Several of the essays in Chelsea Hodson’s debut collection center on her feelings about the objectification and commodification of her body. The strongest tether the writer’s academic interests to experiences from her past.
While working at American Apparel, Chelsea Hodson was given a free black bikini in exchange for wearing it in the store. At first, she was tentative, but after an hour she felt in sync with “capitalism’s heartbeat,” comfortable being viewed as an object in the eyes of customers. If being a woman in America meant performing a role for the benefit of others, she at least wanted to do it with complicity.
This brief anecdote comes from Hodson’s essay “Pity the Animal,” which appears in her debut book, “Tonight I’m Someone Else.” Hodson, who grew up in the Southwest before moving to New York, where she now teaches writing, surveys a bevy of loosely related subjects in a small space. The effect is like clicking through a Wikipedia rabbit hole of her psyche. In “Pity the Animal,” she draws connections between her career in retail, a YouTube video of a man talking with a stripper simulation in “Grand Theft Auto,” Marina Abramović’s performance art, a hunting book from the 1930s and a profile she created on a site used by sex workers.
Several of the essays center on Hodson’s feelings about the objectification and commodification of her body — while modeling, while running outdoors and while working at FedEx, where a customer ogled her daily. Her insights are surprising, as she resists the urge to moralize. Modeling, for example, wasn’t an altogether negative experience; being touched and directed reminded her of her tender relationship with her mother.
Most of these pieces shift among scenes from Hodson’s working life, high-drama moments from her romantic exploits and quotations from other writers, including Roland Barthes and Mary Ruefle. She tries on roles like outfits; she sheds them and moves on. Her style mirrors life online: fast-paced and disembodied.
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In “I’m Only a Thousand Miles Away,” Hodson remembers writing fan mail to a member of the pop band Hanson, convinced that the strength of her desire would bring the two of them together. Later, when her obsession had transferred to a Backstreet Boy, she felt her romantic illusions deflate as she stood in a crowd among thousands of equally adoring fans. Hodson relates this to the more quotidian ways we experience desire from a distance — while chatting online or on the phone. Alone in our bedrooms, tucked away from the world at large, false assumptions abound. In real life, we’re more likely to have our beliefs and our desires challenged.
The collection’s strongest essays tether the writer’s academic interests to experiences from her past — often from her childhood or the years she spent working in Tucson, Arizona. In “Red Letters from a Red Planet,” she describes doing PR for a NASA mission while she was committed to an unfulfilling and sometimes violent relationship. In “Second Row,” she remembers falling for a singer at a punk venue, who in turn fell for a woman who looked just like her. In “Leaving Me,” she reflects on her relationship with a classmate who shared her first name and who seemed to her like a more alluring Chelsea. In these pieces, we’re made to feel the uncanniness of living in a body. That they are set in Hodson’s native Arizona — where her friends carried guns in holster belts, “Wild West-style” — makes the mood of the collection that much more dreamlike. It’s not hard to understand why Miranda July — a surreal writer herself — is a fan.
Less affecting are the essays that remain in the realm of the cerebral, dealing in Lydia Davis-like non sequiturs, single-line insights stacked on top of each other. These micro-stories are at times undercooked (“When the astronaut spent a year in space, he grew two inches taller, just because he could.”), and might even puzzle the most ardent fans of abstraction. I found myself wanting to know what these observations meant to Hodson and was pleased when her koans were more direct, e.g., “Being underestimated is a form of power”; “Like any tool, heartbreak dulls.
The collection’s greatest strength may be Hodson’s self-awareness. Writing of her desire to be “fractional,” or not wholly seen, she joins a body of women writers whose subject is their own self-destruction as a means of escaping domestic ennui. But she observes that, unlike women with fewer privileges, she’s always had the option to return to safety. “Girls like me — we get to choose when and where to look,” she writes. “We get to choose for how long and when to turn away — that’s the real privilege.”
These lucid insights, and Hodson’s transfixing style, mark a memorable first collection.
“Tonight I’m Someone Else: Essays” by Chelsea Hodson, Holt, 191 pp., $17
Chelsea Hodson will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, July 2, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com