The literary marketability of self-indulgent self-recrimination

I have a compulsion to read while I’m waiting. And while I’m waiting for something, as opposed to someone, more often than not, I seem to have a compulsion to read magazine articles, the more horrid the better. Even if I’ve got something actually worthwhile to read in my own purse.

Which is how I came to reading a story last night at about 2 am about a guy who broke his own arm off after getting his hand pinned to a rock wall by a boulder, in the veterinary emergency clinic waiting room, even though I had a Tobias Wolf novel in my handbag that I really was looking forward to reading.

Ok. So I know that what you’re thinking is, back up a step or two, chica. What were you doing in the veterinary emergency room? And what kind of opportunistic, self-absorbed mother is going to come away from an experience like that and write about what she read while her poor puppy was subjected to hours of tests by complete strangers?

The answer to the first question is spending several hours and several hundreds of dollars to find out that there doesn’t appear to be anything physically wrong with Yogi that would actually explain his behavior and vomiting for the last several days. The answer to the second is that, well, the point of this piece is going to be about the cult of self-indulgent self-recrimination as a literary genre.

You see, the guy who broke his own arm off, rather than die stuck to a boulder, got a book deal out of it.

And that kind of pisses me off.

Now, I’m not going to go buy the book. I read enough in the preview article in Outside magazine in the consulting room of the puppy ER. I had physical reactions to the mildly graphic details of how he went about doing this feat of self-mutilation similar to those I had during the hobbling scene in Misery. Only this was real, told from the point of view of the guy who’d actually been through this hell who’d come to the realization that he was only there because of his own stupid choices and not through some karmic pyramid scheme making its way through the Utah desert; who’d been forced to drink his own urine for days before finally realizing that if he didn’t amputate his arm he’d die not of hypothermia or dehydration, but from the effects of myonecrosis; and who eventually accepted his fate, mustered up the courage to do what had to be done, and saved himself.

Yeah, whatever, dude. This is worthy of a book? To me, this is just more validation that my whole theory about appropriate ways to spend one’s time away from work should not include any activity that precludes calling a cab, an ambulance, or just hopping in the car and going home, the minute it stops being fun. And to be absolutely clear about this, having your hand crushed between a boulder and a rock wall does count as the fun having ceased.

There are two points in the article that I believe are supposed to be the main pivot points—you know, those realizations, twists, unfolding layer-type things that all submissions to This American Life are supposed to contain every 45 seconds or so? Two. And this wasn’t a short article. And these weren’t exactly stunning realizations. In fact, they were kind of pendantic, really.

The first was of the “stop blaming the world for your misfortune; you got yourself into this, dude” variety. Wow, really? So, you go out into the desert completely alone, without telling anyone where you are going, to climb mountains or something with no protective clothing and only enough water and gear for a good walk in the woods, and you’re the only one to blame for the mess you find yourself in? So your assumption before that was that people who actually take precautions are just missing out? Nervous Nellies? I wonder if this guy ever wore seatbelts. Caution is merely for the faint of heart!

Ok, so I realize I’m being harsh. The guy lost his hand because he made some stupid choices and put himself in a bad situation, so yeah, that sucks. I have sympathy for people who’ve been to hell and back, even when they themselves chose to get off the freeway at Hell’s Exit (14a on the NJ Turnpike, for example). Sometimes you have to test your limits. Sometimes you’ve got to really screw up to come to some realizations about yourself, about your motivations, or about why you need to change direction in life. But does that really warrant a book deal?

The second pivot point comes at the end. It’s a pivot point in that he invites you to continue following his survival saga by buying his book. Yes, you’ve just heard his horrific tale of fear and pain, and you’ve just gotten through a squirm-inducing depiction of a person BREAKING HIS OWN ARM OFF!!! But this is just the beginning of the survival tale, he tells you in the last line of the article. Presumably, the book offers 200-300 pages more worth of his heroic escape. Allow me to be the first to say, “yippee”.

One assumes that might include a lot of the sort of self-reflection hinted at in the preview article. The sort where he realizes that everyone else in his family who he has looked down upon all these years for taking the safe route, who have lived responsibly while he went off trying to climb mountains in winter by himself, might not be the cowards he always thought they were. And he might not be the noble heroic character he always saw himself as. There’s a surprise.

So what have we learned from this story? That if you go off by yourself doing extreme sports without the proper safety equipment or a backup plan and something goes wrong, there is a good chance you could seriously blow it and have something really bad happen, like losing a limb, or having to drink your own pee, or dying. On the other hand, we’ve also learned that if you can avoid the third option, you should start looking for a literary agent.

So I admit it, I rubbernecked and read the article. I slowed down to see how many ambulances there were and if anyone was being carried off on a back board. But somehow I doubt I’ll be buying the guy’s book. I’m not going to be one of those people who comes to an almost complete stop to get an accurate body count.

On the other hand, somehow I also think there is a better chance than I’d previously believed to hyping some of my travel misadventures into some reflective narrative where I am forced to do something extreme (like pee in a girlie bar in Tudela?) and realize that perhaps I should be focusing my energies elsewhere and get a big fat advance on the promise that rest of the story will enlighten and inspire others to make their decisions more wisely or something.

At the very least, maybe I should shop the story to an agent.