Staff Book Review: The Rules Do Not Apply

Posted on Friday, October 6, 2017 by Jeremiah Barker

Tragedies scatter about our lives, usually. If a decade or more separates one loss — a job, a parent, a home, a pet — from another, is what’s lost a tragedy?

For others, losses accumulate, completely warping their understanding of the world. In her articulate tragicomic memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply,” Ariel Levy recounts the dissolution of her marriage, her miscarriage and her move from what she thought her permanent home — all lost over three months. Reading this challenges one’s sense or definition of tragedy.

The Rules do Not Apply book cover

She grew up in a privileged home wherein she could believe she could do anything, and for the most part, her family’s wealth and her education confirmed this notion of accessibility. Her parents’ divorce notwithstanding, she maintained her confidence and upward mobility. She recounts for us her baffling encounter with David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, which quickly materialized into a staff position. For the magazine, she has profiled Nora Ephron and Caster Semenya and reported on online vigilantism.

“No where to go but down,” her father said, and she did.

Our contemporary American memoir has been with us for some time now, and for good reasons, many have lambasted the form as self-aggrandizing and mendacious. But, in my view, the form has resurfaced in the past few years, reconditioning our well-rehearsed narratives. Helen MacDonald combines literary criticism and nature writing. Maggie Nelson busts the memoir genre altogether and avails the burgeoning form of autotheory, an enlivening mix of critical theory and life writing.

Levy’s memoir joins this cadre of superb autobiography. She acknowledges her privilege without sounding pretentious and describes her overwhelming grief without sounding maudlin. As a reporter, she investigates her despair, and as a person, she submits to it.

Is there ever a way to beat grief, to get relief?

She doesn’t answer this question because she’s interested in reckoning, not motivation, and her reckoning reads not unlike a psychological thriller. How will she free herself from this? But in her telling, there is no ultimate freedom from this pressurized grief. There is healing, but no cure. This realization negates her title: the rules do apply. The irony here is that when she admits this — that the rules apply, that she can’t go on believing everything is possible, that she’s not in control — she is more free.

Perhaps what I like most about this memoir is that she tells her story without telling me how to live mine, ours. One fault I have with her book, though, is that even Levy’s frank discussion of her grief sounds more like reportage than confession. She doesn’t meditate on her despair in the model of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. (To be fair, not everyone could, or even should, be the next Plath.) To oversimplify, her memoir reads like a book-length personal history piece in The New Yorkernot the tumultuous and disconsolate mess of confessional writing. If you want more emotion — and I do — then I direct you to Nelson’s “Bluets and McDonald’s “H is for Hawk.”

Author: Jeremiah Barker

If I threw a literary party, I'd invite George Saunders, Maggie Nelson, and Hanya Yanagihara. On my nightstand I always have a dictionary and usually Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations." Favorite book this year: "The Return" by Hisham Matar.