I got my copy of METROPOLITAN LIFE from a friend about a month ago. It’s a small paperback, found languishing in a used book store and saved from obscurity. Or, at least, saved from being bought by one of those English Literature students who is more likely to line a wall with books by famous authors than they are to actually read any of them. I have been reading it in bits and pieces, whenever I needed a quick shot of crisp humor to pick me up or clear my head. Lebowitz is brilliant, insightful, and sharp, there’s no doubt about that. She’s also truly humorous, in a dry and brittle way, as if the humor is mainly to be found in realizing that you get the joke many others would not. I love her. (Note: PUBLIC SPEAKING, the Scorsese documentary, was one of the ones I recommended a few weeks ago.)
The book is broken up into sections which contain a great number of tiny essays, most two or three pages long, which largely appeared in Interview and Mademoiselle before being collected into a book. There’s a quick introductory essay about how little she can get done in a day, and then the essays are sorted into the following categories: MANNERS, SCIENCE, ARTS, and LETTERS (capitalization hers). Some of the essays cover topics such as race or feminism, and a few contain ideas that may seem outdated now, but to be fair, it is nearly 40 years since she wrote the essays in the first place. For the most part, they are just as funny as they would have been to someone reading them when they first appeared in print.
There are too many to review individually but some of my favorites from MANNERS were “Vocational Guidance for the Truly Ambitious”, where I discovered that I was a natural dictator*, “Children: Pro or Con?”, where she explains that the right child is more useful than one might assume, and “Notes on ‘Trick'”, a handy guide which might serve some of us even today. In SCIENCE I was especially fond of “Weak Speech Handsets: Aid for the Dull”, where she invents a device to make some people worth listening to, and “Why I Love Sleep”, where she lists famous people who appear to also have slept at least once in a while, and “Food For Thought and Vice Versa” where she explains that real food is meant to be eaten instead of merely being pretty, and that “Large, naked, raw carrots are acceptable as food only to those who live in hutches eagerly awaiting the return of Easter.” ARTS focuses on design, and furniture, and her inability to find either that doesn’t rob “comfortable” to make “modern”. In “Color: Drawing The Line” she explains the true meanings behind the primary colors, none of which she particularly approves of. In it she describes blue by saying, “In dealing with champions of this hue one could do worse than remember that water is also the favorite environment of sharks and is the cause, nine times out of ten, of death by drowning.” I cannot argue with her on either point, though I will note that I rather like both blue and sharks. I am less fond of drowning. In LETTERS she writes on the act of writing and the meaning of being a writer, and therefore I can recommend each essay in this section. Very important is “Writing: A Life Sentence” where she helpfully describes the things by which you can tell if your child is doomed to become a writer, so that you can avoid this at all costs.
If you have no idea who Fran Lebowitz is, and certainly some of you don’t, go out now and pick up this little book with great haste. You can thank me later.
* Please note: I already knew this.
Publisher: Fawcett (The edition I have is 1978)