The most annoying literary trend of the decade is the memoir that recounts one year in the author's life. Most of the "My Year of..." memoirs involve some sort of fraternity-style challenge—living according to the Old Testament, not buying anything, dating any man who asks. Noelle Oxenhandler has produced a breathtaking new low in the subgenre with The Wishing Year: A House, a Man, My Soul—A Memoir of Fulfilled Desire. It's exactly that simple: She wishes for a year and calls it a book.
But there are no bad book ideas; there are only bad writers. Unfortunately, Oxenhandler is a bad writer. More accurately, she's a bad observer, both of herself and of others. Early in the book, she claims to hate wishing for material gain. Not long afterward, she sees a Jaguar and throws the I Ching to determine whether she should buy it. The I Ching says not to buy the sports car, and she mourns the loss: "That night, the Jaguar prowls in my dreams in his bright darkness, giving off a greenish night sheen." Oxenhandler is a covert coveter.
And she molests just about every major religion in this book with misunderstanding, trivialization, or sheer idiocy. When it comes to faith, she's like a bratty toddler in a china shop.
She doesn't stop with religion, either: Oxenhandler really embarrasses herself when thinking about race. During her year, along with a house and "spiritual healing," Oxenhandler wishes for a man. The house practically drops into her lap, and she begins dating a man named Nicholas. Unfortunately, Nicholas, who Oxenhandler portrays as a kind of retarded middle-aged man-child, is racked with guilt: It seems his great-great-great-great-grandfather owned slaves and treated them cruelly. In a form of yuppie penitence, Nicholas works an unfulfilling, low-paying job and writes apologetic letters to the slaves' descendants.
One day, as Oxenhandler is making pancakes for her poor, beleaguered man, she imagines that Aunt Jemima appears before her and says, "He has to stop punishing himself." Oxenhandler is exceedingly relieved that the African-American syrup advertisement has absolved Nicholas of generations of slave-owning guilt, and she goes about the happy work of intervening in his life. Aunt Jemima reappears at several points to bless her journey.
Along the way, there are dry stretches where Oxenhandler explains the history of wishes and wishing, and there are maddening bits, like where she admits to cheating on her ex-husband with her Zen teacher or buys a pair of fluorescent purple Crocs to celebrate a trip to Hawaii.
You know what I wish for, Noelle Oxenhandler? I wish I could unread your book.
Noelle Oxenhandler reads Thurs July 17, Elliott Bay Book Company, 7:30 pm, free.