The Rules Do Not Apply
Professors of creative nonfiction teach their students to mine their own lives for the darkest truths about themselves — actions and events that will make the writer seem like a real, i.e., deeply flawed, human being. At the same time, Phillip Lopate famously warned nonfiction writers that they would likely have to “wrestle with what might be called the stench of ego,” the sense that their own troubles and triumphs were the most important events in the world.
In her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy acknowledges both these notes. For the better part of the book, Levy can seem, by her own admission, aloof, selfish, manipulative, deceitful, and downright unlikeable. There are certainly moments of tenderness and happiness in her long-term relationship/marriage to heavy-drinking Lucy, but there is also betrayal on both sides. Similarly, Levy’s accomplishments as an investigative journalist never quite seem to compensate for the turmoil of her personal life.
Despite her successes with the New Yorker, Levy’s life is permeated with a sense of aimlessness, and the early part of book doesn’t always seem to know where it’s going. Then, at the beginning of chapter nine, Levy announces: “One day you are very young and then suddenly you are thirty-five and it is Time.” Time to get pregnant, that is, and the rest of the book follows her ultimately successful attempt to carry a child. Tragically, the child dies, as Levy acknowledges in the book’s preface, asking herself, “Am I in an Italian opera? A Greek tragedy? Or is this just a weirdly grim sitcom?”
The scene describing her child’s death is heart-wrenching, and from that point in the memoir, Levy is clearly the heroine of her own story. The book’s title is ironic — the rules ultimately do apply to Levy as much as to anyone else — so our sympathies would have shifted in her direction in any case. The fact that she is such a talented stylist and storyteller only makes her case more convincing. After all, we readers are apt to forgive a good writer just about anything.