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Tongue First
Emily Jenkins

Tongue First
Emily Jenkins
London 2000

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I found this book strangely difficult to read, but not because of the subject matter. I suppose I should have felt taken aback by Jenkins’s apparently blithe foray into the realms of heroin, strip clubs, tattoos-as-identity-symbols, fetishism, etc., but I didn’t particularly. Rather, I felt sorry that an obviously talented writer should waste her potentially enormous literary personality on words like butt and dude. Unfortunately, the self-conscious, adolescent sounding voice Jenkins frequently reverts to doesn’t have the effect of an arresting patois initiating the reader into a young-yet-intellectual urban American culture of ‘telling it like it is.’ Instead, it limits the scope of Jenkins’s ability to engage the reader on a deeper level. This is why I found the book difficult–the blithe adolescentisms just don’t do justice to the intellectual energy of the adult interpretations.

Jenkins’s fascination with the visceral world we all inhabit but generally don’t discuss is incredibly seductive, and her writing style, when she lets it, has the power to pull the reader into the logic of her discussion absolutely–but she never does wholly let it. Effectively, the book has all the ingredients necessary for a really penetrating analysis of the interconnection between American fringe and popular body culture, but it doesn’t fulfil its promise because of the author’s self-consciousness. On the other hand, it is specifically this adolescent sounding voice which will make Jenkins a wealthy woman, at least if the current appetite for disaffected-yet-mainstream-twenty-to-thirty-something-women’s-writing remains intact. After Burroughs’s, Jenkins’s must be the most lucrative lines of heroin imbibed in the second half of the twentieth century–and all this without so much as an addiction.

In fact, Jenkins’s main addiction appears to be sleep; she writes about the lure of nodding off with all the lyrical warmth and ambivalence of the true addict: ‘”At Last!” cries my body as it sinks into the downy pile: cozy, stress-free. I’m asleep in minutes, I stay so for hours. A liquid state, sweet and soft, feet tangled in the covers, clothes crushed. Then I stagger awake, dizzy, sorry. Time wasted. Stumble about, smoky brain. Lie down again for a minute. Roll over and look out the window. Its getting dark.’ Not only is this elegant writing, it feels like true writing, as if Jenkins owns the experience she’s describing. Unfortunately, these moments of honesty are interspersed with phrases like ‘Unbelievable. I was fucking a fashion critic. I told him I didn’t like tighty-whities. Then we threw all our clothes on the floor and forgot about it.’ This has all the elegance of wise-cracking, amateur stand-up comedy.

So many reviewers have praised Jenkins’s ‘modesty’, by which I can only assume they mean her tendency to remind the reader that she knows she is white, middle class, and young–and therefore escapes being beneath contempt by acknowledging that she is. I suppose the intention is really to project the self-aware boundaries of the control in a quasi-anthropological undertaking. However, I don’t really think this work is anthropology. Certainly, it shares an emphasis on the cultural encounter, and it is unendingly hip to do anthropological studies on one’s own culture these days, but to my mind Jenkins’s discussion inclines more towards memoir, or personal essay. Perhaps it is this wavering between genres which keeps Jenkins from getting to the meaningful core of the body/soul she mentions in her introduction. Nonetheless, Tongue First is an affecting book, and I am willing to bet that when Jenkins decides to own all of her experience, she will become a real force to reckon with.

Reviewed by Amanda Jeremin Harris


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