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"Splinters": The Opposite of a Cocktail-Party

Sarah Moorhouse reviews Leslie Jamison's Splinters (Little, Brown and Company, 2024)


The problem with reviewing a book by an author whose previous work you have lapped up and whose every move you follow on Twitter is that it can be hard to evaluate their latest book on its own terms. Leslie Jamison’s Splinters was released at the end of February to enormous fanfare. Plastered onto ‘most anticipated books of 2024’ lists across the media, this memoir—which unspools the tale of Jamison’s divorce alongside her deepening bond with her baby daughter—was positioned to be a massive hit. Splinters caters to what we might call the ‘cult of Jamison’, the horde of eager followers Jamison has acquired since the success of her bestselling books The Empathy Exams (2014) and The Recovering (2018).


I refer to Jamison’s fans as ‘followers’ rather than ‘readers’ deliberately. Jamison has developed such a distinctive brand (the blurb for Splinters labels her as a ‘scribe of the real’) that she captures the kind of devoted following possessed by influencers on social media. Her subject is herself, examined in unsparing detail – and her readers love it. A friend recently summed it up to me bluntly, declaring, ‘Leslie could write about taking a shit and I’d be there for it’. Jamison is beloved by her readers because she articulates the most uncomfortable things, and the parts of ourselves that we might be reluctant to admit to. Since she does this through a laser-sharp focus on her own emotional experience, her work invites a perhaps inevitable criticism: it’s solipsistic.  This is an issue that she herself grapples with: ‘if writing was my great love’, she wonders in Splinters, ‘I often wondered if it was ultimately a form of self-love, a kind of poison’.


By developing a style so grounded in the substance of her own daily life, Jamison risks that ultimate indulgence in a writer: self-absorption, even self-obsession. A dash of solipsism is an ingredient in much great writing, but Jamison delivers it neat, pouring us shot after shot of intense, granular self-examination. Jamison opens Splinters with a litany to the everyday: Leslie and her daughter arrive at their New York sublet with ‘garbage bags full of shampoo and teething crackers, sleeves of instant oatmeal, zippered pyjamas with little dangling feet’. It’s significant that the word ‘garbage’ makes it into Jamison’s first sentence: pushed to pin down what Jamison’s brand is, we might say that she works with the detritus of experience that other writers discard. We find ourselves, with Jamison, in and amongst the mundane. But note her daughter’s ‘little dangling feet’: amongst the rubbish, Jamison reminds us, are the things that matter most. 

Her subject is herself, examined in unsparing detail – and her readers love it.


In Splinters, Jamison sets her identity as a mother alongside her position as a professor of creative writing at Columbia University.  She describes exhorting her students to ‘dislodge the cocktail party version of the story’ when they write, instructing them to reject smoothed-over anecdotes that make the teller look good. She declares to her students (and here we really see how unflinching she is in her approach), that she


believed in the empty pilsner cans and bunched-up masturbation tissues of this life; the Clorox tang of semen in the back of the throat; the tenderness of a mother making apple crisp in foil packets over an open fire.

Of course, if your source material is going to be scrunched up beer cans and dirty tissues, then you really need to write these things well. And Jamison does. She writes like she’s your most interesting friend talking to you on the phone – her style is urgent and immediate, keeping you fascinated even as she digresses from one minor detail to another.

The problem with this way of writing is that it demands the kind of reader who’s willing to acquaint themselves with Jamison’s whole oeuvre. In Splinters, Jamison makes passing references to episodes in her life that she has chronicled at length in previous essays, such as her battle with anorexia and the accident at eighteen that left her with her jaw clamped shut for a month. It had been a while since I’d read The Empathy Exams, where Jamison writes about these episodes, and I found myself needing to refer to this earlier work to remind myself what her jaw accident involved (she fell from a 20-foot tree in Costa Rica). Like a close friend filling you in on their latest, Jamison doesn’t pause to outline the backstories behind such incidents in Splinters: it’s as if she’s assuming we know them already. For this reason, the memoir is a treat for Jamison’s fans but might present more of a challenge to those coming to her work for the first time. She is right to tell her students not to overlook the small details, but one might add to this another imperative: don’t forget the headline, either.

Indeed, to read Splinters is to feel oneself sucked into a whole warren of rabbit holes. In a format reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Bluets, Jamison takes us through the story of her divorce and early motherhood in pieces. The book is divided into three parts (MILK, SMOKE and FEVER), each of which is structured into distinct chunks of prose. These paragraphs zigzag back and forth across five or so years of Jamison’s life, so that we see her daughter as a baby, a toddler, then a baby again, and her husband (whom she refers to throughout as ‘C’) emerges both as the man she fell in love with and as Jamison’s antagonist in their increasingly acrimonious divorce. This format is certainly innovative, offering a striking picture of the various versions of oneself and of one’s loved ones that coexist in the mind. 

