While nobody was looking, at least in the US, Terry Castle has stealthily become one of the funniest contemporary American essayists. Yes, Terry Castle, the Stanford English professor and author of such rib-ticklers as The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny and Clarissa's Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson's Clarissa. Fortunately, while The New Yorker continues to host the tired likes of Bruce McCall, Steve Martin and David Sedaris, Castle has found a home away from home at the London Review of Books, which regularly publish her long essays and reviews.
My belated introduction to Castle's humor (I had read her academic book The Apparitional Lesbian eons ago) came with Desperately Seeking Susan, about her friendship with Susan Sontag. Of course part of the point was Castle boasting about her acquaintance with Sontag, but this was shellacked by such a glossy coat of self-deprecation ("Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer") that the piece became a goofy take on being a star intellectual's pet academic. And what set pieces! Sontag showing Castle how to evade sniper fire in the streets of Palo Alto. Sontag dragging Castle to a hilariously snotty dinner party hosted by Marina Abramovic ("As a non-artist and non-celebrity, I was so ‘not there’, it seemed – so cognitively unassimilable – I wasn’t even registered enough to be ignored. I sat at one end of the table like a piece of anti-matter.").
Castle's latest piece, Travels with My Mom, takes a hoary, well-trod subject (Castle, her girlfriend Blakey and Castle's 81-year-old mother's New Mexico vacation) and turns it into a dissection of how a middle-aged professor comes to terms with her own aesthetic choices (the Agnes Martin vs Georgia O'Keeffe frame is inspired). Castle is brilliant at suggesting how taste is formed and informed, and the scope of her references is deliciously wide. Droll lines pop up with a rather scary frequency, and Castle is a master of set-up. For instance at one point "Blakey rolls her eyes, sits down, pulls Richard Rorty out of her bag and prepares to wait for several hours." This is funny enough in itself (Rorty as light vacation reading) but it's made funnier by the fact that the sentence is the punchline to a set-up in which the mother-daughter team enters a rubber-stamp store called Stampa Fe.
And unlike the dreaded David Sedaris (who only pretends to be self-mocking), Castle is as jaundiced about herself as she is about her mother, O'Keeffe fans or cheesy New Mexico tourism. At Stampe Fe, she explains, "I try to pretend that the stamps I’m grabbing up are ‘cool’ – that my choices express my highly evolved if not Firbankian sense of camp." But then a horrible though dawns on her: "When we finish our sweep and I’m swaying groggily at the cash register – my mother slumped in her chair behind me like a satisfied pythoness – I’m forced to confront a terrible possibility: that Mavis and I may actually be more alike than I prefer to believe. (…) Is a lurching sumo wrestler in a loincloth really any less vulgar, aesthetically speaking, than my mother’s mermaids or kitty cats? Than a frog wearing a top hat? A poodle playing a tuba? An abyss seems to open up for a moment: I see, as if in Pisgah-vision, the appalling triteness of my sensibility."
Why this woman doesn't have a regular column in an American publication is beyond me. Oh sorry: American editors prefer their female essayists to write about things like dating or motherhood—or politics, as long as they are foaming-at-the-mouth conservative ranters or give the guys in charge nicknames like "Rummy."