All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen To Be Famous Strangers
Grand Central Publishing
I once teased a college friend of mine about how I was probably right to assume that as a youngster, she had loved Vanilla Ice and New Kids On The Block; she vehemently denied the accusation. I pointed out that ten million girls in America suffer from a rare form amnesia that causes them to forget their junior high crushes; after all, someone had to buy those records. She would later privately admit to me that yes, in fact, she had owned Hangin’ Tough and To The Extreme, and asked me not to share such a heinous secret. What was good-natured chitchat in the dorm room reveals a greater truth about a young woman’s experience with fandom, obsession, and pop culture, and All The Lives I Want:Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen To Be Famous Strangers, essayist Alana Massey’s excellent debut collection, superbly dives into the waters of pop culture and how it intertwines with the lives of young women.
Teenage fandom is often depicted as young girls screaming their heads off in near-orgasmic ecstasy over their favorite pop group, obsessing over the lives of their favorite pop singer or actresses in manners ranging from building shrines in their bedrooms to emulating them in dress, hair style, and personality. These flights of fancy are often seen as cute and not taken seriously, with the girls in question often awkwardly and unapologetically moving on with their lives as they grow older. All The Lives I Want never regards these things with disrespect, for as she writes about the loves and obsession of the teenage fan, she quickly establishes that she’s writing about herself as well.
Her subject matter is compelling, her writing vivid, defining and establishing her connection to the subjects—and the subjects aren’t always pleasant. For instance, she attended college with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who have created a multimillion dollar empire around themselves in a world that will never let them forget that they are twins or accept that they grew into intelligent, business-savvy adults. (The section about websites run by borderline pedophile/”adult” men anxiously counting down the days until their eighteenth birthday should make any man reading it feel very, very dirty and unclean.) Her revelations about slut-shaming and stripping in regards to rapper and mogul Amber Rose are accentuated with Massey’s own experiences as an exotic dancer, making that chapter a thought-provoking read and not mere theory from someone who’s never been there/done that, while her discussions throughout about body image and celebrity are tied in with her own.
Massey isn’t always using her direct, real-life experiences to connect with the subjects she writes about, and All The Lives I Want is all the better for it. Her chapter on Sylvia Plath was inspired from falling down a rabbit hole of Etsy and Google searches of people using quotes for arts and crafts and tattoos. She curiously and thoughtfully examines what it meant to be a Lisbon sister and how the boys in The Virgin Suicides are engrossed in young women they would never—in fact, could never—comprehend. Her section on “the crazy ex” makes a case that the “crazy ex-girlfriend” isn’t necessarily crazy but is in fact often engaging in healthy self-preservation against men who…well…might actually deserve it. And her section on Anna Nicole Smith is thoughtful and respectful, even as it deals with an utter tragedy, of which Smith was the ultimate victim of being Anna Nicole Smith.
If there’s one moment where All The Lives I Want falters, it’s the final chapter, “Emparadised: On Joan Didion and Personal Mythology As Survival.” While Massey deftly relates personal experiences within the greater themes of pop-culture criticism and commentary, this chapter attempts to fit a disastrous relationship within the confines of Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays. “Emparadised” is more about Massey and less about Didion, and the attempt to show how life imitates art isn’t nearly as compelling as the rest of the book. Then again, Play It As It Lays is perhaps Didion’s worst novel, because its tale of the disasters of an amoral lifestyle is simply indulgent and uninteresting—exactly the same criticism I have of the story of Massey and her lover James—so maybe there is something to the connection.
A minor quibble, that, as otherwise All The Lives I Want is an engaging, thought-provoking introduction to a major talent. Admittedly, as a middle-aged man, I’m not always very familiar with some of the subjects Massey discusses, but no worries; her writing is engaging and inclusive enough to not leave a hapless y-chrom such as myself totally confused. Massey essays quite a bit online, and if you enjoy this book, her website provides a hub for her excellent, entertaining, and often humorous work; All The Lives I Want serves as an excellent introduction to this fantastic writer.