Michelle Orange is the New Black

Nothing ruins an essay collection more than an author’s smug, self-referencing anecdote dropped into a more serious piece on say, war or George Eliot. Somehow when Michelle Orange does it, I don’t mind at all. Her superb essay collection This is Running for Your Life, part of the excellent FSG paperback originals line (they’re the best pocket size attractive books!), spans topics from the American Psychiatric Association conference in Hawaii leading up to the publication of the latest edition of the DSM, to a rumination on Michael Jackson, to, in what I consider the pièce de résistance, an essay on her addiction to running, not for the usuals reasons of health and weight, but as a way of escape.

Her essays tend to meander, like Grandpa Simpson, and you might forget what the original intention was, but then she says something so stunningly witty and acute, you’re glad you got lost, like that time you took the wrong turn in Mexico and stumbled across that amazing taco stand. In a paragraph on the changing ways of defining personality disorders, Orange writes, “Freudians claimed successful psychoanalysis as a safe passage into adulthood; Carl Jung believed the personality only reaches perfection in death. It’s classically rich terrain, but as psychiatry continues to narrow its focus on the individual and his scientific profile, the whole concept of having a personality—a way of being formed symbiotically, over time and in relation to others—is politely being ushered to the land of the obsolete, where it will rest between chivalry and laser-disc players.” While the pop culture references could become tiresome, they never do in her essays. Instead they add depth and richness.

This book of essays came out earlier this year, received some smart reviews from some smart people, but I fear it’s not gained the attention that it deserves. Long-form essayists worth reading are as rare as can be; once you find one, you want to covet and make sure they never get away. Orange deserves coveting. Don’t believe me, read her book and you’ll see that she’s the real thing, a smart, singular voice in a world of sameness.

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