‘The Crane Wife’ Only Has One Trick

In the expansion of her 2019 viral essay, CJ Hauser writes herself into a corner

Kristen Martin
Gawker Review of Books

There’s a certain essay form that tends to garner extensive praise in MFA workshops for its use of white space and its cleverly calibrated epiphanies: the braided essay. The braided essay seems at first to be about one thing, but then, after a couple of paragraphs following that thread, there’s an asterisk denoting a section break, and suddenly, the essay is about something else. The reader understands that these topics must be related, but the writer withholds the connection at first, careful not to show their hand on the page. The asterisks do the heavy lifting of creating tension that drives the piece forward. Sometimes, a third thread joins the braid after another asterisk; if the essayist is really ambitious, they might introduce a fourth seemingly unrelated topic. If the essay works — and often, braided essays don’t cohere—then, section by section, unexpected connections accrue, and the threads weave together tightly.

Reading a good braided essay can feel like watching a magic trick — in its synthesis, it subverts your expectations and brings you to a moment of revelation that feels like that mind-blown GIF. Oh, you thought this essay was just about a trip to study whooping cranes on the Gulf Coast that coincidentally took place 10 days after its narrator called off her engagement with a cold, cheating man? It’s actually about the narrator realizing she contorted herself in order to fit the form her fiancé wanted, and that’s a thing that women are always doing, and that even cranes do when they pretend to be women in Japanese folklore (and also The Decemberists albums).

I’m talking, of course, about fiction writer and creative writing professor CJ Hauser’s personal essay “The Crane Wife,” which was published on the Paris Review’s website in July 2019 and instantly tore through Twitter. For a braided essay to go viral outside of creative nonfiction circles, it needs to hit a nerve, and not too subtly. “The Crane Wife” hit readers, particularly women, like a reflex hammer, culminating in an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers and breathless praise. In the essay — presumably meant as a promotional hit for the author’s sophomore novel Family of Origin, which was published on the same day but garnered much less attention — Hauser isn’t subtle about the connections she wants us to see between how she diminished herself in her bad engagement to avoid coming off as “needy” and how she learned about why it’s not shameful to have needs via a field study on endangered birds. “If there were a kind of rehab for people ashamed to have needs, maybe this was it. You will go to the gulf. You will count every wolfberry. You will measure the depth of each puddle,” she writes, before a be-asterisked section break. The next section begins, “More than once I’d said to my fiancé, How am I supposed to know you love me if you’re never affectionate or say nice things or say that you love me.”

It turns out that lots of women had made themselves settle for men like Hauser’s ex-fiancé, had convinced themselves that leaving such a relationship would “disfigure the story of my life in some irredeemable way.” Readers tweeted about how their therapist assigned them the essay; about how “all the best, strongest, bravest women” they knew were passing it around to one another. Mostly, though, people who read the essay tweeted things like, “Y’all. Read the whole thing. It’s damn good.” That dashed-off line from the popular podcaster Aminatou Sow is now being repurposed as a back-cover blurb for The Crane Wife: A Memoir in Essays, the inevitable book-length follow-up.

When Hauser’s book deal was announced in October 2020 — at auction, “in a significant deal,” which is Publishers Marketplace-speak for between $251,000 and $499,000 — the only thing that surprised me was that the titular essay had taken so long to move from its viral moment to contract. Hauser’s acknowledgements at the end of the book clarify the wait: “This is the unlikeliest of books. I meant to go on inventing people and islands and ducks in fictional perpetuity and never write about myself at all. And I don’t think I ever would have if quite a lot of people hadn’t talked me into it.”

The Crane Wife is almost 300 pages long, with 17 essays across four sections — a length that wouldn’t be a problem if the book were not so repetitive.

I wondered about this origin story as I wove my way through this bloated, superfluous collection of endlessly braided essays. The Crane Wife is almost 300 pages long, with 17 essays across four sections — a length that wouldn’t be a problem if the book were not so repetitive.