The form of Jamison’s writing in Splinters emphasises one of its central preoccupations: the contradictions inherent in any given set of circumstances. Jamison’s narrative arcs toward her acceptance of the conflicting elements that make up a life. She decides at the end of the book ‘to stop fetishizing the delusion of a pure feeling, or a love unpolluted by damage. To commit to the compromised version instead’. Jamison sees the success of such an attitude in the long-term marriage of a friend, which she describes as ‘an exotic jewel’: ‘that kind of happiness’, she recognises, ‘was not pure. It was something better. It held the splinters of old struggles’.

In a way, therefore, Jamison’s splintered style (vignettes of memory are broken up without a linking sentence in sight) does more than echo the excited patter of conversation with a friend: it does justice to the fragmentation inherent in recollection. There’s something true in the way she jumps around, turning from memories of her divorce to stories of her own parents’ marital breakdown and back again. Jamison continually tills the soil of her messy, rich memories. In another way, however, this kind of grazing on experience can make the reader long for a tighter structure. The point of memoir isn’t to unload memory raw: that’s what a diary is for. This issue doesn’t arise as urgently in Jamison’s previous works, which fall largely into the category of the hybrid essay, interspersing personal experience with criticism. Splinters is her first book focused purely on herself, and the absence of the usual third-party subject matter is starkly apparent. One of my favourite Jamison essays is ‘The Immortal Horizon’, a piece about ultra-marathon runners published in The Empathy Exams. Here, Jamison’s detailed descriptions and first-person reportage, as she speaks to the runners and marvels at their almost unhinged levels of stamina, make the reader feel present in the scene. 

Jamison continually tills the soil of her messy, rich memories.

In Splinters, Jamison’s attention remains illuminating, but it is invariably focused on herself. When she describes going to the Brooklyn Museum, for example, artworks are discussed because of how they make her feel. Jamison describes Wangechi Mutu’s Eat Cake with her usual flair for clarity through simplicity: she tells us that, in this twelve-minute film in which we see the artist devour an entire cake, ‘Mutu looks unkempt and beautiful and hungry’. And then we are immediately plunged back into Jamison’s psyche: ‘What was I hungry for?  […] It took me years to figure out that it wasn’t her hunger that compelled me, but the fact that she was satisfying it’. We are given a far more sophisticated insight into the viewer than the art itself, with Jamison applying the forensic lens of the critic to her own experiences. In an earlier essay, ‘Morphology of a Hit’, Jamison writes about an intention to ‘look back on my own life like text’, and in Splinters, she has delivered the fullest possible realisation of such an approach.

And why not?  Why shouldn’t a memoir have its author as its centre of gravity, the point of focus through which everything else is understood? Surely in this, Jamison pins down something that we all do. Everyone is the protagonist of their own life, and when she describes coming away from an exhibition with the clearest opinion of the work which speaks most to her, she captures something at the heart of how we tend to experience art. Similarly, when Jamison lingers on details that border onto the bathetic (‘soggy patio furniture’, ‘plain yoghurt with frozen blueberries’, a ‘frayed pair of jeggings’), they gain significance through her noticing of them. As the wider structures of her life disintegrate and reorganise themselves – her marriage, her identity as a writer – it’s out of mundane details that Jamison traces and maintains her sense of self.  And in a world so cluttered with stuff wherever we look, that’s an important point for a writer to acknowledge.

Leslie Jamison’s writing is remarkable in large part for the influence it wields on those who admire it. She doesn’t only make the reader want to read on, she makes us want to go and write like she does. As a writer but also as a teacher, Jamison has developed a style of autobiography that is primed to be copied, being rooted in the everyday and expressed in language as simple as it is clear. At times, though, Splinters rests on these stylistic strengths at the expense of winning over a wider readership. A sharp verbal picture of a jacket or a breast pump is refreshing when used to break up more abstract discussion. But without the inverse form of variety, Jamison’s memoir risks getting stuck on the very ‘self-love’ that she seeks to avoid.  I remain a fan of Jamison, and as someone who has relished her previous books, this memoir delivered an enjoyment akin to watching a ‘what’s in my bag?’ video with a favourite celebrity.  Jamison makes friends of her readers through her commitment to oversharing. Those who don’t identify with her ruminating tendencies, however, might find Splinters a bit much.

SARAH MOORHOUSE grew up in London and holds BA and master’s degrees in English literature from the University of Oxford. Based between Oxford and London, she works as an Associate Editor for McGraw Hill Education and an entry writer for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lit Hub, The Bookseller, and Necessary Fiction, among other publications.


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