The Reading Room: The Meat of the Matter
By Miranda Marraccini ’12, Staff Writer
“Cleaving,” the title of Julie Powell ’95’s recent memoir, is an oddly ambiguous word. To cleave something is to split it, to take it apart into two bloody halves, to sever a connection with a single steely blow. Yet to cleave is also to adhere, to cling to what one has, to refuse to let one shining whole become two dull fragments.

Although Powell never mentions it explicitly, she certainly exploits the word’s duality in this book, her first after the bestselling “Julie and Julia.” In “Cleaving,” Powell, vaguely dissatisfied with her newly successful life, slips away from the husband she so tenderly praised in her previous book to pursue a bondage-flavored two-year affair with an old Five College acquaintance (an affair her husband quickly discovers, reciprocating with infidelity of his own.) When her paramour breaks it off, she stalks him instead, recording ever-more-desperate attempts to batter her way back into his unwilling arms. Along the way, seeking a feeling of control over her unruly personal life, Powell decides to train as a butcher, in the hope that cutting up animals will allow her to “break something apart to make something else beautiful, understand something, a body, its parts, the logic of it.”

So Powell cleaves to her husband, Eric, even as she cleaves apart their marriage. She cleaves to her lover as he tries repeatedly to cleave their affair in two. She cleaves whole sides of cow into pieces in order to understand how to put things back together, if that is even possible.

It’s different, the story. It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever read, which bodes well. But the concept doesn’t quite work, as hard as Powell tries. Perhaps all the trying is the problem —her heavy-handed paragraphs make the comparison between butchery and relationships obvious, overcooking what could have been a very rare and subtle analogy. And after all, I’m still not sure that her passion for butchery as a healing art is convincing; aren’t there many vocations that involve taking things apart and admiring how cunningly they fit together?

Vegetarians be warned: you can’t just skip over the meat parts. All the parts are meat parts. On the other hand, if you’ve ever wondered how to break open a hip joint, how to extract pig’s brains with your bare hands, what raw goat’s blood tastes like or what goes into head cheese (hint: it’s heads), you’re in luck. I’m a vegetarian myself, a species for which Powell has a special kind of contempt. Actually, though, I found all that detailed, meticulous butchery pretty fascinating. I became inured to the gory descriptions and began to focus on the skill and art of it. But it’s certainly an acquired taste.

Strangely, Powell’s gasping marriage and unshakeable affair are less palatable subjects than the dead animals. Her obsessive behavior through much of the book — sending unwanted gifts and creepy text messages, having anonymous sex with someone who disgusts her — is frankly disturbing. I don’t find it entertaining to read about a near sexual assault that leaves Powell feeling “punished,” even if she acknowledges that this is unhealthy.

Equally disappointing is the nagging sensation of literary ambition. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Powell was thinking up chapter titles at every step, that she did what she did not only for herself, but also for the good of the memoir. She doesn’t come across as a confused, smarting, conflicted woman. She comes across as a memoirist.

That said, Powell has some appealing qualities as a narrator. She’s brash, unwithholding and creative. She comes up with charming, graphic metaphors for bits of raw meat, which I hadn’t thought possible. She conveys character elegantly, with only a few sharp adjectives, a telling detail. She also happens to be an Amherst graduate, which makes for a fun sort of guessing game. Her lover, called D, “lived in my college town, but went to another college very near by.” Try to figure out which one.

But the plunging confessional style that makes Powell engaging also causes problems. She doesn’t worry about the story’s linearity, which makes the timeline confusing, especially at the beginning. And she’s also prone to self-flattery. While she makes no secret of her many flaws, she overemphasizes both her bravado and her sex appeal. Julie Powell, it seems, is irresistibly and universally attractive. Her book is not. It’s vivid and compelling, but its strength is description, not philosophy. It’s uneven, like a thick steak, charred in some places and bloody at its center.

Issue 06, Submitted 2010-10-20 01:08:21