On the one hand, Hauser’s voice as an essayist is eminently readable. She’s funny and conspiratorially conversational, though she does use the word “fucking” as a modifier about a dozen too many times (we get it). But in choosing to focus The Crane Wife on the societal expectations of romance and dating that she has bought into, and the gradual realization that she can resist them, Hauser writes herself into a corner. The topics that she weaves in — The Philadelphia Story, The X-Files, Florence Nightingale, Man of La Mancha — serve largely to distract from the fact that she rehashes the same epiphanies about the kinds of mistakes she has made in her dating life from essay to essay. For instance: “It has been the work of my life to build slightly firmer boundaries around myself so that I can figure out where I end and the people I love begin.” Or: “[I]dentifying a problem, and then knowing the solution, and then putting that solution into practice … are not one wholesale kit and fucking caboodle.” These lessons feel stale even before they are recycled, and the constant recurrence of the same structural formula makes the book even more tiresome.

Hauser writes in “The Crane Wife” that she “had experienced worse things than … a called-off wedding,” but this is a book in which the worst things that happen to her, again and again, are breakups. The same bad boyfriends (and one good girlfriend; Hauser identifies as bisexual or pansexual) keep cropping up from essay to essay, existing not so much as flesh-and-bone characters — we don’t even get any physical descriptions to keep them straight — but as vectors for sympathy and self-deprecation. They’re all given pseudonyms: Maxim, for instance (in a nod to Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca), or generic four-letter male names like Nick and Joey. After a while I started suspecting that some of these pseudonymous men were, in fact, the same person. They are sketched so thinly, almost entirely based on what made them bad in relationships, that you’d forgive my conspiracy. One boyfriend doesn’t even get a pseudonym; he is merely “the boy,” as he was Hauser’s boyfriend when she was a teenager. He appears in three essays, all written in the second person, all about the same high-school relationship, all themed around theater. “[Y]ou made him into … [y]our defining story.] It had to be a story that mattered, otherwise what was it all for?” Hauser writes in the first of the trio, a nod at the fact that she is squeezing editorial mileage out of a teenage dalliance that took place decades ago.

But, for all that these pieces appear on their surface to be candid and confessional, Hauser does not actually reveal much about herself or even the relationships that drive The Crane Wife. The few essays that are about her childhood and her family do not dig deeply into how her upbringing shaped her concept of romance — an odd omission, given how much The Crane Wife revolves around where Hauser inherited ideas about love and relationships. Even in recounting her ancestors’ love stories in the opening essay “Blood” — subtitled “Twenty-Seven Love Stories,” numbered and braided together, of course — or ruminating about the American Dream in the essay “The Man Behind the Curtain,” — about her grandfather, Ed Joyce, a former president of CBS News — there’s an evasiveness about Hauser. She skirts around the circumstances of her upbringing and social class and dramatizes personal anecdotes that maybe don’t mean much at all.

The Crane Wife betrays a fundamental discomfort with turning herself, her former lovers, and her family into legible characters in nonfiction.

The caginess strikes me as a symptom of the larger problem of writing a collection of personal essays that you never expected to be writing: While Hauser has no problem with inventing characters as a fiction writer, The Crane Wife betrays a fundamental discomfort with turning herself, her former lovers, and her family into legible characters in nonfiction. Yes, even memoirists have a right to privacy and to control how much they let readers in. But eliding basic context can, at times, feel as withholding as the belabored braiding that stalls the essays’ revelations.

Like other writers whose viral short pieces landed them hyped-up books with big advances that inevitably fell flat, Hauser has been ill-served by a publishing industry that seems most concerned with engineering best sellers. “The Crane Wife” the essay did not need to turn into The Crane Wife the memoir — it is a gratuitous expansion that tries to pull off the same trick over and over again, with hackneyed lessons about thinly sketched men.

Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, NPR, The Baffler, and elsewhere.