I became a fan of A.J. Jacobs when I read his debut book, The Know-It-All. The idea of reading the entire encyclopedia was a bit preposterous, but overshadowed by the sheer joy of trivia; I never really thought of it as an experiment per se. Things changed a bit with The Year of Living Biblically, which was a genuine life experiment for Jacobs, and one that sometimes put him in awkward positions. If you read my reviews, you’ll find that I enjoyed both, but found the latter somewhat cloying at times; Jacobs has a tendency to profess life-altering revelations or profundities which, if they are true, make him naïve, and if they are false, making him disingenuous.
I confess to being underinformed about the nature of The Guinea Pig Diaries. Rather than being a single, year-long experiment (e.g. living biblically), it’s a series of short experiments. One about outsourcing his life to India I recall as a magazine piece he did for Esquire; another tells a story from 1997 or so, very early in his tenure with the magazine. The pieces in the book seem sequential, however; that is, each successive experiment has the knowledge of the previous experiment, and and one point Jacobs makes reference to a meta-experiment, namely a year of small-scale experiments. I am unsure, therefore, if The Guinea Pig Diaries is a synthesis of recollection and the choicest bits from his meta-experiment, or perhaps nothing more than a collated version of his essays for Esquire with brief codas after each.
Jacobs begins with his experiment to help his young, attractive babysitter find a new boyfriend via online dating websites. Using her supplied photos and input, Jacobs takes over most of the responsibility for fielding emails from prospective suitors. His findings include the typical sort of trash you might find on such websites—ridiculous bootlickers/asskissers, married men unashamedly looking for extramarital fun, and swaggering cowboys—but he is ultimately surprised by the (apparently) genuine neediness of most of the would-be suitors. This, he posits, finally occurs to him because he is now wielding the staggering power of femininity: attractive women can pick and choose their rewards, and he finds this power intoxicating and a little frightening.
Or, consider Jacobs’ experiment with Radical Honesty, in which he attempts to wean himself off white lies1. The most fun this essay has is the author’s conversations with the founder of Radical Honesty, who—honestly—counters Jacobs’ protestations about white lies by calling him a manipulative son of a bitch (and so forth). This is the most one-sided of Jacobs’ experiments: armed with the story of a recently-widowed acquaintance, he concludes that Radical Honesty, while interesting in its concepts, is an impractical form of communication. Though Radical Honesty allows “kind of authentic sharing that creates the possibility of love and intimacy” because “lying and protecting your image takes a heavy toll on your health and relationships,”2 it falls apart because honesty requires not simply the guts to tell the truth (easy) but the guts to hear it (not so easy). The difference between open communication and self-destruction is a universal acknowledgment—Jacobs notes with some concern that the crux of his essay was already covered, if somewhat spastically, in Liar, Liar.
The most well-known of the included essays is Jacobs’ attempt to outsource the drudgework of his life to India, hiring two different companies to handle his work (research for articles, etc.) and his personal life (social secretarial work, basically)3. This essay is the sort that bothers me most about Jacobs’ writing, however; there seems a disparity between the sort of conclusion we would expect and the conclusion he lets us see. At one point, he writes, he assigned his social secretary to “argue” with his wife with some degree of success, which is an absurd sequence of events that either did not happen as he reported them, or happened only because the participants were aware of the context. If Jacobs’ wife Julie accepted the argument-by-proxy only because she understood its role in Jacobs’ work, does that count as a meaningful result of the “experiment”? I would argue that this essay, like most of Jacobs’ work, comprises a textual (and more cerebral) equivalent to reality television: the premise promises an experiment wherein a—wacky—variable skews the results of his life; during the course of it, he will crack jokes, and in the end he will wax philosophical, but we as readers have no reason to believe that the data was not coerced. Jacobs’, after all, serves as his own editor, splicing the footage for dramatic effect. And the participants, insofar as they know of the experiment, will likely give answered which are informed by that knowledge. The result is far less a work of biography; in fact, it teeters on the edge of becoming a creative biographical fiction, the sort which Dave Eggers has tended to write lately.
If I find the works somewhat perfunctory, perhaps it is because Jacobs’ simply isn’t well-suited to the short form: The Year of Living Biblically, while occasionally insipid, was much more meaningfully tied into Jacobs’ life: he and his wife’s hope for a baby girl (and guilty disappointment at more boys) was one of the truly touching parts of a book made wacky by Hebrew haircuts and self-admitted sanctimony. The essays in The Guinea Pig Diaries, perhaps because they require so much less investment from Jacobs or his wife, seem more impersonal: the author can hold them at arms length, dash out 4500 words, and proceed living a life that doesn’t make his wife want to throttle him. In the meantime, the readers get articles that are more along the lines of Jacobs’ mental_floss contributions: a small, digestible bolus of trivia which, while interesting, does not ask for personal investment or deliver much erudition. These are not bad—I like mental_floss, after all—but I know that Jacobs is capable of so much more.