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The Inconsistent Insight of Leslie Jamison's Splinters

A review of Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story

Published onMay 22, 2024
The Inconsistent Insight of Leslie Jamison's Splinters

Photo by Turgay Koca: Pexels.com

Book Reviewed:
Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story
by Leslie Jamison
Released February, 2024 from Little, Brown and Company

Reviewed by: McKenzie Watson-Fore


“One definition of living might be the perpetual swapping of story lines,” Leslie Jamison writes. “We trade in the scripts we’ve written for ourselves and get our real lives in return.”1 This line appears in “The Real Smoke,” from her 2019 collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn. “The Real Smoke” is an essay about Las Vegas, about finding beginnings in the wake of endings, and about the fireworks of falling in love contrasted with the hearth-tending work of staying in love. The essay opens with Jamison recalibrating after a major breakup—but in the shadow of that split appears Vegas Joe. 

Jamison and Joe are strangers brought together in Vegas by chance, excerpted out of the demands of their daily lives, standing in the cross-glare of the Bellagio fountains and the neon signs of all-night wedding chapels. Their instant connection furnishes the implied storyline: Romantic Fling with Vegas Joe. 

Jamison demonstrates awareness of her propensity to spin narratives from life’s raw material. Even the nickname—Vegas Joe—Jamison says, “was more like an acknowledgement of the ways that I had already cast him as a character in the story I was trying to write… He was the mascot of Possibility in Aftermath.”2 In the published pieces about her life, Jamison features as both subject and storyteller, narrator and narrated. This raises a fundamental question of personal nonfiction: how can the narrator be trusted when she’s writing about herself? And when it comes to memoir, the narrator is almost always—whether explicitly or not—writing about herself. 

“The Real Smoke” is also an essay about the tension between anticipation and fulfillment. Vegas Joe enters the essay as love interest, but the connection between him and Jamison fizzles when their relationship pitches away from all-night hotel trysts and toward the messy reality of quotidian life, as dramatized by an unwelcome infestation of bedbugs. She admits a pitfall of compulsive mythologizing: “I’d converted Joe into Vegas Joe, but it turned out he was an actual person.”3 

In the essay, Vegas Joe is expediently replaced by Charles Bock: Vegas native, novelist, widower. So one storyline gives way to another: fling exchanged for marriage, anticipation swapped for endurance, Joe traded in for Charles (henceforth referred to as “C,” as Jamison does in Splinters). “The Real Smoke” ends with Jamison extolling the virtues of reality over fantasy, committing to “the pleasures of dwelling” over “the pleasures of conjuring.”4 

Jamison’s consideration of marriage contrasted with “the fruits of restlessness” isn't restricted to “The Real Smoke.” These same obsessions saturate her new memoir, Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story, written in the wake of her divorce from C. In a sense, “The Real Smoke” feels like an extension of Splinters, a sort of inverted prologue. Alternatively, had Jamison written the essay before she met C, perhaps it would’ve ended with the implication that she stays with Vegas Joe. Which is to say—the storyline is always changing, depending on the vantage one is telling it from, and what spell the storyteller hopes to cast. 

In Splinters, Jamison draws the reader into the reconstruction of her life after the dissolution of her marriage. To read it is to witness a brilliant mind in the active process of meaning-making. Jamison writes in brief, sensory bursts of prose-—in interviews she’s likened them to linguistic splinters5—that immerse the reader in the flow of her life on the page: nursing, teaching, writing, going on book tour, taking her baby on book tour, navigating friendships, dating again, recalibrating after the death of certain expectations. The meta-narrative tracks how a professional storyteller is constantly revising the story of their life. Splinters is a memoir about navigating the stories we tell ourselves, the scripts to which we hope our lives will conform, and what happens when those stories and scripts turn out to be inaccurate. 

The ghostly presence of alternative, expired, and once-believed narratives hangs heavy over the book. Because C lost his first wife to leukemia, he and Jamison both interpreted their romance as a redemption arc. “From early on, he said, “You are giving me another life,”” Jamison recalls. Their shared desire to confirm this narrative, and to inhabit the roles it conferred on them, contributed to their relationship’s rapid intensification. “Every time I felt a flicker of doubt,” she continues, “it seemed like a betrayal of that hope.”6 

