I Feel Bad About My Neck
And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
by Nora Ephron
Knopf, 160 pp., $19.95
Nora Ephron's latest book, a collection of essays by the 65-year-old author of the screenplays for When Harry Met Sally . . . and Sleepless in Seattle, catapulted to the top of the bestseller lists when it was published, and remains in the vicinity. That's because it seems to combine two genres irresistible to readers of Ephron's sex (female), age (getting up there), and socioeconomic class (extremely high-end): The Plastic Surgery Autobiographical Horror Story (exemplified by New York Times shopping columnist Alex Kuczynski's Restylane-splattered Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery), and Lusty Meno pause Lit (exemplified by Gail Sheehy's Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life, which comes in a large-print edition for those seasoned souls whose eyesight isn't as strong as their libidos).
Ephron does not fail to deliver on the former score, although briefly. In a 15-page chapter titled "On Maintenance" (originally an article in O magazine), she details an array of procedures she uses to prolong youth's illusion, ranging from the unexceptionable, such as her two-tone hair-dye jobs that occupy at least three boredom-inducing hours of her time every six weeks, to what she describes as the "pathetic": having all the fillings in her teeth replaced with white material, undergoing regular injections of Restylane ("it sort of fills in the saggy parts" of her chin), experimenting with Botox (the botulism derivative that paralyzes your forehead into wrinkle-free marmoreality).
All this attention to what Ephron calls putting one's "finger in the dike" has a Thorstein Veblenesque status component because it is fearfully expensive (the tooth thing alone apparently set Ephron back $20,000) and you can thus one-up your less affluent neighbors and readers because you can afford it and they can't. Much of it also has a pain component, such as the once-a-month "threading" that Ephron undergoes to remove a mustache from her upper lip and inhibit bushy eyebrows. She writes: "Threading involves thread--garden-variety sewing thread--a long strand of which is twisted and maneuvered in a sort of cat's cradle configuration so as to remove hair in a way that is quick and painful (although not, I should point out, as painful as, say, labor)." Accounts of ritualized masochism--enduring excruciating and humiliating dolors on a regular basis--used to be reserved for pornography but are now a standard feature of beautification-attuned autobiographical literature.
From Story of O to O magazine, one might say.
The result of this vast expenditure of time, money, and agony on herself is . . . a perfectly attractive if not astonishingly good-looking older woman, Ephron's photos reveal. Or so they would reveal if she didn't swathe her upmost parts in black turtleneck sweaters, floaty, hijab-like scarves, and that pricey 'do whose bangs swing to her nose, so as to reveal little of her face except her eyes. Ephron titled her book (and another of its component essays) I Feel Bad About My Neck because she genuinely hates her neck. It's got an ugly surgical scar on it, she explains, or maybe it's just plain wrinkled. In any event, she seems to cover it compulsively these days because you can do quite a bit with your face but, short of a full-bore facelift, there's nothing that hair dye and injected substances can do to give your neck the illusion of youth.
"Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth," she writes.
These aperçus have been the focus of all the recent attention paid to Ephron's book, as well as its impressive sales (it is hard to imagine any young woman being the slightest bit interested in I Feel Bad About My Neck or its author). The book has also generated the usual horrified feminist moralizing, such as this rhetorical question asked by the Washington Post's Libby Copeland: "When do we get to abandon this exhausting doggypaddle and sink into a dignified old age?" Ephron is having none of that. There is nothing especially dignified about old age as far as she is concerned:
There are all sorts of books written for older women. They are, as far as I can tell, uniformly upbeat and full of bromides and homilies about how pleasant life can be once one is free from all the nagging obligations of children, monthly periods, and in some cases, full-time jobs. I find these books to be utterly useless, just as I found all the books I once read about menopause utterly useless. Why do people write books that say that it's better to be older than younger? It's not better.
Yes, it is refreshing to note that many of the prosperous ladies of middle years who attend Ephron's readings and then stand in line to have I Feel Bad About My Neck autographed will be unpleasantly surprised to discover that Lusty Menopause Lit it is not. Nora Ephron is the anti-Gail Sheehy: "If you're lucky enough to be in a sexual relationship, you're not going to have the sex you once had," she warns.
This is not to say that I Feel Bad About My Neck is a book one ought to rush out and buy. For one thing, it's a chisel, pricewise--160 rather small pages of rather large print for $19.95. That works out to around 15 cents a page, and most of those pages have already appeared elsewhere, at better value: in O, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, the New York Times op-ed page. If you subscribe to the New Yorker you will have already read--and wondered why you read--"Serial Monogamy: A Memoir," an account not, as you might hope, of Ephron's three marriages--including the second and juiciest one, to the flamboyantly adulterous Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein--but of her culinary thralldom to several chefs whose names were apparently household words in Manhattan back in the 1960s and '70s when Ephron was young, but are blanks today.
This "Lee Bailey" at whose trendy behest Ephron threw out all her dinner plates and napkins so as to buy beige tableware identical to his at Henri Bendel--who was he? The New Yorker also originally ran "Moving On," in which Ephron complains lugubriously about the day her five-bedroom, two-fireplace Upper West Side apartment became rent-decontrolled and she learned that the $2,500-a-month rent she had been paying would increase substantially. Imagine such a hardship for a multimillionaire screenwriter!
I myself have always found that a very little of Nora Ephron's endlessly wisecracking, name-dropping, and self-obsessed prose can go a very long way. The characters in When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle struck me as not so much human beings as meat puppets for Ephron one-liners who were predestined by the films' creaky plots to fall into each others' arms. I couldn't get past the first 10 brittle pages of Heartburn, Ephron's bestselling roman à clef about the marriage to Bernstein. As for her Upper West Side politics, the less said the better; suffice it to say that George W. Bush is responsible for dead people, and Bill Clinton fooled around with Monica Lewinsky--but darn, he's so cute.
Still, I Feel Bad About My Neck packs a punch. Underneath the jokes, it is a dark, merciless book. It holds a mirror to a culture in which there is absolutely nothing beyond the self, and the expensive things that the self might acquire and the ineluctable fact that, for all those things, the self is helpless against old age and death. Dignified old age? The decay of one's looks is the least of it: "Even if you have all your marbles, you're constantly reaching for the name of the person you met the day before yesterday," she writes. "Even if you're in great shape, you can't chop an onion the way you used to and you can't ride a bicycle several miles without becoming a candidate for traction. If you work, you're surrounded by young people who are plugged into the marketplace, the demographic, the zeitgeist; they want your job and someday soon they're going to get it."
It's the converse of the Cosmo Girl ethos, where the body, slaved over and pampered, can be used; here, the body, slaved over and pampered, works against you, over and over, and in ever more sickening and frightening ways.
"I am dancing around the D word," Ephron writes. Relentlessly, too.
In a matter-of-fact paragraph, she describes how, when her mother was dying of cirrhosis, her father decided it was time for her to go, and fed her a bunch of sleeping pills. Then he asked his daughter to flush the rest of them down the toilet. That was all there was. In the literature of the Middle Ages (François Villon's Testament comes to mind), the hideous old woman who had once been young and beautiful was a stock figure, but she served a moral purpose, to remind one of the futility of living only for pleasure.
In I Feel Bad About My Neck the hideous old woman is there--or would be, Ephron surmises, without the frantic, costly regime of "maintenance"--as is the futility and the living only for pleasure. The moral purpose, however, is entirely absent. This book is a memento mori, and the thing to be remembered is nothingness once the body goes.
Charlotte Allen is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.