Naomi Wolf’s The Treehouse:The quest is for poetry but the outcome is prosaic

First published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 2006

The Treehouse

By Naomi Wolf

Virago, 320pp, $35

WHEN NAOMI WOLF turned 40, she and her father, Leonard, built a treehouse for her eight-year-old daughter, Rosa. Then she wrote a book about it. If this sounds dismissive, it’s at least partly so because I’d hoped for more from the woman who gave us The Beauty Myth.

To be fair, building a treehouse is really just a metaphor for the book’s bigger theme, which is “making your signature on the earth”. She asks her father – a poet, teacher and proto-beatnik who knew Allen Ginsberg and flirted with Anais Nin – to help her become an artist, a better teacher and a better person.

Wolf, fed up with the polemical world of politics, with talking rather than listening, and with Al Gore’s earth tones, had wanted to reacquaint herself with her childhood world of imagination: a world where her parents encouraged dreams of joining the circus and where her father bought a horse and planned Amazonian vacations when her family really needed a washing machine.

She uses the 12 writing lessons Leonard dusts off from his teaching days to structure her book. Each chapter title is a little homily that applies to life as much as it applies to art: “Destroy the Box”, “Do Nothing Without Passion”, “Speak in Your Own Voice”. Chapters then meander through numerous subjects: renovations at the derelict house she buys in the New England countryside, her friend Sophia’s romantic reawakening, the role of drugs in art and her father’s Jewish immigrant experience.

Through listening and offering wise words, Leonard apparently inspires people to quit bad jobs and bad relationships, to find “their poetry”, and Wolf wants to share his gift.

So she encourages young women she mentors to start a novel or write a business plan and urges an overworked friend to buy a flattering dress that makes her “bronze hair gleam”. At times it’s as if she’s channelling Oprah. Or What not to Wear’s Trinny and Susannah.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion this is Wolf’s mid-life-crisis book. Her writing has always used her personal experiences, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: she’s part of a long and fine feminist tradition. I suspect, too, her crisis may have a little to do with being part of the liberal left at a time when the right appears to be in perpetual ascendancy.

Whatever the reason, when she became Al Gore’s adviser her father rebuked her for wasting her talents: “The politicians and warriors of history who burned the libraries are mostly forgotten, but the poets and artists themselves have often survived.” It’s a comment that seems to have triggered Wolf’s about-face.

She spends much of The Treehouse grappling with her father’s mortality, yet her own mortality seems to be the book’s subtext. Unfortunately, the result reads like an extended (and not particularly good) creative writing exercise. Characters have “Byronic locks” and “deep brown bedroom eyes”. Her daughter is “dark-haired and pale and ironic”, her friend “golden-skinned and a bit fiendish”. Apart from Leonard, men are mostly peripheral, portrayed as either villains or knights. Leonard’s lessons (avoid cliches, ignore the trivial, edit) are all too often lost on Wolf.

But it’s strangely compelling at times. Wolf’s many Martha Stewart moments, hanging curtains or laying pavers, or her pique over a friend’s rude new boyfriend, perfectly illustrate that magazine law that says we’re fascinated by ordinary events in extraordinary people’s lives.

It was also intriguing to read the author of Fire with Fire, which urged women to grab hold of power through money and paid work, telling us to discover our “poetry”. But when conservatives are now claiming (with often spurious statistics) that women everywhere are embracing their inner housewife, it’s disconcerting to read of her retreat to domesticity.

As an overworked, overscheduled activist, it’s not surprising Wolf felt the need to slow down and grow herbs. But most women of her generation are probably less concerned with finding more domestic chores to occupy them, or the artist within (lovely idea that it is), than they are with more prosaic matters such as paying bills or finding partners and governments that won’t burden them with too much domestic responsibility.

Towards the end of The Treehouse, Leonard says everyone “has a destiny or task, and if he or she pursues it, that is his or her light”. He also says it’s the creative act, rather than being published, that gives the true writer meaning and joy, and Wolf passes this thought on to a struggling novelist. Unfortunately, the irony of then using this material for a book that was always going to find a publisher, despite being no masterpiece, seems to escape Wolf.

As I read The Treehouse, I kept thinking: “But Naomi, perhaps politics is your poetry?” It certainly seems that poetry itself isn’t. I suspect The Beauty Myth will be read many generations hence, but I’m afraid The Treehouse will be largely forgotten next month.

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