But commitment to the story they’d cowritten wasn’t enough to substantiate a lasting union. “We’d fallen from the false paradise of narrative,” Jamison says, "the idea that I might save him from his tragic loss, into the dirty nursery of our days.”7 So the storyline changes again. Eventually, the storyline has cycled through so many iterations that Jamison wearily admits, “I wasn’t sure what narrative arc I was tracing, or what ending I deserved.”8

Several months into their separation, Jamison goes on book tour for Make It Scream, Make It Burn—the collection that includes “The Real Smoke.” “The book ended with a version of my life that was no longer my life,” Jamison writes. “The narrator of those essays was desperately trying to convince herself to stay inside her marriage.”9 I appreciate Jamison’s candor here, her ability to perceive (and her boldness in naming) the embedded motive that propelled an earlier piece of writing. However, her observation raises a parallel question: What motive underlies this version of the story? And is the narrator aware of it? 

Jamison is so transparent about her habitual self-narrativizing that I, as a reader, cannot sever myself from the suspicion that a similar, self-protective impulse undergirds these pages. For her to acknowledge the architected narrative in the final essays of Make It Scream, Make It Burn, but not acknowledge that she might be writing Splinters to convince herself of something, feels like a breach of trust. How does this framing serve the narrator? What stories is she telling herself—and by extension, the reader—in order to make peace with her current circumstances? 

She circles around various, mutable narratives throughout the slow dissolution of her marriage. “It became a form of emotional hibernation,” she recalls, “taking refuge in that binary: He’s angry. I’m sad. But it was a lie… My anger blossomed everywhere.”10 This admission, however revealing, reiterates the possibility that Jamison hasn’t yet identified all the rungs on her ladder of self-deception. In couples therapy, Jamison says, “I went to get my narratives confirmed, and instead they were dislodged.”11 As a reader, I found myself asking which narrative made it onto the page—one that incriminates Jamison, or one that absolves? Was writing Splinters a way of reclaiming control over an uncontrollable situation? As the story moves away from the divorce itself, Jamison’s unaddressed grief hulks darkly in the margins. 

The questions Jamison must face during the scope of her divorce apply equally to the book itself. “How much of my goodness was performance?” she asks. “How much of my desire for civility came from a desire to assuage my own guilt?”12 

Certain moments in the book feel over-processed, rehearsed; whereas other moments seem thrown in without much reflection, almost haphazardly or unconsciously. In craft terms, my unease revolves around the inconsistent presence of a reflective narrator. “When I was a kid, I liked to write fairy tales with unhappy endings,” Jamison recounts. A line later, she reveals, “As an adult, I said this about myself so many times . . . that I started to forget another little girl prowling the halls of memory.”13 Again and again, Jamison references multiple selves, divergent interpreters who live within her singular psyche. “The reasonable part of me sat far away,” she says. “The animal in me traced the scar on its abdomen.”14 The multiplicity in her narrative voice brings a dynamism to the telling, but it also compromises the narrator’s authority. To acknowledge these warring perspectives throws the reader into a kind of interpretive limbo: I never knew which Jamison I was hearing from. 

Jamison is an astute and practiced observer of human behavior. She knows what it looks like when someone is trapped in their own story—a dynamic she’s identified in essays about reincarnation and mysterious illness in Make It Scream, Make It Burn, and her earlier collection, The Empathy Exams. But often what we can identify in others, we fail to recognize in ourselves—a dramatic irony that she riffs on in Splinters. The inaccessibility of her own insight becomes part of the intrigue. Jamison-as-protagonist makes notes on a student’s essay about “finding meaning in pain, the daily drama of ongoingness…and the elusive maddening, absurd nature of maturity itself.” After a beat, Jamison-as-narrator observes, “taken out of context, this could have been an entry from my diary.”15 She writes of a love interest, “he was so committed to his own mythology . . . that I had trouble believing it.”16 This line shocked me, because it perfectly expressed my mistrust of Jamison’s curated self-presentation. 

Jamison illustrates her own blind spots with anecdotes that introduce an illuminating humor to the book. At a school reception, Jamison pontificates about “how motherhood was sharpening [her] gaze,” until a student interrupts to say that the baby—suspended in carrier just below Jamison’s chin—“might be choking on a grape?”17 When Jamison starts dating again, she recounts, “I’d been having conversations with my therapist about escalation, how I used it as a buffer…Then I’d leave her office and talk to [the love interest called] the tumbleweed about how we’d probably known each other in another life.”18 But if the humor plays on the fact that Jamison-as-protagonist can’t see past the end of her own nose, it also reified my growing conviction that the book rushes to extract meaning from experiences that haven’t been fully processed. 

