“Too much and not the mood” is an excerpt from an entry in A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf. Written in 1931, Woolf was expressing her fatigue from the process of correcting her writing, at the “cramming in and cutting out” to please a potential readership and wondering if all writing is just showmanship, whether she had anything to say that was really worth saying.
It’s on the back of this sentiment that Chew-Bose launches her own essay collection, and knowing this little tidbit of information certainly helped me to feel a deeper sense of understanding for where Chew-Bose is coming from. It also, at points, had me wondering whether Chew-Bose had anything really worth saying.
I have a small confession. When I first picked this collection up in 2018 I didn’t finish it. The first essay, Heart Museum, is the longest of the 14 journal-style offerings from Chew-Bose. It consumes almost half the entire book and while it is exquisitely written, I also found it to be a bit of a headache. It is a trudge of endless detail and small observations, jumping from describing the background of a particular emoji to obscure facial expressions. I couldn’t muster up enough care to get through it and explore what might wait beyond. It was when a couple of (trusted) book friends implored that I revisit it, that I caved and decided to give the book another go. This time around I skipped the first essay and decided to dive into the rest.
In Heart Museum, Chew-Bose muses that “the best ideas outrun me. That’s why I write.” and it’s in this spirit that the remainder of her essays unravel. Often, her writing feels as though it is simply meandering on, with no discernable beginning or end. Where she starts is not where she ends as she tests “the obnoxious reach of my tangents.”
In my first reading, this felt unreasonable. Obnoxious is the absolute appropriate word for it. I enjoy writing that’s specific, but not detailed to the point of boredom, and bored was all I felt. In my second reading, it felt like I got the breakthrough I wanted to really enjoy her writing and I finally understood the praises being sung about this book. I found the latter essays far more digestible, filled with quiet wisdom and grace. Chew-Bose handles her subject matter in ways that spring up unexpectedly, uncovering revelations and deeper insights into the meaning of everyday experience.
One of the things I found myself enjoying the most about Chew-Bose’s prose is her knack for unlikely word pairings that leave vivid impressions. Friends are a “battery-powered clamor,” a broken window is “veined,” a sentence is “skirmished.” This playful dexterity with language leans into the notion of ‘too much and not the mood’, of writing for herself, voicing her internal monologues out loud without the cutting and cramming. There is self-indulgence in this way of writing, that could easily be passed off as narcissistic, but is subtly pleasing from Chew-Bose. Mostly, because of the intense self-awareness she demonstrates. It begins to feel as though you are being let in on the thoughts of a close friend, albeit after a couple of glasses of wine.
The remaining thirteen essays deftly explore a range of important topics without overanalysing them, weaving cultural references from film scenes, music, and art into her own narrative observations. From microaggressions to racism, solitude, friendship and family, and experiencing the stifling heat of summer in New York (a descriptive experience that I personally never get bored of, having only had it in person once myself). Identity and heritage are two recurring themes, and in D As In, an essay about her name and its leading queries to her background, she glides over her emotions with elegance and nuance, reasserting the struggle of many facing this line of questioning:
“‘Where are you from? What does your name mean?’ Those two questions have been asked of me so many times that I respond with a singsong cadence as if rattling off my address when I order Thai over the phone.”
Her work has been likened to and placed alongside the likes of Joan Didion, one of the great personal essayists and it’s hard to disagree. Although, I would offer that Chew-Bose is definitely of her generation. There’s a youthfulness to her writing that I’ve never felt in reading Didion. Her observations have that slightly surreal element that I often find when one of my nieces is unloading her thoughts for the day. Some of the things she’s noticed will surprise and delight you.
My favourite pieces from her were the ones where she explores a specific theme, staying on track just long enough to finish her thread of thought. The later essays are much, much shorter, offering a tightness and clarity that left me eager for more. Throughout the collection, you get the sense that deep rumination is akin to breathing for Chew-Bose, but it was the essays that offered a more personal perspective that I really connected with and I’d love to read more of this type of writing from her.
Ultimately, Too Much And Not The Mood is a series of intimate letters addressed to Chew-Bose herself, her attempt to deconstruct the minutiae of life as she sees it. A way of examining her own smallness and in so doing, finding her own way to take up space:
“There’s strength in observing one’s miniaturization. That you are insignificant and prone to, and God knows, dumb about a lot. Because doesn’t smallness prime us eventually to take up space?”
I’m still not convinced that as a woman in her mid-thirties I’m the desired readership. I have an inkling that if I had read these a decade ago I’d be swooning over Chew-Bose in the same manner as I swoon over Didion and Cusk today. It was nostalgic and pleasurable to pop the younger self cap on and enjoy these essays, nonetheless.
Too Much And Not The Mood
221 pages. 2017.