Review of Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography by Laurie Woolever
By Lucy Farcnik
I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography bothers me so much. I have loved Anthony Bourdain’s writing and his TV shows since around the age of eight, when I would watch his CNN shows, No Reservations and Parts Unknown with my parents. The biography is a collection of interviews about Bourdain, so it should be a reflection on the beauty and pain of life through people trying to process the loss of a coworker, a friend, an icon, an ex-husband, right? But it just feels wrong. I wondered if it was because Bourdain occupied some sort of godlike status in my head. That, upon reflection, wasn’t true. I love Anthony Bourdain because he was a shitty person as much as he was a good, genuine, honest one. So then what was wrong?
The book does exactly what it says it will do. It delivers an “unprecedented behind-the-scenes view into the life of Anthony Bourdain.” It is split into chapters, each using a quote from someone in his life for the title, like “Call It Impostor Syndrome If You Want, but Tony Definitely Had It,” or “It Was Not The Easiest Thing.” The chapters move chronologically, with the quotes evidently reflecting the editor’s belief: that Bourdain’s life gradually became worse and strained towards the end. Which, it goes without saying, we have no real way of knowing. There is, of course, a revisionist nature to this kind of work; in looking backwards at Bourdain’s life, it is far easier to project specific moments and memories that could have signaled his struggles with what we know now about his mental state and death by suicide. This colours the narrative of the biography, and throughout the reading, you can tell that the editor is trying to foreshadow this.
The book becomes painfully personal, including details coming from people like his producers, relatives, friends and daughter. Take, for example, this quote from Lydia Tenaglia, cofounder and executive producer of Zero Point Zero Production (which produced Bourdain’s A Cooks Tour and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations). She says “I always suspected that we would get a call that Tony died. I didn’t think it would be by his own hand. I thought it was going to be an accident, or that he had a heart attack. I did not anticipate ‘he hung himself.’ That was hard to understand.” This is heartbreaking, of course, but it doesn’t feel like a reflection that I, as someone who didn’t know him, should have access to.
This is a book about loss, about the dangers of being famous, and about all the reasons that Bourdain was special to the world and the people around him. But while that might be what the book is about, it is at the detriment of paying tribute to Bourdain. There is good insight, of course, like that of Daniel Halpern, a poet and Bourdain’s publishing partner and editor at Ecco, who said about Bourdain’s experience with fame, “I guess being famous at a certain point, the loss of anonymity takes over, and that can become devastating. You want to walk down the street without twenty people stopping you for a selfie. And he would never say no.” These reflections make sense, though they are again building a foundation for the reader to understand the stress and isolation that lead to Bourdain’s death. This is the same as this quote from David Simon, the cocreator of Treme, though he at least acknowledges after that this is speculation in hindsight. “I knew he was a tangle of emotions about his ex-wife and his daughter. He had upended a lot, and he was spinning… All of that can unground an even very sensible person. But I’m speculating now, and I’m doing it in retrograde, because I didn’t have any sense of it.” What is interesting about viewing the second quote, and indeed the rest of the book, in the context of the first quote is that this book would be the opposite of what Bourdain wanted. It lays his whole life bare. He just wanted to walk down the street and not be recognized, and now we are all reading the gory details of how the people closest to him saw and were concerned about him.
Those who write in this biography are speculating about his mental state, his health, and his private life. They are trying to make sense of why their friend killed himself, which is understandable, but then they are selling these reflections in a $35 hardcover with their dead friend on the cover. If it was intended to honor him, it wouldn’t have been published, especially in the context of the book's reflections on Bourdain's struggle with celebrity and public recognition. Speculations about him don’t matter. The ‘why’ isn’t important, because it already happened, and to place it in the public sphere for profit with such blatant disregard for the brilliance of his life should—and does—gross me out.
Since his death, many pieces of media have been written or filmed based on the idea that we might get closer to understanding his death. There was Roadrunner, the controversial documentary which featured AI generated clips of Bourdain speaking. Director Morgan Neville included a clip of Bourdain reading an email sent to a friend that was in fact spoken by an AI model of his voice, and he later admitted to using this at other points in the film, sparking widespread ethics backlash from readers, critics and Bourdain’s ex-wife, Ottavia Bourdain. As well, there have been four books posthumously released that are about or associated with him and at least one in the making, only one of which he had any part in writing. Put simply: many of Bourdain’s friends and colleagues like Laurie Woolever are making serious money off of his death, and the inherent, desperate human desire to make sense of the unexplainable.
I don’t purport to understand why this needed to be a book. Perhaps there is a need to play into the public’s assumption that they know anyone they read enough about. Many of us have unintentional parasocial relationships, which are one-sided relationships with celebrities, that make us feel like we know them, and therefore feel entitled to know intimate information about them. Or else I’m being too critical and should adopt Bourdain’s “I don’t have to agree with you to like you or respect you” attitude. It’s not a bad book, but it does read like listening in on a therapy session and a celebration of life rolled into one, in that it is entirely too intimate to not make you feel uncomfortable. Their pain and confusion shouldn’t be a selling point. It should be a pointer to put the book down and walk away.