After being confronted by a friend about her tendency to be “always in the midst of some dramatic transformation,” Jamison recognizes “how the volatility of [her] life was a noise that drowned out other frequencies.”19 But she persists in that cycle of serial transformations. She pushes at the established boundaries of herself in ways that recall the last self-reinvention, only in a different apartment, under a new duvet, or with a new sexual partner. “When the tumbleweed fucked me in ways I’d never been fucked,” Jamison says, “it was like meeting parts of myself I’d never met. It was still possible . . . to become a version of myself I’d never been.”20 The sudden vulgarity of her language almost distracts from the superficiality of the assertion. Even while Jamison claims to be a new version of herself, the infatuation she displays with the tumbleweed directly echoes the way she wrote about Vegas Joe back in “The Real Smoke.” She acknowledges that her perpetual threshold-crossing provides an exciting veil for her discomfort with stability—“its vexations and claustrophobia, its permanence.”21 For all her supposed transformations, Jamison returns over and over to the same questions: “Would I ever be able to survive getting what I wanted? Would I ever inhabit that kind of partnership without getting restless inside of it?”22

The narrator vacillates between self-incrimination and self-justification. “One piece of me said, It’s unbearable. The other piece said, It’s fine. Both pieces were lying.”23 Each added nuance muddies the water until all her compulsive back-and-forths dull to indiscriminate shades of gray. 

In one anecdote, Jamison recalls an exchange with her often-absent father when she was a girl, in which he asserted that the B- she earned in World Cultures “isn’t [her].” A genesis moment for the hero’s quest: “Whatever the opposite of getting a B- was, I would spend the rest of my life doing that,” Jamison vowed.24 The essential flaw of Splinters is that it’s not a story about Jamison’s impossible goal; it’s part of her project. The book becomes one more expression of her churning ambition, a means of proving herself to the world, to men, to her father. “For many years, I kept trying to impress my dad even when I wasn’t having dinner with him . . . No matter who I was with,” she clarifies, “I was still just a seven-year-old trying to say something accurate about bed nets and malaria, my father’s favorite subjects.”25 Jamison admits in the book her compulsive need to secure attention and validation: “the fantasy of being interesting enough to deserve love.”26 But does she recognize that the book itself reads as an extension of this effort? When Jamison says “the younger version of [herself]... felt she wasn’t allowed to bore anyone,” she’s providing the internal rationale behind her craft choices.27 The brevity of the vignettes, the specificity of detail Jamison urges on her students, the pithiness of her insights—these are written outworkings of the learned emotional reflex to entertain. It works, in that the text captured and held my attention for weeks.

Gradually, the narrator’s motive becomes evident: Jamison is trying to heal herself. “How many times, across the course of my life,” Jamison asks, “had I wanted contradictory things, and then convinced myself I could solve the contradiction by naming it?”28 To solve the intractability inherent in existence, to prove herself as worthy, to justify her presence on earth: no book, however skillfully written, can meet this need. What Jamison succeeds at is dramatizing the relentless burn of living. 

If the work of memoir is to explore patterns strewn across one’s life, Jamison sews an elaborate tapestry, complete with echoes, reprisals, and recurring motifs. Her themes include addiction’s insatiable hunger, pursuit for the sake of pursuit, and the irrevocability of one’s choices. The book is claustrophobic, vibrating with shame and need, “sick with guilt.”29 Expansive horizons contract. Jamison writes beautifully about all this desperation, and her rich prose carries the reader forward. However, the ending arrives abruptly. “This was the summons,” she writes, as a way of conjuring a conclusion, “to stop fetishizing the delusion of a pure feeling, or a love unpolluted by damage. To commit to the compromised version instead.”30 Splinters traces the manifold ways that meticulous self-curation is upended by the messy unpredictability of life. Yet without any examples of Jamison living out her summons, the epiphany rings hollow. Until a realization can be enacted, it hasn’t truly been realized.

“This is one of the lessons I keep learning,” Jamison says: “the difference between the story of love and the texture of it.”31 Only once she learns to divest from the fantasy will Jamison be able to pay attention to the texture. Then real life will finally succeed the script. 


McKenzie Watson-Fore is a writer, artist, and critic based in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and participated in the inaugural Emerging Critics Program with Anaphora Literary Arts. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Write or Die Magazine, Psaltery & Lyre, Full Stop, and elsewhere. She can be found at MWatsonFore.com or drinking tea on her back porch.

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