Jesse Barron in Bookforum:
JANET MALCOLM WROTE in 1989 that much American psychotherapy aims not to explore the unconscious but to transpose the genre of the patient’s life, usually from a tragedy to a domestic comedy. Marriage manuals for middle-class whites succeed to the extent that they provide either a romantic story readers can live with or passive acceptance of a not-romantic story that feels warm and comic, not bleak and absurd. They transport us from Happy Days the Beckett play to Happy Days the Fonzie show. As an aesthetic, hokeyness has a single great advantage. It sets relaxingly low stakes. How life-or-death can it be if we’re talking about piling into the van to play minigolf or fornicating with a ciabatta? But that is the paradox of the marriage-manual form, its special strangeness compared to other how-to guides. By transposing us into a low-stakes story, it forfeits the intensity that draws us to marriage in the first place, turning what was once a one-way ticket to happiness or misery into something that looks like an affair between very polite start-up founders.
Though marriage can be funny, I am not sure it is best understood as comic. The ending spoils it. Romantic comedies end with happy marriage; happy marriage, like tragedy, ends in death. And death is the ideal ending, preferably your own. I notice that I sometimes sublimate my fear of Sarah’s death into the comparatively trivial fear that I will give an inadequate eulogy: I’ll make an ass of myself saying what a beautiful stomach she had, or how she once did the dishes with laundry detergent. “Who will die first?” is another way of asking, “What is the plot here?” Marriage manuals ring false because they are tragedy minus time. By contrast, the most compelling books about monogamy are written after the fact by a surviving partner once the story has sorted itself out. If we want to learn about marriage, we turn here. Donald Hall’s accounts of life with Jane Kenyon before her illness, for example, provide a glimpse of the pleasures of the quotidian, walking around New Hampshire in the summer reading each other’s poems. They continued reading each other even as she was dying, when he recited a draft of his elegy for her. (She said, “You’ve got it.”)