Battlefield Barbie

It’s true i’ve never met him, but I just hate Deborah Copaken Kogan’s husband. Yes, he’s a tall, blond Slav with stratospheric cheekbones who’s tender and sensitive in at least two languages, whereas I’m five-nine and totally bald with a tendency to be crabby in one. But that’s not why. Nope. I hate him because he ruined her book.

Until the fateful moment on page 212 when she meets Paul, Shutterbabe, Kogan’s memoir of her stint as a trouble-prone photojournalist, is so good, so breezily hard-boiled and hip and winning, that I actually flipped to the acknowledgments to see if I knew any of her publishing friends who might introduce us. Then came page 212, and Paul, and then the two kids, and the ditching of the career in favor of the tender lighting of the Shabbes candles with little Jacob. And, less winsomely and more defensively perhaps, the remarks about how sorry the author now feels for those childless women journalists she knows who have shelves full of Emmys but no little ones to come home to. Which is when it occurred to me that I didn’t need an introduction to Kogan because I’ve probably already run into her on the checkout line at Fairway along with all the other nice young Jewish moms who live in my neighborhood on the Upper West Side.

Kogan wasn’t always a soccer-mom-in-training. Most of Shutterbabe is a smoothly written account of how the author found herself, almost immediately after her graduation from Harvard (where she’d taken photography classes), running around the world during the history-rich period between 1988 and 1994 as one of the few women in one of the last deeply chauvinistic professions. The book’s six sections are devoted to the various hot spots in which Kogan managed to land: a snowy Afghanistan valley being bombed by Russian fighters, a needle park in Switzerland, a deadly rhinoceros-poaching war in Zimbabwe, riot-torn Bucharest after the fall of the Ceausescus, Moscow during the last days of the Soviet Union. But as far as I’m concerned, the most dangerous terrain she encounters is the one she ends up in: the West Side. You zip through the first two thirds of Shutterbabe cheering for the diminutive and (what else?) feisty heroine who once resented having to hide her “inner Pippi Longstocking under a lacquered Barbie mask,” only to find, at the end, what seems suspiciously like a paean to Barbie-hood.

Kogan sure doesn’t write like Barbie. From the first sentence, it’s pretty clear that Harvard’s writing classes are at least as good as its photography seminars. With great subtlety and sophistication, Kogan interweaves the vivid narratives of her photojournalistic escapades (at one point she watches as the soldier who’s kindly escorting her to a place where she can pee steps on a land mine and loses a leg) with well-chosen flashbacks to her earlier experiences. These include not only the stultifying suburban childhood that makes her crave escape – she threatens to kill herself if her parents don’t send her to Japan for a year – but her ravenous fascination with both pictures and guys. She reports on her love life with a refreshing lack of guilt or apology: “I’d never be able to choose a single photo … so why should I be expected to choose a single man?”

There are writerly touches here that elevate this narrative above many other memoirs: The smoke rings a dishonest French lover blows are “a floating ellipsis”; memory itself, because of what she does for a living, “has the shape of a rectangle.” And Kogan displays a sense of humor that’s both infective and, given the horror of what she sees, necessary. (Her account of a visit to a Romanian home for “unrecoverable children” will haunt you for days after you finish this book.) Take that first sentence: “There’s a war going on, and I’m bleeding.” It’s not till the next paragraph that she wryly admits that the blood is menstrual – and, indeed, that an Afghani freedom fighter has just accidentally sat on a bottle of rubbing alcohol, causing her last remaining tampons to explode over the sides of the box “like soggy dead flowers.”

