Cover image for What if this were enough? : essays / Heather Havrilesky.
What if this were enough? : essays / Heather Havrilesky.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, [2018]
Physical Description:
xvi, 220 pages ; 22 cm
The smile factory -- The happiest place on earth -- To infinity and beyond -- Playing house -- Delusion at the gastropub -- Adults only -- Stuffed -- Running on empty -- Lost treasure -- Land of heroic villains -- The popularity contest -- Tag and release -- Haunted -- Bravado -- Survival fantasies -- True romance -- A scourge of gurus -- My mother's house -- Miracle of the mundane.
"Heather Havrilesky attempts to disrupt our cultural delusions and false dichotomies, to unearth moralistic interpretations of mundane human behaviors and interrogate so-called mistakes that we've slowly internalized, and to question the glorification of suffering, dishonesty, romantic fantasy, conquest, predation, and perfectionism"-- Provided by publisher.
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152.42 HAV Book Adult General Collection

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By the acclaimed critic, memoirist, and advice columnist behind the popular "Ask Polly," an impassioned collection tackling our obsession with self-improvement and urging readers to embrace the imperfections of the everyday

Heather Havrilesky's writing has been called "whip-smart and profanely funny" ( Entertainment Weekly ) and "required reading for all humans" (Celeste Ng). In her work for New York , The Baffler , The New York Times Magazine , and The Atlantic , as well as in "Ask Polly," her advice column for The Cut , she dispenses a singular, cutting wisdom--an ability to inspire, provoke, and put a name to our most insidious cultural delusions.

What If This Were Enough? is a mantra and a clarion call. In its chapters--many of them original to the book, others expanded from their initial publication--Havrilesky takes on those cultural forces that shape us. We've convinced ourselves, she says, that salvation can be delivered only in the form of new products, new technologies, new lifestyles. From the allure of materialism to our misunderstandings of romance and success, Havrilesky deconstructs some of the most poisonous and misleading messages we ingest today, all the while suggesting new ways to navigate our increasingly bewildering world.

Through her incisive and witty inquiries, Havrilesky urges us to reject the pursuit of a shiny, shallow future that will never come. These timely, provocative, and often hilarious essays suggest an embrace of the flawed, a connection with what already is, who we already are, what we already have. She asks us to consider: What if this were enough? Our salvation, Havrilesky says, can be found right here, right now, in this imperfect moment.

Author Notes

Heather Havrilesky was a TV critic at Salon for seven years. She has written for New York magazine, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Magazine, Bookforum, The New Yorker, and NPR's All Things Considered. Her books include the memoir Disaster Preparedness and How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly's Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

These incisive essays by New York magazine columnist Havrilesky (How to Be a Person in the World), some previously published in shorter versions, invite readers into the contradictions of upper-middle-class American life. She's interested in "how we ingest and metabolize" the "broader poisons of our culture," yet cannot "figure out why we're sick." She relates these poisons-endemic distraction; determinedly amoral entertainment; the dominance of corporate culture, as represented by the ubiquity of Disney-with a combination of anger, dismay, and ambivalence. She calls out the hypocrisy of the "foodie movement," with its self-congratulatory "heroic sheen," for failing to prioritize making "healthy food more affordable to the poor." Her social criticism is keen, but her best writing is personal. There's a beautiful essay on being unable to extricate herself from a failing relationship, because "I was more at home with longing." Her goal is to encourage readers to ask of themselves, as she asks herself amid Disneyland's overcontrolled banality, "How did we get here? Who stood back and let this happen to our world?" She wants Americans to "wake up to the unbelievable gift of being alive," even though it means facing anomie, despair, and all the scary emotions that are easier avoided. It's a message she relates with insight, wit, and terrific prose. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

