A sort of "autobiography as mixtape," Chloe Caldwell's Legs Get Led Astray is a slim, 157-page book of personal essays that are brooding with sex and longing and repetition. It's also full of music, with B-sides like Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Wilco, Rufus Wainwright, Tori Amos, and Okkervil River, whose lyrics in "Last Love Song For Now" are where Caldwell's title comes from.
The musical backbeat gives Legs a scratchy, ghostly quality. Part of this is also because, in several essays, Caldwell starts nearly every sentence with such phrases as "You had me..." "I wanted to..." "You have a girlfriend now, but..." which gives the book a peculiar cadence, as if it's a past life haunting itself.
The sadness undercuts most everything, whether she's writing about her mother, babysitting, or sucking cock. Sometimes the sadness is obvious, as in when she profiles a friend who committed suicide: "I don't know if I ever loved him. I just know that I wanted to be him. I just know that some days I want to drink a bottle of liquor and roll around on his grave." Sometimes it's less so, like when she's describing the aftermath of an orgy. "She saw I was awake and because she's my best friend she immediately saw I was depressed and told me not to get up. She told me to lie back down, and said, 'Just pretend you're on a magic carpet.' I pretended I was on a magic carpet, and for a moment, everything felt better."
Caldwell's prose hops easily from street graffiti to Big Life Sentimentality, sometimes at an alarming clip. Swollen, bittersweet lines like this crop up out of nowhere: "Everyone is beautiful at first. But then it was autumn." And this, "Did you forget about the mornings we'd lie in bed and tell each other, 'I appreciate you?' And do you agree that the mornings when we appreciated each other might have been better than the mornings we loved each other?"
A few other choice lines:
On being the other woman: "I will never be like you. I will always want to be."
On obsession: "I wanted a lover to shake me up so much that I could never love any other man."
On apathy: "I remember feeling like I'd attempted suicide and failed. Like I'd thrown my life off a bridge to drown it, but it fucking floated."
It'd be easy to say that Legs smacks of a certain green sentimentality, but doing so would be a disservice to the sudden outbursts of thrashy punk irreverence. In other words, it would seem Caldwell was playing a dirty trick on us if there weren't so much vulnerability involved. So much verve. Caldwell's tone is young, but not naive, which is evident in its atmospheric balladry, its exhibitionism, and its sense of profound loss.
Despite the fact that Caldwell is definitely ballsy, Legs is limited by the refusal, at times, to actually go balls-out. "Nightbird," for instance, is a beautiful elegy to a relationship, told through touching, bombastic vignettes that mostly begin with, "And do you remember...?" But it ends with the disappointing rimshot: "It's okay if you forgot. We were smoking a ton of weed." Also, because many of the stories and people overlap, rereading about a particular person or event in several essays can create a kind of jarring dissonance, especially if you've pictured the person in your mind and he/she turns out to be something entirely different.
Despite these few hiccups, Legs is a solid debut. It's self-aware but not preachy. Raunchy, but not trashy. Sincere, but not saccharine. I look forward to reading more of her work, and seeing just where her legs might stray to next.