The titular emotion of Jamison’s breakout essay collection, The Empathy Exams, remains at the forefront of this second volume, in which she interrogates her capacity for open-mindedness alongside the ethics of reportage. She meets gun-loving men, children convinced they’ve led past lives, and lonely souls who find kinship with a mate-less whale. There are more personal pieces, too, among them reflections on becoming a stepmother and on overcoming a deep attachment to yearning. Though one or two may test the reader’s commitment to the examined life, these elegant essays are unfailingly rich in philosophical rumination.
Like all those things that are meant to improve our health, these essays can only be defined by what they lack: they are humour-free, low on ideas and with no added flavour. They show us what thinking looks like once the traction has been removed. Whether Jamison’s pieties will be popular in the UK is yet to be seen.
The best work here is a pair of essays on photography, reaffirming Jamison as Susan Sontag’s heir... Herein, questions about the ethics of telling other people’s stories and of making art out of other people’s lives spit and flare like sulphurous flames. “Representing people always involves reducing them, and calling a project ‘done’ involves making an uneasy truce with that reduction,” Jamison laments. “But some part of me rails against that compression. Some part of me wants to keep saying: there’s more, there’s more, there’s more.” This railing, roaring Jamison is the one I came to hear.
The book’s title recalls the importance of stories not just to be told, but to be heard. Jamison interleaves her own narrative with others, recounting milestone life events while amplifying voices that aren’t loud enough (and in one case, a whale). Perhaps all writing is an innate, primal scream, and Jamison – astutely – knows and embodies this with compassion and vigour.