TO AN INFLUENTIAL SEGMENT of the American electorate, the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House appeared biblically ordained. White evangelical Christians voted for Trump - a thrice-married adulterer who'd hardly set foot in a church - by an unprecedented margin of 80 percent, and his popularity among this constituency has remained high since he took office, the ensuing scandals and confusion understood by some at least to be all part of God's plan. As the press release for "Trumpocalypse: The End-Times President, a Battle Against the Globalist Elite and the Countdown to Armageddon," one of several briskly selling new Christian exegeses of his presidency, puts it, "God raised up President Trump as a fearless leader to guide America and the free world through a series of major crises" and - here's the clincher - the "chaos enveloping the planet could paradoxically signal the beginning of the great end-times awakening that millions are praying for." For insight into America's eschatological mind-set, and into fundamentalist culture generally, there may be no more eloquent guide than Meghan O'Gieblyn, who was raised in the faith and then - painfully, reluctantly - abandoned it, though not before honing her considerable intellect on the finer points of church doctrine at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, a deeply conservative college known among evangelicals, she notes, as "the West Point of Christian service." "Interior States" is O'Gieblyn's first book, a collection of essays, most first published in literary magazines such as Harper's and n+1, whose clever title denotes both the Midwest, where she grew up and still lives, and Christian America - places, one literal, the other figurative, that lie outside and often at odds with the country's mainstream. O'Gieblyn's father sold industrial lubricant, and the Rust Belt manufacturing towns where her family resided already seemed during her childhood in the 1990s, she writes, "mostly abandoned, covered, like Pompeii, in layers of ash." Saved at the age of 5, she was home-schooled until 10th grade. By age 8, she'd memorized statistics on ocean salinity, the better to "persuade unsaved kids that the earth couldn't possibly be more than 6,000 years old." As Y2K approached, her family braced for Armageddon, stockpiling shortwave radios, shotguns, drums of water and freeze-dried chicken - provisions meant to last until the Rapture. At Moody, she haunted Michigan Avenue on Friday nights, handing out leaflets next to chalk drawings outlining the steps to salvation. No wonder O'Gieblyn regards her childhood as "having occurred in a parallel dimension, one that occupies the same physical coordinates as secular reality but operates according to none of its rules or logic." And yet what she captures most vividly here is Christianity's indomitable reach - a parallel dimension, perhaps, but one whose fingerprints are discernible on nearly every aspect of national life. "Being a Christian," she writes, "required an interpretive vigilance, a willingness to harken to whispers." Thrillingly alive to big questions of meaning and belief, her essays are testaments to exquisite attentiveness, each painstakingly stitched and emitting a pleasing, old-fashioned whiffof starch. In "Sniffing Glue," an essay on Christian pop music, O'Gieblyn recalls her teenage amazement at discovering that talk of God was ubiquitous on MTV (a taboo diversion she only stumbled on at 13, in a hotel room in Moscow). In "Ghost in the Cloud," about the futurist Ray Kurzweil, she considers the eschatology at the frontiers of science - in discussions of "transhumanism," a term, she observes, that first appeared not in a tract on artificial intelligence but in an 1814 translation of Dante's "Divine Comedy." Then there is the presidential election. Many American fundamentalists, O'Gieblyn explains in "The End," believe that the Second Coming will be preceded by a period of tribulation, involving "pestilence, natural disasters and the rise of the Antichrist." During the 1930s, Mussolini was a favored candidate for the latter. Precisely how Trump fits the bill, O'Gieblyn doesn't say. But in "Exiled," a suggestive portrait of Vice President Mike Pence, she drops some tantalizing hints. She visits Pence's former congregation in Indianapolis, where the pastor is completing 18 months of sermons on exile, a recurring theme in the Bible. Pence, she notes, is partial to Old Testament narratives in his speeches; stories of the Israelites' long banishment in Babylon resonate with contemporary Christians "who saw themselves as a religious minority in a hostile pagan empire - a people who had long mistaken Washington, D.C., for Jerusalem." During the summer of 2016, while Pence was auditioning for the role of presidential running mate, his pastor dwelled on Daniel, an Israelite who stayed true to his faith while serving as chief adviser to the pagan tyrant Nebuchadnezzar - "an angry, irrational king," the pastor called him, likening Daniel's situation to that of "the vice presidency, if you will, of the country." "We now live in a world shaped by evangelicals' apocalyptic hopes, dreams and nightmares," O'Gieblyn quotes one scholar as saying. After reading her book, one could hardly disagree. "I imagined myself exiting a primitive cave and striding onto terra firma," she writes of the moment when she turned her back on religion. "But as it turns out, the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I'd leftbehind." HEATHER HAVRILESKY is a different kind of apostate. An