Chelsea Hodson Dares Us to Desireby Erin Bartnett
Tonight I’m Someone Else: Essays
Being a writer—anywhere, but especially in New York—can be ugly, lonely work. Being a writer in New York means walking through identity after identity without the right props. In Williamsburg, you think to yourself, “I really should have gotten that botanical illustration tattooed on my wrist ages ago—now it’s too late.” Walk through Park Slope and you might discover it’s time you had a child already, and weren’t you always meant to have a rescue dog? Zip to 59th and Lexington, glare at your reflection in the Bloomingdales window display, inhale the symmetry and poise, your back to the gloss and gleam of Sephora on the other side of the street. I dare you to want all of it.
In Chelsea Hodson’s essay collection, Tonight I’m Someone Else, Hodson takes the plunge, and explores her own relationship to want, desire, longing, and the unattainable beauty induced by living in American capitalism. In the first essay “Red Letters from a Red Planet,” Hodson simultaneously tells the story of her relationship with Cody “big and tough and tattooed, like a bad boy a casting director might dream up” and her experience working on NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander mission, writing press releases on the search for signs of life. In another essay, “I’m Only a Thousand Miles Away” she threads together her unrequited childhood crushes—on Taylor Hanson, the androgynous middle Hanson brother and Brian of the Backstreet Boys—with the 1982 German horror film Der Fan, and the man who watched her while she worked at FedEx. Whether the essay is grounded in her experience working at an American Apparel in Tucson, camping with her family, or the pleasures of modeling in New York City, Hodson explores the particular intersection of her body and the marketplace, her desires and consumption, money and love, and what they all have to do with one another.
One of the connective tissues is art. Hodson wonders: “What’s the point of longing? To continue.” The longing keeps her writing. The longing for a new pair of wedges, or a trendy gym membership, or a trip somewhere else have a way of belying the central desire that if we obtain this something else, we’ll become someone else. While the idea that consumerism is driven by a desire to become someone else is not new, what’s unique about Hodson’s essay collection is the way she stares at the desire and forces it to confess its dimensions, its origins, and what it is doing for her (and for us) day in and day out. She’s not trying to exorcise the desires, but to listen to them, explore them, and shape them into art. Hodson analyzes without moral judgement, which gives her permission to get straight to the truth of things with more acuity and wisdom. One of these truths she lays bare is the unique desire we call love, and the way it lingers even after the desired object of love has been obtained. Love has its own will that can’t be moved.
The nonfiction essay is so particularly right for the ideas Hodson is exploring because while there’s the hope for something to go one way, there’s also the impossibility of making the narrative bend according to those hopes. She’s stuck with the story of what’s happened, and sculpts meaning out of the distance between what she got and what she wanted. Without traditional indentation, the essays are built out of stacked sections of observation that accumulate into vivid accounts of the way our consumerism makes debtors out of all of us. Sometimes the relationships are more abstract than in others, but each essay is a vertical piece of art.
It’s a lesson in essay craft to study how Hodson builds these stacks of art. Tonight I’m Someone Else is a collection that’s also in thick conversation with other writers and thinkers such as Édouard Levé, James Richardson, and Arthur Rimbaud. In this way, Hodson subtly marries the act of reading with the act of writing. In her essay “Pity the animal” for example, Hodson builds a study of the relationship between consumerism, desire, objectification, and art out of excerpts from the 1931 book Catching Wild Beasts Alive, Marina Abramović, Sylvia Plath’s journal entry, Hodson’s own commodified experiences working hourly-wage jobs, a 1921 book on constructing window displays, an email from a friend in Oregon, and the transcript of a YouTube video called “GTA[Grand Theft Auto] 5 Take a Stripper Home, Have Sex with a Stripper (BOOBS) GTA V.” In each essay, she builds scaffolding to hold her ideas in place out of things like the palm lines in palm reading (“Swollen and victorious”) or her hourly wage (“Pity the animal”) or repetition of the phrase “I’m trying to” (“Artists Statement”). It’s enchanting to watch how she does it.
Chelsea is a writer actively living in New York, who teaches writing and has done many other kinds of work to keep the writing going. It’s refreshing to read an essay collection that does not try to obscure the sometimes grueling, oftentimes low-paying work most writers need to do in order to keep writing. Hodson manages to do this without romanticizing that work. A writer’s writer, a lover’s writer, an artist’s writer, and a dreamer’s writer; Chelsea Hodson is for those of us who cannot stop thinking about and trying to make more out of what we’ve got, what we want, and all the living we do in between.