The rollicking good humor and zest with which Kogan tells the first, bigger part of the story is all the more striking when compared with the smug banalities you get in the second. Like a lot of first-time writers, Kogan tends to be better at the small details she’s observed than at the big themes she wants her book to be about. Among these themes are the Holocaust (over which Kogan and her future husband bond, and which she sees reflected in some of the atrocities she witnesses) and, especially, gender relations. But even readers who are sympathetic to her views about sexual politics will wonder about her desire to eat her postfeminist cake and have it, too. Anyone who professes to be as worldly about men as she does shouldn’t be so shocked to find out that men are often violent pigs. And you’ll wince at her rather Hallmark reflections about the meaning of Auschwitz (“a terrible, incomprehensible, and unbearable reminder to all of us who were spared of how precious and precarious our time here is”). In the first part of her narrative, at least, there’s excitement and good humor and wry self-deprecation to leaven the pretension; this can’t be said for the post-Paul era. Once Kogan realizes that “the secret to a happy life is love,” the narrative devolves into a series of equally clichéd profundities: “War is bad”; “Some things in life are inexplicable”; “Parenthood … is by far and away the most profound experience life holds.”

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with wanting, or having, kids; anyone who knows what it feels like to graduate from the aimless, addictive stimulations of the wild-oats-sowing days to the weirdly cocooning bliss that children can bring will recognize what Kogan’s talking about. It’s just that everyone I know, male or female, who’s gone from being obsessed with career to being obsessed with children is willing to admit to being a lot more conflicted about the tension between those two worlds than Kogan is. (“If such opinions make me a bad journalist and a bad feminist, so be it.”)

If anything, the swiftness and the apparent lack of any regrets or soul-searching with which she flip-flops from globe-trotting daredeviltry to the domestic comforts of the West Seventies make you wonder whether she wasn’t always more interested in the “babe” aspect of her life than the “shutter” part. Did her interest in photography owe as much to a real feeling for art or journalism as it did to an almost erotically charged desire, only too common among bored suburban teenagers, to épater les bourgeois? The bourgeois in question being the nice middle-class Jewish residents of Potomac, Maryland, where she grew up – and to which, at least metaphorically, she only too happily returns.

For all its pluck, Kogan’s book turns out to be yet another in a genre I’m beginning to think of as Postfeminist Bait-and-Switch: books like Lucinda Rosenfeld’s What She Saw … or Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, in which intense and intensely realized accounts of experiments with sex and career and independence turn out to be not the point of life but only its prelude – a prelude to the realization that what women really want, or at least what will make them happy, is hubbies and babies and security. (The incident that freaks Kogan out and pushes her away from photojournalism is the death of a friend in the Gulf War.) I guess I should have seen the warning signs; after all, her chapters are named not for the hot spots she’s covered but, with one exception, the men she’s slept with or tried to sleep with. (Rosenfeld did the same thing in her book.) Is the only trajectory in a woman’s life that’s really worth mapping anymore the one that takes you through a lot of Mr. Wrongs to Mr. Right?

What makes Shutterbabe disappointing isn’t that it’s about how the author abandoned an interesting career for domestic bliss but rather that it so glibly suggests that being a mommy is so self-evidently superior to winning an Emmy. When I did finally turn to the acknowledgments in Kogan’s book, I couldn’t help noticing that the woman who once planned to spend her life documenting and exposing political and environmental and social ills now refers to her husband as “my savior.” Savior from what?

Kogan may have been all over the map, but her book ends up shrinking it. Anita Albus’s The Art of Arts, a reverie about painting and seeing, begins with a description of a mere painting of the world, but by the time you’ve got to the end of this startlingly beautiful volume, with its two-color Renaissance typeface and exquisite gatefold reproductions, you feel like you’ve been everywhere and done everything. This is because Albus doesn’t just show you things; she teaches you how to see for yourself. The Art of Arts isn’t easy: The polymath author zigzags among the optical and theological theories of early-Renaissance philosophers whom she writes about as if she’d known them, vivid observations about individual paintings (“One suspects a touch of impatience over the length of the sitting”), and a history of paint itself – the bits of minerals and vegetables from which artists’ pigments derive their colors. She gives you, in other words, both the big and small lenses through which to view art; together, they suggest still further dimensions to be gleaned from “the art of opposites.” Here is a book that will open your eyes to intellectual and aesthetic colors you never dreamed of.

By Deborah Copaken Kogan.
Villard; 302 pages; $24.95
The Art of Arts
By Anita Albus.
Alfred A. Knopf; 386 pages; $35.

Battlefield Barbie