advice columnist for New York magazine and the author of a wry memoir about an unremarkable childhood, she declares herself in "What if This Were Enough?," her collection of essays, a defector from American culture - its "enforced cheer," its rampant materialism, its frenetic pace, its inauthenticity. Her dismay, to judge from her introduction - six pages in which she delivers her verdict in unvarnished terms, condemning our national "poison," "sickness," "lies," "delusions," "false narratives" and "shared hallucinations" - is considerable. Trump lurks unnamed between the lines. Havrilesky's grand pronouncements are so sweeping and so numerous - "our culture exerts a constant pressure on us that severs our relationship to ourselves and each other," "our compassion for ourselves and for others remains underdeveloped," "our whole lives are passing us by, but we hardly notice" - they quickly cease to arouse strong feelings of assent or disagreement. Similarly, her counsel: "We have to breathe in reality instead of distracting ourselves around the clock," "we must believe in and embrace the conflicted nature of humankind," "shut out the noise and enjoy exactly who you are and what you have, right here, right now." She's banking on at least a few of these slogans resonating with every reader. But the self-help framework - the stentorian assertions of diagnosis and cure - does Havrilesky a disservice. She can be a warm and funny writer, a savvy close reader, idiosyncratic, urbane. Her advice column stands out not so much for its practical guidance but for the empathy in which she wraps her message of self-empowerment - and for its comic riffs ("If you want to find love, you can't try to seem cooler than you really are. Love doesn't honor that kind of marketing effort"). When Havrilesky ditches the forced affinity of "we" for the more modest claims of "I," she has some poignant things to say. She is good at wresting fresh nuance from familiar touchstones, and arranging them into incisive, opinionated narratives. "Haunted," an impassioned meditation on the novelist Shirley Jackson, pans out to incorporate the television shows "Girls," "Homeland" and "The Mindy Project" and the 7,200-word letter the victim of a 2015 sexual assault at Stanford wrote to her attacker ("a Jackson novel in miniature"). Women's lives, Havrilesky contends, still too often imitate the contours of horror fiction: emotional seduction followed by humiliation and betrayal. "Jackson's uncanny portraits of the fragmentation and collapse of the female psyche echo throughout contemporary culture," she observes, "from the casual derision we lavish on all things female or feminine to the so-called fairy-tale marriages we celebrate in the pages of magazines, the ones that are later revealed to be nightmares of verbal and physical abuse." After you've closed her book, however, it's the passing glimpses of her own life and relationships that continue to resonate. A bravura essay about the glorification of consumerism in "Mad Men" and in the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy opens with an anecdote about her father, a divorced economist who liked to quote Gordon Gekko, from "Wall Street," "in a tone that implied that the maxim 'Greed is good' was less a self-serving excuse than an expression of one of his core values." Like "Mad Men"'s Don Draper, Havrilesky's father was a serial dater (at one point juggling three women named Debbie) and amoral indulger, "beholden only to the laws of supply and demand." Twenty years later, his freewheeling ethic has found its pathological apotheosis in the fictional fantasy world of "Fifty Shades of Grey," where romantic fulfillment is just another kind of acquisition ("He is mine," the book's heroine repeatedly intones about her colossally wealthy husband, who surrounds her with highend goods), and in the flesh-and-blood form of Donald Trump. "Embedded in the orange-spray-tanned folds of his brow, we discover the hidden moral of this tale of luxurious excess and limitless power," Havrilesky writes. "There is no satisfaction in reckless, excessive accumulation. The more you have, the more you want." Several of this book's weirder, more original essays dwell on possessions - w hy do we seem never to have enough? "Stuffed" is a sharp-witted homage to the Japanese anticlutter prophet Marie Kondo, a revolutionary in the guise of storage-solution professional. In Havrilesky's view, what Kondo understands but never quite says is that our excess stuffis a sign not of prosperity but of impoverishment. Like our closets, our minds are filled with clutter, much of it imposed by constantly intruding digital devices. By stressing the intense feelings our objects provoke, Kondo invites us to consider whether our things ever really make us happy. Havrilesky's father intuited as much: When he died, of a heart attack at 56, he left, in addition to his fancy gear, a piece of paper taped to a bedroom mirror on which he'd written, "All of heaven is within you." Havrilesky shares with O'Gieblyn a moral skepticism about American culture, and an anxious yearning to resist its everpressing onslaught. O'Gieblyn puts it this way: "There are nights when I sit up in bed, awakened by the panic of some halfremembered thought, one of those foundational problems that gets lost in the wash of secondary concerns and emerges only when you are loose and unguarded to remind you, with a start, that you've forgotten the original question; that you're missing the point." EMILY EAKIN is an editor at the Book Review.



