Books

The Panic of the 30-Somethings, and More

BUT YOU’RE STILL SO YOUNG
How Thirtysomethings Are Redefining Adulthood
By Kayleen Schaefer
228 pp. Dutton. $25.

In the 1950s, sociologists came up with a checklist for entering adulthood: finish school, leave home, make your own money, marry and become a parent. Only once a person had managed all five, the thinking went, were they finally an adult. “These markers are supposed to be some sort of an end,” Schaefer writes. “When we arrive at them, we will know what we’re doing and who we are.”

Are you laughing — or crying — yet? In her thoughtful and well-paced evaluation of “adulthood,” Schaefer explores the struggle today’s ascendant adults face in getting anywhere near these goals “on time.” Her tone is both skeptical of these 70-year-old benchmarks and sympathetic to the many people, like herself, who feel anxious and ashamed for failing to meet them. It’s not that 30-somethings are ditching school, independence and traditional family life out of rebellion, but that their efforts are frequently thwarted. They are facing “the fear that may have been on the edges of our consciousness before: We may never get where we want to be.”

Schaefer’s second book (her first, “Text Me When You Get Home,” took up female friendships with a similar personal-slash-sociological approach) follows eight people struggling to make the leap to adulthood in some way, interspersing their stories with both research and self-reflection. The book’s true subject is ultimately the economy, and the ways in which widening income inequality, job insecurity, the end of unions, gig work, rising education costs and so forth are crushing even the people who are “privileged enough to feel like they have options.” Financial uncertainty touches every aspect of Schaefer’s subjects’ lives: their self-worth, their readiness to commit to marriage or children, their professional fulfillment, their sense of whether their lives are unfolding in a meaningful or even sensical way. As they stumble through their 30s, some with more agita and misfortune than others, they gradually realize that adulthood — at least for most people, at least right now — won’t look like arrival but ongoingness, and a lot of uncertain, hopeful stumbling. As Schaefer describes her own age anxiety, “The churning isn’t going to stop.”

LOVE IS AN EX-COUNTRY
A Memoir

By Randa Jarrar
218 pp. Catapult. $26.

At the beginning of Jarrar’s new collection, she is preparing to undertake a cross-country road trip. It is 2016. “I was fond of dancing, light-skinned and privileged, libidinous, divorced more than once, and ready to motor,” she writes. She gets on the road, but only after a quick trip to bid farewell to a casual lover, who breaks the news he has a new woman and also chlamydia.

Jarrar is a propulsive writer, and the pieces amassed here are chaotic and exuberant, defiant and introspective, carnal and somewhat uneven. Some are full, wrenching narratives, like “What Love Is,” an essay about her teenage years, when she escaped her abusive father only to tangle with the also-abusive older man by whom she had her son. Others sketch moments, or riff on themes in her life, like an affinity for petty theft. Some essays retell events we’ve already read as if for the first time; some end with disorienting abruptness; some just drift off. Together, their effect is impressionistic but forceful, retracing the biography of a body whose identity and dignity have often been contested: Palestinian, fat, desirous and desired, once a site of violence and grief, now a site of pleasure and pride.

Such road trip stories tend to grapple with the myths and vagaries of American identity, and Jarrar does so with the skepticism of someone who is both insider and outsider. She is an American, but only because of an “original wound”: her family’s displacement from Palestine. She is enraged by the cruel hypocrisy of this country, highlighted by the first year of Trump’s presidency, the year of the so-called “Muslim ban.” And by its misogyny: “America hates its women,” she writes in one essay about receiving violent threats online. “And America wants to own its women.” This book traces a growing refusal to be controlled by anyone other than herself. “I eat. And I also write what I like. And say what I like.” If she has no hometown, if she cannot precisely say where she is from, she chooses instead to say who she is.

SPILT MILK
Memoirs
By Courtney Zoffness
211 pp. McSweeney’s. $22.

It’s apt that the title for Zoffness’s debut refers to a phrase that’s both admonishment and comfort. “Don’t cry over spilt milk” is a mother’s saying: It’s the mother who must soothe the crying child, and the mother who must clean up the mess. The milk itself stands for a minor upset, something that seems disastrous but maybe isn’t. Likewise, the personal calamities Zoffness voices in this collection are of uncertain scale: her anxiety about her mother and her own motherhood; various episodes of sexual harassment; how her crush ruined her bat mitzvah by kissing her friend. These aren’t earth-shattering tragedies, she acknowledges, but they can feel like it to her.

Her impulse in writing about them is both to probe and to fret. In one piece, Zoffness visits an old friend from Jewish sleep-away camp who has chosen to be a gestational surrogate, an exchange Zoffness uses to parse her own equivocation about both faith and childbearing. A mild competitiveness for the moral upper hand emerges as Zoffness begins to tally their generosity. “Is it relevant,” she asks herself, “that you have the organ donor box checked on your driver’s license, putting your anatomy up for grabs after you pass?”

Anxiety pervades “Spilt Milk.” Zoffness worries that she’s exposed her oldest son to her neuroses, before reasoning that she’s nothing like her parents. They taught her to fear everything from Halloween candy (razors) to walking barefoot in grass (ticks) to showering during a thunderstorm (lightning in the pipes?). The author vacillates between finding herself culpable and wanting to be let off the hook. “I am both his nature and his nurture,” she writes of her son. When her 5-year-old becomes fascinated with police officers, especially their weapons, she frets over how much to tell him about police violence. It is “a privilege, and a concern, that his small, white body so easily inhabits the role,” she writes of his make-believe, but still she takes him to their neighborhood precinct for a tour.

The essays evince an ambivalent writer’s longing for an absolution or understanding that never quite arrives. Her psychiatrist suggests astrology, which “gives destiny a role. It gives us a way to exist on earth that’s judgment-free.” Zoffness is intrigued. “I want less self-blame. More cosmic reassurance.”

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