May 16, 2021

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Prime Cuts From Jenny Diski’s Catalog of Intimate, Witty Essays

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Considering a cookbook titled “Last Dinner on the Titanic,” she wonders about further meals in dismal moral taste. When will we get directions for “staging a Hiroshima sashimi evening” or “a Dresden barbecue”?

Diski confronts her fear of spiders. After hypnotism, her arachnophobia is cured. Yet she feels a sense of loss. “Some way in which I knew myself has vanished.”

She adds: “I wonder, why not get hypnotized out of all my anxieties and nervous habits, make everything awkward and resistant go away, so that I could become … well, nothing is the alarming image I have.”

This book lacks, alas, an index. And some of Diski’s best stuff, written for other publications, is not here. For example, she used to write supermarket criticism for The Sunday Times of London, in a column called “Off Your Trolley.” You can find those pieces in “A View From the Bed.” A supermarket critic! America needs one. And a tattoo critic. And a hotel critic. And … my list is long.

In John Edgar Wideman’s new career-spanning collection, “You Made Me Love You,” one short story begins with a joke about critics: “You don’t have to be very smart to write a review of a book of short stories. All you need to say is that some stories in the book are better than others.”

I’ll take Wideman’s bait. Some of the essays in Diski’s book are better than the others. The earlier ones, in fact, are a bit finer than the later — more intimate and free-floating. It’s as if she was beginning, after two decades of writing for the LRB, to sense the well running dry.

Yet I find myself picking up the LRB now and wondering what she would have had to say about Covid, about Boris Johnson, about woke culture, about what it means when an artist like Taylor Swift rerecords her old albums.

“So much thought about everything appears in the form of literary criticism,” Iris Murdoch wrote in a 1974 letter. In an ideal world, this would be so more often. Diski was a model.

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