True Romance As an advice columnist, I sometimes get asked how peo­ple can "keep the romance alive" in their marriages. This stumps me a little because, by "romance," I know they mean the traditional version, the one that depends on liv­ing inside a giant, suspenseful question mark. This version of romance focuses on that thrilling moment when you believe you've met someone who might make every single thing in the world feel delicious and amazing and right, forever and ever. The romance itself springs forth from big questions: "Can this really be what I've been looking for? Will I really feel loved and desired and truly adored at last? Can I finally be seen as the answer to someone else's dream, the heroine with the glim­mering eyes and sultry smile?" This version of romance peaks at the exact moment when you think, "Holy Christ, I really am going to melt right into this other person (who is a relative stranger)! It really is physically intoxicating and perfect! And it seems like we feel the exact same way about each other!" Traditional romance is heady and exciting precisely because--and not in spite of the fact that--there are other, more insidi­ous questions lingering at the edges of the frame: "Will I be enough? Will you be enough? Will we be enough together?" But once you've been married for a long time, a whole new flavor of romance takes over. It's not the romance of rom-coms, which are predicated on the question of "Will this person really love me (which seems impossible), or does this person actu­ally hate me (which seems far more likely)?" And it's not the romance of watching someone's every move like a stalker, and wanting to lick his face but trying to restrain yourself. It's not even the romance of "Whoa, you bought me flowers, you must really love me!" or "Wow, look at us here, as the sun sets, your lips on mine, we really are doing this love thing!" That's dating romance, newlywed romance. You're still pinch­ing yourself. You're still fixated on whether or not it's really happening. You're still kind of, sort of looking for proof. The little moments of validation bring the romance. But after many years of marriage, you don't need any more proof. What you have instead--and what I would argue is the most deeply romantic thing of all--is this palpable, reassuring sense that it's okay to be a human being. Because until you feel absolutely sure that you won't eventually be abandoned, it's maybe not 100 percent clear that any other human mortal can tolerate another human mortal. The smells. The sounds. The repetitive fixations on the same nonsense, over and over. Even as you develop a kind of a resigned glaze of oh, this again in, say, marital years one through five, you also feel faintly unnerved by your own terrible mortal humanness. Or you should feel that way. For example: I talk to my dogs. A lot. My husband does not comment on how much I do this. I am a true dog lady, but one who also has a husband and kids around. While the dog lady has a long conversation with her dogs, the husband and kids are the ones who stand by, cocking their heads quiz­zically, trying to understand. When I walk in the door after being gone all day, I greet the dogs first. I say things like, "Oh, did you miss your mommy? Oh, you missed your mommy a lot! You needed Mommy but Mommy wasn't here! Poor pup­pies!" Then I say things to my kids like, "Hey. What's up." There's a tonal shift; I am less enthusiastic, possibly because I'm unwell. My kids don't seem to mind. It takes me longer to warm up and cuddle with them, possibly because they're sometimes whining or yelling about something, or asking hard questions about playdates with kids I don't like, and I can't answer their questions until I take my shoes off like Mr. Rog­ers and lie prone for a few minutes and pour beer into my face. That's when I notice my husband. He missed Mommy, too. But my husband doesn't yell what the hell? at me like he could. He doesn't sneer. He doesn't roll his eyes. I am clearly unwell, but he makes no sounds to this effect. Instead, he hugs me and smiles and says, "How was your day, baby?" He acts like he doesn't even notice that I should be locked away for­ever and ever in some bad, drafty place that serves only Ameri­can cheese. And now I'm going to tell you the most romantic story of all. I was very sick out of the blue with some form of dysentery. It hit overnight. I got up to go to the bathroom, and I fainted on the way and cracked my ribs on the side of the bathtub. My husband discovered me there, passed out, in a scene that . . . well, imagine what would happen if you let Todd Solondz direct an episode of Game of Thrones. Think about what that might look like. I'm going to take your delicate sensibilities into account and resist the urge to paint a clearer picture for you. My husband was not happy about this scene. But he handled it without complaint. That is the very definition of romance: not only not being made to feel crappy about things that are clearly out of your control, but being quietly cared for by someone who can shut up and do what needs to be done under duress. That is the definition of sexy, too. People think they want a cowboy, because cowboys are rugged and macho and they don't whine. But almost anyone can ride a stallion across a beautiful prairie and then come home and eat a giant home-cooked steak without whining about it. Bravely enter­ing into a wretched dysentery scene, though, will try the most stalwart and unflinching souls among us. Now let's tackle something even darker and more unpleas­ant, the seeming antithesis of our modern notion of romance: