The Country Cousin to Love

By Katy Major

January 9, 2018

The Country Cousin to Love

The Authenticity Experiment: Lessons from the Best and the Worst Year of My Life by Kate Carroll de Gutes

When a friend of Kate Carroll de Gutes remarked about how often the positive aspects of others’ lives are mentioned on Facebook, as opposed to the negative, de Gutes, in the essayist’s quintessential way, got to thinking. What her musings sparked is The Authenticity Experiment, de Gutes’ attempt at representing the duality (what she calls “the both/and, the dark/light”) of life as it exists outside of a two-dimensional screen. She challenged herself to write a blog post, representing dark and light both, every day for thirty days. The Authenticity Experiment, a tight 167-page essay collection, is the happy result of that blog. It’s a brave interrogation of the truth and a chronicle of an unusually ambivalent year, which includes the death of both her parents and the celebrated publication of her first essay collection, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. Part of de Gutes’ authenticity is that she does not merely confront the pain she experiences; she is also honest about the fact that, in the midst of it all, she experiences joy.

De Gutes’ essays in The Authenticity Experiment are refreshingly free from the flowery language and overwrought metaphor that can bog down stories (nonfiction or otherwise) that are, in truth, beautifully simple. Essays here range between one and four pages, and they pose brevity’s usual strengths and challenges. Sometimes their briefness feels too severe; one is left wondering how expanding one or another occurrence, noted in passing, would open her writing up. For instance, might further exploration of what it means to have an “ex-ex-ex-girlfriend,” lost three times over, might inform de Gutes’ developing understanding of grief and the anxiety it triggers?

At other times, the conciseness of the essays, and their necessary directness, lend themselves to the plainspoken wisdom that de Gutes doles out. As an example, she offers practical guidance to a young barista in lieu of her deceased single parent and uses an incisive anecdote to cut to the quick of our cultural fixation on the digital: “The Child Barista,” she writes, “asks me questions because I look her in the eyes, instead of looking at my phone.”

The influence of the internet is apparent in these essays, which, after all, are inspired by a Facebook status update, conceived electronically—a novelty, as de Gutes typically writes longhand—and initially blogged. Friends referred to by first and last name, which are not infrequent, could just as easily be tags on Facebook or “mentions” on Twitter; a parenthetical rant in “Tumbling into the Ever-Present Now” reads like a status update (“This is such a peeve of mine,” it begins); de Gutes hashtags #Portlandia, using pop cultural shorthand for Portland’s self-conscious TV series, surreal liberalism, and New Age atmosphere. This is neither a weakness nor a strength, but certainly an interesting craft choice: a conscious decision not to combat the internet-speak creeping in but, to an extent, to embrace it.

The strongest pieces in The Authenticity Experiment are mesmerizing in their details. These I could praise on and on. In my head, they whiz colorfully by, even long after finishing de Gutes’ collection: physical details of a family Thanksgiving in the 1970s that sing on the page in “Dear Mom,” “… yellow boxes of Kellogg’s brand cubed stuffing into the basket, cans of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce, a bottle of Kitchen Bouquet [because god forbid the gravy shouldn’t be a deep mahogany]”; the vivid joys that make up Kate’s metaphorical “All-You-Can-Eat Buffet,” “[t]his incredible dress I saw a woman wearing the other night—that tastefully showed her décolletage and a bit of her thigh each time she crossed her legs, and made me raise my eyebrows and suck in my breath just a little each time I noticed it”; and a brief but immersing portrait of Kate’s childhood in “Let Them Eat Cake,” “A stack of LPs dropping one after another, blasting out Fats Domino, Eddie Rabbit, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Ray Charles.”

With these essays, de Gutes takes steps toward balancing the general nature of the themes woven throughout the collection (addiction, grief, disconnect, and longing) with the reader-writer intimacy that lies in the specific.

Such dashes of intimacy are much-needed in The Authenticity Experiment. Kate Carroll de Gutes’ experiment—what occurred before she knew an essay collection was in the making, back when she was just laying her insides bare for any Facebook friend or blog follower who happened to click—is courageous. It is different from the writing of a traditional book, which is an act whose long-term solitariness the introverted writer delights in. Putting aside concerns about the readers who will soon be the audience of that solitary endeavor while drafting a traditional book is challenging enough. It seems, particularly, the scourge of the nonfictionist. Ignoring readers while crafting a blog post is nigh impossible, given its immediacy: write, revise, publish, all with a click of the mouse in a span of hours—instead of—the months or years a nonfiction writer spends agonizing over the reaction his or her book may inspire. When typing into a box on the Wordpress or Blogger webpage, how can one forget its impending release to the public? The blogging process is so rapid in comparison to the prolonged process of drafting a book in the author’s typical manner that there is simply no time to coax away that near-inevitable fear of what readers will think

As a result, sometimes the speaker backs away, and there is apparent distance between us and her. De Gutes’ essays, at times, get lost in the general, losing the anchoring power of the intricate detail, one strength almost all authors share. Furthermore, the use of the second person—perhaps a mark of Judith Kitchen’s influence—feels less like an invitation to engage than a way of eliminating the “I,” subtly cleaving the persona from the narrative. This move weakens anecdotes that would otherwise pack a punch.

Although de Gutes may occasionally hold readers at arm’s length, the collection is nevertheless an exercise in radical truth, at times painfully so in acknowledging personal shame or terror or regret and, at other times, pleasantly so in de Gutes’ descriptions of the wonders of life that mercifully balance darker times. “On Softening” is one piece that explores the latter, the miraculous impact of a simple act of kindness. De Gutes, once more spinning the ordinary into the dazzling, quotes Carrie Newcomer in an interview: “Kindness is like the country cousin to love. It does the dishes when no one asks it to.” This is The Authenticity Experiment: unassuming and subtle, beautifully simple, with all of the warmth of a gracious good deed.


The Authenticity Experiment: Lessons from the Best and the Worst Year of My Life by Kate Carroll de Gutes
Two Sylvias Press
$17.00 paperback | Buy Now!


Katy Major
About the Reviewer:

Katy Major is a writer and freelance critic from Medina, Ohio. Most recently, her essay, "Cicadas," was published in Adelaide Magazine in the summer of 2017. Katy recently received her Master of Fine Arts degree and is now teaching academic writing. You can find her on Twitter at @wildthingwriter or visit her website on critical reviews of horror films at WildernessHorrorBlog.


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