magic, and on and on. She hands all of this information over, and she evaluates it, and you listen to her. And you decide how you feel about it.

There’s emotional labor in that decision. I slipped over into care, into worry, about how the trip around the world to these sites of literary worship would end. I’m reading a Dragonlance novel at the same time, and they’re on a similar quest: Jessa has to make this pilgrimage in order to establish sense in the world; Tanis Halfelven has to do the same. I know how the latter will end, but the former has real danger in it. Real-world emotions are much scarier than dragons and their masters, but no less powerful.

In any case, read the book. It is good.

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