Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

How to Make Amends

Eve Tushnet shows that therapy and recovery are mere balms without the work of mercy.

In the annals of comic writing, fewer debuts are seemingly as auspicious as that of Eve Tushnet’s novel Amends. One might have to even go back into ancient history, to Evelyn Waugh’s Welsh-bashing days of Decline and Fall to find something roughly comparable. A typical Eve Tushnet sentence sparkles like gem cut to break the skin when held, while her dialogue washes down like a dry martini laced with ipecac. Tushnet also has a talent for making one feel inadequate about one’s own ability to craft decent similes. So let’s just say that Eve Tushnet is funny, and bitterly so.

But don’t take my word for it: “J. Malachi MacCool was born in Berkeley, California in the last decade of the Cold War to parents who deserved better,” the very first sentence goes. “He had a dilapidated body and a face like the last days of the Raj: jowly, discredited, eager for the final defeat.” It is a particularly throaty rev of an engine that seldom relents from there.

In my checkered history of being seduced by prose, there have been worse outcomes (shameful dalliances with Nicholson Baker come immediately to mind). The surface presentation draws one in with enviable but desirable displays of elegance that stop just short of peacocking, or at least have just the right amount. But literary encounters aren’t much different from human ones. There is the ever imperfect business of getting to know someone or something in which awkwardness, tedium, disappointment, or just plain mismatching of sensibilities are often lurking. In other words, I came away from Amends infatuated, but not thirsty.

“We are looking for smart, articulate people who are fucked-up in stupid, articulate ways,” says television producer Bentley to her new production assistant Ana. “We’re not going for the bottom of the barrel,” she continues, “we want to show that the barrel is pretty much all bottom.” The Amends of the title is the MTV reality show she is hoping to cast with “talent” who can barely function without alcohol and send them to rehab to help them “figure out that humbling themselves, admitting wrongdoing, and trying to make amends to the specific people they hurt will actually make them happy.”

In Real America such criteria would not pass muster at MTV programming (at least not the “articulate” part), but in the at once more wondrous and more dispiriting Satirical America, Tushnet’s six substance-bewitched characters make up a bilious rainbow. They are, in order of personal interest, Emebet, a homeless Ethiopian immigrant; J. Malachi (or Jaymi), a conservative journalist; Medea, a lesbian playwright; “Sharptooth,” a wolf-identifying otherkin; Colton, a gay, highly unscrupulous collections agent; and Dylan, a Midwestern hockey player. Together, and with camera crews in tow, they spend a typically dismal Pennsylvania fall in rehab captivity, and we get to watch as they mug, snipe, and vomit at, over, or on/around each other.

Of the reality-show aspect of the novel there is very little to say, other than a verbal medium is insufficient to capture and comment on the visual cues and manipulative editing by which the genre defines itself. There are confessionals, of course, and people set up for “villain edits” (Jaymi and Medea mainly), and a Greek chorus of internet commenters concluding some chapters. But it serves more ably as a narrative-light framework in which to subject these six people to each other, like various venomous animals rolling around in a shoebox.

Much of the action of Amends, as well as the source of its appeal, is centered on the Noah’s Rainbow treatment center. Tushnet does a commendable job replicating the off-white Hell that is the therapeutic clinic: the stabilizing meds, the horrible food, the soulless décor, the lax utilities, the intrusive staff, the “community activities” disguised as group therapy, actual group therapy. As rendered by Emebet, it is like “America boiled down to its pungent essence: an excruciating place without privacy, without anything familiar, for which she was expected to be grateful.” It is a sort of postmodern contortion of the clinical captivity narrative made famous by the likes of Girl, Interrupted and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where Nurse Ratchet is replaced on the one hand by a “bright and bouncy” crocs-clad “sober director” on the one hand and “shit-stirring” production assistant Ana on the other, whose few appearances give off a detached, almost Luciferian air.

Under these constraints, the talent/patients are subject to interact, and they do so in ways many of us wish we could if beset with similar circumstances. Some of the more memorable lines come from this grand middle section. “[Americans] will help you less if you are suffering,” Emebet says, “because suffering is not being positive.” “You were bullied by manners?” Colton asks in reply to Sharptooth. (Some of the best lines are almost always in response to Sharptooth: “I find it interesting that your identity matters only when it makes you special,” Medea observes, “not when it would make it hard to eat french fries.”) “This is the real damage of addiction,” Medea says. “It turns you into a bad metaphor for yourself.” The same goes with Tushnet’s acerbic narration. “[Emebet] had the serene nihilism of a fluorescent light fixture.” “Sharptooth was trying on her Clark Kent disguise of human normalcy, but it was working depressingly well. Nobody treated her like a freak or a puzzle. She felt painfully unoppressed.” “Media hunched over her folding chair like a gargoyle that had lost its cathedral.” And so on.

Yet this is also where the novel’s weak point lies. While most readers may find themselves enraptured by the characters and their opinions, it is just as easy to get lost and subsumed by the chaos the clashing personalities create for themselves. This, of course, is the experience of sitting through group therapy, which is tedious enough in person. Read through enough passages, a creeping glaze might set in, the kind that tilts one’s head up hoping to come face-to-face with a bunker buster; typical therapy stuff. Points for accuracy, but more often than not they act as detours from the grander points Tushnet wants to make.

True to its title, Amends is a paean to the idea of forgiveness, or more profoundly to “become sorrow for my misdeeds.” If it doesn’t fly in the face of current therapeutic and self-help trends it at least starkly contrasts their more redemption- or empowerment-centric narratives, the idea that obstacles can be overcome, or at least outrun. Tushnet is at her strongest when offering correctives to this in ways both minor and major. “You want to be Jesus,” Emebet, the novel’s clear moral center, says to Jaymi. “But you want to do it on your own terms. It is more fun to get crucified on cheap vodka; it doesn’t require a real sacrifice. You are hugging yourself and telling yourself this is the same as punishment, and punishment is the same as penance.”

Our addictions, maladies, and transgressions cannot be undone, we can accept that they have happened and change by them. In this sense, Amends is Catholic literature that harks back less toward Evelyn Waugh’s social irreverence and more toward Flannery O’Connor’s grace-through-suffering, with added emphasis on reconciliation. Therapy and recovery are mere balms without the work of receiving mercy and being merciful.

Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey.