Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat, Sarabande Books, 2012
Review by Allie Leach
As of late, when I think of women writers with essay collections, I think of the lyric essayist. And with the lyric essayist often comes a voice that's lovely and soft spoken, minimal and melancholy. It's a voice that makes me crave white tea and carrot cake and Sunday afternoons. Elena Passarello's debut collection of essays, Let Me Clear My Throat, doesn't quite fit into that category. Instead she has carved out a voice all her own. It's muscular and athletic and loud. It makes me pine for Saturday nights and IPA pints and a huge bowl of kettle corn. But enough with the food metaphors, this is a book about the human voice. What she's produced here is a masterfully orchestrated collection of essays, so finely tuned and executed that they ring with choirboy clarity.
Let Me Clear My Throat dissects the many sounds that we make with a satisfying combination of history, science, pop culture, personal anecdotes, and playful poetics. Take for example when she deconstructs Marlon Brando's famed Stella scream: "Brando rolled his voice toward his molars, where it slumped over his epiglottis like a delinquent schoolboy at the back of the bus" (11). Passarello has an uncanny ability to break down the anatomy and mechanics of the voice in a way that never feels dry or text-bookish. And in a larger sense, her collection examines how these sounds shape us into the various voices that we've become.
The book is separated into three parts: Screaming Memes, Tips on Popular Singing, and The Thrown. And these headings, with the exception of the last one, pretty much sum up what each section is about: screams, singers and songs, and other professional voice artists. In addition to these three parts, one of the main organizing threads throughout the whole book are some incredibly various interviews—with everyone from auctioneers to politicians, and from singers to sports casters—which serve as short segues between each essay. These interviews are unique in the sense that they're not your traditional Q&A between the author and subject. Instead, they're more like short monologues. And each monologue, each voice, is distinct from the rest. I particularly loved her interview with a woman who auditioned for American Idol: "I was like, boooool-shit I'm not Idol material! I mean, I'm a trained singer who knows how to sing a little rock, but she meant I don't have a story and therefore I am not made for TV" (112). The "boooool-shit," in this case, is a great example of how Passarello is able to onomatopoetically spell out words and phrases with perfect pitch.
Screaming Memes features an essay called "The Wilhelm Scream," which extensively covers the history of a famous AHH! found in countless movies. (You can watch a twelve-minute film history of The Wilhelm Scream here. Even if you only get about halfway through the video, it's pretty great). This essay is a stand out with its unique braid, which weaves the film history of the Wilhem scream with snippets of screenplay from the films. What's interesting to note about these sections is that, at first, one may feel that these are actual bits of screenplay dug up from dusty archives. Gradually, though, Passarello blurs the line between found text and her own interpretations of that text. One can imagine her intently watching each movie, taking down notes, describing the scene:
GARLAND high kicks, squeezing a throw pillow like an accordion. For a section scored in samba, GARLAND wields salt shakers like maracas. (24-5)
It's no wonder that Passarello has such facility with the screenplay form, as she's an actress herself. In the essay "Harpy," the author reveals that she's the badass winner of the 2011 Stella Screaming Contest in New Orleans. "Harpy" is another standout in this section. This essay seems like the occasion for the book itself. And the fact that Passarello won this contest brings an energy and authority that propels the book forward from one of history, science, and pop culture, into one of personal essay.
From Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra to crows, Tips on Popular Singing details various songbirds. "Judy! Judy! Judy!" describes Garland's final concert in Carnegie Hall, shortly before her death. The essay ends tragically but beautifully, with her autopsy and subsequent funeral. During Garland's autopsy, in which her larynx is removed, Passarello describes how the pathologist will "use his thumbs to separate the muscles that connect the larynx to trachea, like popping beans from a pod, until he holds her voice box in his hands" (110). While many of Passarello's essays are characterized by their humor, the essay on Judy Garland is dark and poignant. It's evident that Passarello's interest in Garland goes beyond the fact that it fits nicely into the book; she's an expert on her, could write a biography on her. In fact, I'd love to see Passarello write a biography on Judy Garland. I don't generally read biographies, but I'd read that one.
The Thrown—the hardest section to pin down and characterize—is kind of like a catchall about professionals who all use their voices in different ways. (Coincidentally, there's a death metal band based out of Cleveland, Ohio called The Thrown). However, this title, as I gathered, is a phrase from one of her interviewees who says, awesomely, how "voices are for throwing." The essay "Double Joy: Myron Cope and the Pittsburgh Sound" is one of my favorites in this section. Passarello talks about American accents and the journey of her own accent—from down south in Georgia to way up northeast to Pittsburgh. In addition to describing accents, particularly breaking down and dissecting the Pittsburgh accent, along the way she focuses on Myron Cope. Cope, the famed Pittsburgh sportscaster, had a voice full of enthusiasm and the Pittsburgh sound—raspy, fast, and almost unintelligible: "Okel Dokel, what a debacle! ... dis is Myron Cope...on sports" (185). What I took to heart about this essay was the fact that—in a world full of polished voices—Myron Cope's was a voice that had grit and rattle, and in essence, made him unique, made him Pittsburgh.
The most experimental and playful of all her essays is "A Monstrous Little Voice." In this essay, Passarello uses the form of a questionnaire to interview Hector the Dummy, who's a puppet of sorts. Well, in reality, she's interviewing the ventriloquist, Teresa Foley. Despite this distinction, I became so immersed in the experiment, that I was convinced that Hector had a voice all his own. While I found the humor in the beginning of the essay to be a bit forced and hammy, the further I got into it, the more I laughed out loud. For example, the fill-in-the-blank and short answer questions that she posed to the dummy were hilarious. Upon asking Hector what it was liked to be pulled out of a box for the first time, he says "it's kind of like when you've been swimming underwater, holding your breath for a while, and then you finally reach the surface. You hear yourself gasping for air and then the whole world opens up to your ears! Have you seen The Little Mermaid?" (223). While hilarious, the essay ends on a more serious note, speaking to the bigger picture of the book as a whole, and the impact our voices have on our lives: "Whether you admit it or not (and some never do), the voice is the closest you will ever get to showing an audience what you are truly made of. The two of you—body and sound—will undoubtedly make quite a pair" (228).
In a 230-page book, that contains 14 essays and 15 interviews, there are many wonderful and highly entertaining pieces that haven't gotten shout-outs. May this be your collective catcall from me: Rawwwl! That said, with such a varied soundtrack, some songs strike clearer chords than others. For example, while I loved learning about Howard Dean's notorious BYAH!, the repetition of this phrase throughout the essay became a bit tired. I felt the same with Farinelli's high C, as well as Passarello's dissection of "Ew!" While the constant repetition of each of these phrases reinforced the appropriate feelings—absurdity, strain, and disgust—the meaning behind those phrases became fuzzy and exhausted after awhile.
Other trends throughout: Passarello likes progenitors—the first voice to go platinum; the first movie featuring the Wilhelm scream; the first record of the Rebel Yell. She also has a beast-like appetite for research on just about anything. This openness and curiosity makes her not only an authority on the human voice, but also one hell of an entertaining writer.