This isn’t how

Let me start off today’s (very belated, I know) review of Augusten Burroughs’ This is How with a passage from one essay in the book, “How to Be Fat”:

“Almost every serial dieter I know speaks of his or her ‘relationship with food’ and how ‘complex’ it is.

As with any shitty relationship, the solution is not to spend years in couples therapy and scheduling sex every Wednesday.  If it’s really a shitty relationship, you have to leave it.

If you go on a diet and you lose weight and keep the weight off, that means you wanted it, you got what you wanted, then you actually liked having it, so you’ve kept it.

But if you diet and fail and diet and fail, you clearly have to stop with the dieting because you don’t like diets of any kind enough to follow them.

So. You let yourself eat anything you want and food becomes a commodity. It’s less interesting to stand before the glittering, freshly stocked All You Can Eat buffet when you have been standing there every night for the past six months, eating all you want, which is less and less each time. When no food is off-limits, all food becomes equal and calories evaporate, even if they pile on. But these calories, no matter how actually fattening, contain no meaning. Your war with your weight must end because wars require more than one active party.”

There you have it, guys. Augusten Burroughs, just ten short years after releasing his debut novel, Running with Scissors, has managed to cure obesity. Tired of being fat? Eat whatever you want! Don’t worry, eventually your body will figure it out. I mean, eventually might be five years from now, when you weigh 500 pounds and end up starring in one of those TLC specials about people who can’t leave their houses without removing an entire wall. But don’t worry: You’ll be content in the knowledge that at least you didn’t waste time fighting with yourself over the fact that carrots suck more than cookies.

Out of all of the essays in This is How, the one on weight loss annoyed me the most—big surprise from the girl whose own “eat whatever I want” regimen has resulted in a weight gain over the last five years equivalent to about three medium-sized toddlers. Let me just tell everyone from the trenches of this particular healthy living methodology: If you really like food, it’s not going to work. Sure, maybe after a week at the beach—subsisting on beer and funnel cake—some part of my sugar-addled brain thinks “Huh, it’d be nice to eat some vegetables right now,” but the thought is fleeting, and lasts about as long as it takes me to find the caramel popcorn. My yearning for high-fat, high-sugar amazingness has very little to do with whether I consider that food novel and much more to do with how much I like having that food in my mouth. 

Anyway, this essay—and my reaction to it—is pretty emblematic of how I felt about this book overall.  Back in the Running with Scissors days, I honestly thought Augusten Burroughs was going to end up being one of my favorite authors, like of all time. And, true to form, I have dutifully read all of his books, in hardcover, as soon as they’re released. But starting with A Wolf at the Table (which was, granted, his latest book before This is How) it just seems like Burroughs is losing it. Not his mind of course, but his ability to mix poignant and sarcastic, or cynical and insightful, without sacrificing too much of one for the other. A Wolf at the Table—which covered Burroughs’ childhood experiences with his somewhat insane father—veered (understandably) in a darker direction than usual. This is How, by contrast, strains so hard to be insightful that it feels overworked, and not all that different from the run-of-the-mill self-help books Burroughs is trying (?) to parody.

Burroughs says early on that a longtime relationship soured recently, and it seems like this book is in some ways a response to that situation, a figurative “fuck you” to the idea that something so puerile could bring him down in a way that past traumas—his crazy childhood, his failed careers, his bout with alcoholism—never managed to. But for me at least, the end result is sort of like that friend you have who acts totally okay with her recent breakup, until you’ve had one too many tequila shots and suddenly she’s got her head on the bar, sobbing about how she really thought he was the one and life is just a bunch of fucking bullshit. I have no doubt that Burroughs is, after everything, a pretty strong guy, and not so easily deterred by life’s calamities, but This is How seems like an ill-informed attempt to take it one step further: The best way to stay ahead of life’s calamities is to avoid acknowledging them. Fat? Eat whatever you want! Depressed? Fuck therapy! Alcoholic? AA is dumb! Basically just be in touch with yourself, and everything else falls into place. …Right.

One of my greater faults as a human being is a certain need to always have the answer, or worse, to always be right. The people closest to me are most familiar with it—I have stormed out of one or two family dinners for the sole reason of being disagreed with—and I’m grateful for their patience. But like recognizes like, and the same sort of unwarranted know-it-all vibe comes out in This is How. Sure, there are a few choice essays, some interesting quotes, and some signature Augusten Burroughs style, but for the most part the book seemed half-baked, or oversimplified.

There was something familiar, and endearing, about the old Augusten Burroughs, the one who definitely didn’t have all the answers, the one who actually found the whole need for answers in the first place a darkly comic facet of everyday existence. I miss that guy. Even if this guy is telling me to go ahead and eat cake.


TITLE: This Is How
AUTHOR: Augusten Burroughs
PAGES: 230 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Running with Scissors, Dry
SORTA LIKE: Augusten Burroughs writes The Prophet
FIRST LINE: “Several years ago when the relationship I assumed was both nearly perfect and my last turned out to be neither and ended car-off-cliff style, I experienced an unexpected and profound personal awakening.”

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