There is an eerie sameness to addiction memoirs, which tend to follow the same basic structure. In the beginning, there is some immense and unassuageable pain, followed by the discovery of one substance or another that dulls some of that pain. Then comes the dawning realisation that this anaesthetising substance is itself causing more pain than it relieves – to oneself, to society, and to those about whom one cares about most. The next act is the attempt to live without the substance, and to gain a new relation to the pain that caused the addiction in the first place.
Though the details differ considerably, this structure holds for the majority of addiction memoirs. In broad terms, it’s also true of Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. Yet what makes Jamison’s book such a remarkable and original contribution to the genre is the sheer intellectual firepower she brings to her subject matter, and the hybrid form she invents in order to present it. The book is eccentric and uncategorisable – in equal parts a personal history of addiction and recovery, a complex argument about the broader history of addiction narratives in US culture, and an exploration of literary representations of alcoholism in American letters. Jamison applies a rigorous and disciplined intellect to all three strands, crafting a compelling narrative that shows many of the intersections between her own experiences and larger cultural forces.