I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
By Nora Ephron
Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95
When she writes about the mess in her purse, her problems with hair, her inability to read because she keeps losing her glasses even though she owns six pairs , an insinuating finger snakes from the page to tap the reader's shoulder with the message: You hadda be there. Possibly so, the reader may feel. Or possibly: You hadda not be there.
Some of Nora Ephron's collection falls into the overplayed genre that ranges from chick lit to the ruefully humorous columns serving to separate the advertisements in style sections and in the glossier fashion magazines. Ostensibly dredging up her life, the writer fashions a writer-doll that she proceeds to undress. It is confession-lite. Absolution-lite doesn't follow, it's already there.
Then, unpredictably, the doll comes alive, as in some faintly scary tale by the German fantasist E.T.A. Hoffmann. Having blandly concealed herself inside the genre, Ephron ambushes us. Straw figure has followed straw figure until suddenly fireworks shoot out. They blaze, incinerate, and some -- because Ephron's subject is a woman's growing old -- leave a mound of ash.
The smaller blazes are bursts of wit that without breaking ground cast the familiar so sharply as to make it seem new. The title piece, ``I Feel Bad About My Neck ," wanders pleasantly among various forms of dilapidation but keeps coming back to the neck.
Obsessiveness is a familiar brand of New York humor, particularly in the classic Broadway musical where the female lead sings it in a gravel-voiced minor. Ephron grates it further. ``Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth," and, of those who argue old age as a time of reconciliation: ``Don't they have necks?"
She writes of the upsurge of the food culture as a history of modern American folkways. The birth control pill and Julia Child came out around the same time, she notes. ``As a result, everyone was having sex , and when the sex was over, you cooked something." She lists the lettuce dynasties: endive, arugula, radicchio, frisée, mesclun: `` And that, in a nutshell, is the history of the last forty years from the point of view of lettuce." Her ``point of view" cranks whimsical into fantastical.
Even when writing predictably enough about children, she provides a moment of acid illumination: ``When your children are teenagers, it's important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you." And, this veteran of two divorces counsels: ``Never marry a man you wouldn't want to be divorced from."
Nothing rueful there; something harder. She might almost have written ``Never marry a man you would mind having die." There are passages where wit is used not to entertain but to lament; not to provide a show of taking up safely blunted arms against herself (where losing becomes a comfortable joke) , but to take real arms against life or death (where loss, however blithely sketched, is no joke at all).
Ephron writes what she calls the story of her life ``in 3 ,500 Words or Less." It is something of a stylistic tour de force: With 23 brief episodes, some seemingly offhand, she conveys not only her life (growing up, marriages, journalism, fiction , and screen writing) but how it has felt.
Its center, somehow, is her mother and her death. ``Everything is copy," she would tell her daughter , and Ephron glosses the meaning that seems to have governed much of her own life and much of this book: ``When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh."
Much of this book , but not all of it. When her mother was dying, painfully, she had said: ``You're a reporter, Nora . Take notes." And Ephron reflects: ``This is not quite the same as `Everything is copy.' "
No, it's not. Her notes are not notes from the underground, exactly, but they are more than copy. They are not Montaigne, but here and there they have a touch of searching for a graver universal in a homely particular. The final section lists the sadnesses of growing old. The comic and rueful turns are still there, but they take on resonance. She turns the purchase of an extravagant bath oil into something else.
``I'm going to feel like an idiot if I die tomorrow and I skimped on bath oil today. So I use quite a lot of bath oil. More than you could ever imagine. If I take a bath, my bathtub is as dangerous as an oil slick. But thanks to the bath oil, I'm as smooth as silk. I am going out to buy more, right now. Goodbye."
Seize the day is a worn cliché, though not when it's getting dark.
Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.