Someone is dying in their own bed, and someone's spouse is sitting at the bedside, holding the dying person's hand, and also handling all kinds of unspeakable things that people who aren't drowning in gigantic piles of cash sometimes have to handle all by themselves. To me, that's romance. Romance is surviving and then not surviving anymore, without being ashamed of any of it. Because survival is ugly. Survival means sometimes smell­ing and sounding the wrong way. It's one thing for a person to buy you flowers, to purchase a nice dinner, to prove that they truly, deeply want to have some good sweet-talky time and some touching time alone with you, and maybe they'd like to do that whole routine forever and ever and ever. That's a heady thing. You might imagine eating out at nice restau­rants and screwing, and eating out and screwing and eating out and screwing. Romance, in this view, is like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, except he's repeating the same sexily sus­penseful moment over and over again. True romance, though, is more like the movie True Romance: Two deluded, lazy people face a bewildering sea of filth and blood and gore together, but they make it through it all somehow without losing their minds completely. Because it's one thing to savor the complex flavor profiles of expensive meals together. But it's another thing entirely for a human being to listen to you try to figure out how the day went for your dogs, who cannot speak English or any other human language. ("Was it hard, being without Mommy? Yes, I think it was! I think you needed your mommy, but she wasn't here!") And it's another thing entirely when you start to grow an alien in your belly, a process that renders you sharp-tongued and menacing, and then one day the alien finally comes out, all covered in white slime. That is next-level romance right there! And suddenly, all you do is talk to the hairless alien and feed it with your own body (a miracle!), bragging about how you make food from thin air like a GOD, and then, once the alien goes to bed, you say Jesus I'm exhausted and ouch my boobs hurt and then you pass out in a smelly, unattractive heap. And once you have kids, even in a first-world country, you enter a kind of simulation of third-world living. You're feeding one kid with your body while your husband crouches on the floor of a dressing room at the mall, wiping excrement off the other kid's butt. You and your spouse are slogging through the slop of survival together. And it's romantic. Mark my words. You're not alone together very often, and when you are, you sometimes forget how to talk like adults, how to form words about your experiences. You feel more like two herd animals bumping along, all blank stares and pensive chewing. But it's romantic how you both have no thoughts in your heads whatsoever. The years go by, and it gets less desperate. You get sick less often because you don't wake up fifteen times a night. There's less fecal matter to wipe up, and less grizzly-bear-mother rage at the ready. But now you're getting older, so you say things like "Goddamn my ass hurts." That is also romantic! It makes you both chuckle. You are both mortal and you're both sur­viving, together, and you're in this until the very end. You are both screwed, everything will be exactly this unexciting until one of you dies, and it's the absolute greatest anyway. So don't let anyone tell you that marriage is comfortable and comforting but not romantic. Don't let anyone tell you that living and dying together is some sad dance of codepen­dent resignation. Our dumb culture tricks us into believing that romance is the suspense of not knowing whether someone loves you or not yet; the suspense of wanting to have sex but not being able to yet; the suspense of wanting all problems and puzzles to be solved by one person without knowing whether or not that person has any particular affinity for puzzles yet. We think romance is a mystery in which you add up clues that you will be loved. Romance must be carefully staged and art-directed, so everyone looks better than they usually do and seems sexier than they actually are, so the suspense can remain intact. You are not better than you are, though, and neither is your partner. That is romance. Laughing at how beaten down you sometimes are, in your tireless quest to survive, is romance. It's sexy to feel less than totally sexy and still feel like you're sexy to one person, no matter what. Maybe suspense yields to the suspension of disbelief. Maybe looking for proof yields to finding new ways to muddle through the messes together. But when it's 10:00 p.m. and you crawl into bed like two old people and tell each other about the weird things that your kids said that day and crack stupid jokes and giggle and then maybe you feel like making out or maybe you just feel like playing a quick game of Candy Crush, all the while saying things like "This game is stupid, it sucks" and "Your feet are freezing" and "My ass hurts"--that's romantic. Because at some point, let's be honest, death supplies the suspense. How long can this glorious thing last? your eyes sometimes seem to ask each other. You, for one, really hope this lasts a whole hell of a lot longer. You savor the repetitive, deliciously mun­dane rhythms of survival, and you want to keep surviving. You want to muddle through the messiness of life together as long as you possibly can. That is the summit. Savor it. That is the very definition of romance. Excerpted from What If This Were Enough?: Essays by Heather Havrilesky All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.