Digging Beneath Tofu and Art

Thurman’s varied and idiosyncratic essays possess a strange appeal

Bulimia, tofu, and Anne Frank are among the disparate subjects up for discussion in “Cleopatra’s Nose,” a collection of 20 years of Judith Thurman’s writing. In these diverse essays, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, Thurman explores several “varieties of desire.” She centers her analysis loosely around a simple question: why do people—particularly artists, but others as well—choose the paths they do? Though the collection is necessarily a bit incoherent, Thurman’s consistently lively narrative voice compensates for any discontinuity. In each successive essay, Thurman takes on a new topic with equal ferocity, laying out for her reader the inner workings of the minds of artists, eccentrics, and politicians alike.Thurman opens her collection with “The Wolf at the Door,” a horrifying essay with a strangely hypnotic appeal. “The Wolf at the Door” profiles Anne Beecroft, a performance artist whose work centers on bulimia. Thurman does not shy away from reporting the gruesome details of Beecroft’s disorder, facing gory facts without flinching. “Bulimics often separate the courses of a binge with markers of taste and texture so that each stratum is visibly discrete and, during gluttony interruptus, can be carefully ticked off the elimination manifest,” she writes. But, as in each of her essays, Thurman investigates beneath the repulsive details, shedding light on the history behind Beecroft’s bizarre form of art and allowing us to understand what drove her to pursue such an extreme lifestyle. Thurman explores Beecroft’s family history, her tempestuous marriage, and the path of the disorder throughout her life. In doing so, she attempts to comprehend Thurman’s art as more than simply tableaux vivants of emaciated women, undertaking a chilling but intriguing investigation of the mind at work behind the art. Thurman’s ability to conduct such investigations unifies her disparate topics. She groups her essays into seven parts whose subjects are loosely—but not always convincingly—connected. In her first part, after writing about a bulimic performance artist, a drug-addicted poet who committed suicide, and a self-proclaimed “orgiast,” she includes an essay on the art of making tofu. But “Night Kitchens” functions as more than just a palate cleanser after the three stomach-turning essays that preceded it. Thurman describes not only the surprisingly complex process of tofu-making, but also the people who have chosen to make tofu their livelihood and even their art. Foremost among these personalities is Kawashima, who is known for his zaru dofu, “a melting, ethereal confection with a mousselike consistency which is eaten with a spoon.” Just as Kawashima turns the notoriously insipid food into a delicacy, Thurman reveals that the culture of tofu-making is much more intricate than anyone whose understanding of tofu is rooted in its supermarket block form might expect.When she writes about people whose work is well known and frequently written about, Thurman attempts to understand what so captivates the public. In “Not Even A Nice Girl,” Thurman discusses Anne Frank and the interest and controversy her diaries have generated since their publication. “Her readiness has a provocative quality to it—a voluptuous openness—and I wonder how many readers have responded to it,” Thurman writes. However, as she describes the responses Anne Frank’s diary has elicited from decades of readers, her own essay fails to evoke a similar reaction. Thurman’s analysis of the forces behind people’s choices is more illuminating and interesting when those choices are less familiar, but with Frank, she’s just another voice.As Thurman moves from one personality to the next, she treats Flaubert and Teresa Heinz Kerry, photographers and fashion designers, to the same gentle probing in an attempt to discover where their life’s work originates. Although this collection of essays seems oddly disjointed at first glance, Thurman’s driving question joins it into a comprehensive body of work. Because the articles are written in New Yorker style, each stands very well on its own, but reading the entire collection reveals the inquisitive mind at work behind Thurman’s essays, making it well worth the effort.