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Boss Broad

June 26, 2019

Megan Volpert’s Boss Broad begins with a personal essay followed by rewritten lyrics for a Bruce Springsteen song. It continues with a letter, the lyrics for another Springsteen song, and continues winding around in a desultory fashion, alternating between prose and poetry and compiling a record that shows how far off we are as Americans from where could be if we read more kinds of writers and listened to more teachers, thinkers, comedians, and songwriters. There’s something for everyone in this book, which I received as an advance copy from Sibling Rivalry Press because I knew I wanted to read it, having loved one of Volpert’s previous books (Sonics in Warholia).

There’s something on almost every topic here, even something necromancy-adjacent: “The future after death is really very wide open or else shut in a way that doesn’t matter.”

I learned a lot of widely disparate things from reading Boss Broad; for instance, that there’s an instrument called the double violin (there’s only one, and it was made for and played by Gingger Shankar). I learned about things I hadn’t considered much, like that “gender, as something we all constantly perform, is complicated by objects that are read in isolation as also gendered.” I learned that Volpert has more interesting things to say about being southern than Helen Ellis does (The Southern Lady Code):
“the South is full of smart, decent people—as well as a goodly number of folks wanting to get smart and get decent but haven’t had much opportunity to do so because of the color of their skin or the contents of their wallet. If only there was a book we could put in the hands of these interested, capable people to aid them in doing better. Well, there is: The Liberal Redneck Manifesto by Trae Crowder, Corey Ryan Forrester and Drew Morgan.”
And I learned that I should probably read a number of books I would never otherwise have considered reading, like musicologist William Cheng’s Just Vibrations, which she says posits “that a better academy is possible” if college professors can “turn toward what high school teachers used to call ‘whole child education.’”

I also learned how Volpert picked the Springsteen songs to rewrite:
“I wrote down every way he referred to any woman in every single song. Patterns in the data emerged….I winnowed down this collection of well over one hundred songs by starring my favorites, the top hits, and B-sides that I just felt had interesting language. The result was a list of forty songs, which I then resolved to rewrite from the perspective of the female listener….I love Springsteen’s music for calling me to be an arsonist, the paradoxical gift of creating this thing that destroys—these things that light him up as they melt him down.”

The part of Boss Broad that I liked the best were the book reviews and the musings on the purpose of criticism. The titles range from Lesley Hazleton’s Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto to Carl Bernstein’s biography of Hilary Clinton, A Woman in Charge. In her introduction to a review of Alina Simone’s Madonnaland, Volpert says:
“as a critic, my main job is to convey a clear sense of what is at stake with any particular art object by delivering a fully formed opinion about it to readers who have yet to encounter that object themselves. As a process, criticism gets more complicated when the object of this opinion is a book that itself treats another separate art object. This type of criticism can spawn a stream of tangents for one to follow ad infinitum. The tricky bit is knowing which rabbit holes are worth pursuing and then how deep to fall down into them before they bottom out.”
Employing my usual method of selection for reviewing Volpert’s own book, I have, of course, selected the parts that interest me most and tried to show and occasionally explain why.

In her review of Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway, Volpert defines “literary particularism” as what allows Lamott to “write another single motherhood or alcoholism or religion or whatever other big idea through the insights uniquely afforded by her own experience and its particulars” and points out that this makes her definition of mercy too vague to be helpful for readers. In order to demonstrate how unhelpful Lamott’s picture of “mercy” is, Volpert begins by offering a personal example. She quotes Lamott saying “polite inclusion is the gateway drug to mercy” and responds by saying:
“I suppose I’ll just be grateful to my conservative family for finally agreeing to allow my wife to show up at holiday dinners so that we can suffer severe awkwardness for a few hours together. Or we can go bigger, more impersonal on the merits of incrementalism: the now-defunct Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Jim Crow’s separate but equal policies. Were these polite inclusions on the right road to salvation? How long ought we to wait to arrive at genuine mercy? She argues that instead of failing and then trying harder, we should simply resist less. Sorry, but that’s too close to the complicity of the good German for my comfort.”
Volpert’s conclusion is that:
“Lamott glosses logical contradictions by seeming to embrace the inevitability of hypocrisy. She is even charmed by it. It’s so cute how humanity struggles to do the right thing so often. And yet, we must ‘hallelujah anyway.’ We must keep working on being better people—more just, more merciful, more humble—anyway. I agree completely with the action suggested by her conclusion, but I disagree with these modes and means by which she argues it.”
You can see that Megan Volpert is a critic after my own heart, taking apart a conclusion she agrees with to see what strikes her as wrong about how the author got there.

I closely identify with Volpert’s feelings about Hillary Clinton. She refers to “that moment on Election Day 2016 when I had the incredible opportunity to vote for Hillary Clinton for President of the United States,” and I’ve also described it as an opportunity I’d waited for all my life, one I celebrated by wearing an item of jewelry that had been my mother’s, so she would have some part of being there for the first presidential election in which we could vote for a woman. The letdown on the day after the election, as Volpert points out, is a reminder that all along I should have been working harder to educate my neighbors on the issues at stake in local and national politics, and that now I must take on more than my share in order to make up for my years of inaction.

Volpert also reminds us of where we began with the list of outrages that somehow have not outraged enough people: “the Republican National Convention’s bleak and backdropless vision of America on the edge of apocalypse, where a prospective First Lady can plagiarize a chunk of her speech from the opposing party unpunished.” In fact, Volpert describes a game she calls “normal or abnormal.”
“Here’s how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, ‘Is this normal or abnormal?’ If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that’s too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never now. Hilarious, right?”
She then proceeds to enumerate all the things wrong with this game, including that “if your sense of irony has only gotten as far as the idea that ‘abnormal’ is ‘the new normal,’ you’re way behind.”

This book works in concert with other books and songs, like Patti Smith’s M Train, which Volpert describes as requiring its readers to feel “the kind of compassion that ultimately bolsters an optimism needed for making life livable,” certainly something we need more of since the 2016 election. Reading this book might inspire some of that optimism, especially reading the best essay, which comes towards the end. It’s the story of how Megan Volpert and her wife Mindy attended an episode of The Colbert Show, and what happened there. You should read it.

Really, you should read the whole thing. And maybe sing along, while you’re at it.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    June 26, 2019 7:24 am

    That normal / abnormal game seems like a dangerous one to play these days. And she seems too right about being ironic, which in these conditions risks being equivalent to numb.

    • June 27, 2019 3:11 pm

      Yes, she talks about race in terms of what seems normal and to who(m).

  2. June 28, 2019 5:44 pm

    Oh wow, this sounds really unique and strange — and great! The normal/abnormal drinking game made me want to cry a little bit, so I guess she has succeeded. :p

    • July 3, 2019 9:07 am

      If only it affected more people the way it affects you.

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