Sam Brooks, noted critic of the Queer Eye juggernaut, reviews Over the Top, a memoir by the show’s most flamboyant star Jonathan Van Ness.
The phrase “like Maya Angelou taught me” shows up two pages in. It doesn’t quite set the tone so much as prepares you for what’s to come. This is what we’re working with: a writer who uses Maya Angelou as a pop culture reference and moves on.
Van Ness is inarguably the breakout star of the Queer Eye reboot franchise (give or take the Patrick Bateman-esque Antoni Porowski) and was also the most famous before the franchise. On Gay of Thrones, he proved himself to be a delightful, off-the-cuff recapper of the world’s biggest television show, and on his podcast Getting Curious, he was no less delightful as he learned about the world’s issues and givens in episodes like ‘What Makes a Cult a Cult’ and ‘Who is Bernie Sanders?’.
Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love is his memoir (Van Ness identifies as genderqueer, but uses he/him pronouns) released just after his intended audience has likely finished bingeing the fourth season of his show and is launching into the spin-off Queer Eye: We’re in Japan. Three of the other four from Queer Eye have done likewise: see Antoni In The Kitchen, Naturally Tan (ed: I love you Tan) and Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope.There are many stories in Over the Top as Van Ness comes to terms with his sexual abuse, his gender identity and sexuality, his meth addiction, and his HIV+ diagnosis in bracingly frank ways. That’s a lot of things to come to terms with, and Van Ness skips through them quite ably. When the book tips into excellence and revelation are in the moments where he grapples with his own trauma – a necessary part of everybody’s life, obviously – and these feel like the most worked-out and edited parts of the book.
Van Ness knows how he feels about himself and his own darkness. When he talks about the stigma of addiction and especially about being HIV+, you can sense how important he knows this is. He’s a famous person being honest about his life with HIV, aiming to not just destigmatise the disease but to stamp out too-common myths about it. Yes, it’s possible to live happily and healthily as someone with HIV. Yes, it’s possible to have an active and happy sex life. And yes, it’s possible to do it all and be Jonathan Van Ness.
The problem isn’t the content, necessarily, or that Van Ness doesn’t have the stories to fill out a book. Van Ness writes eloquently and with authority on the things he knows a lot about, especially hairdressing, which he discusses with more clear-headed prose than he does anything else in the book, with no tangents or circular phrasing.
No, the main problem throughout is Van Ness’s voice. Van Ness has built a brand out of being effervescent and delightful, a ray of off-the-cuff positivity and occasionally surreal observation, and while that works onscreen and in podcast form, it makes for a maddening read. To wit: “this book is my chance to show you more. It’s not gonna be pretty, but it’s my truth and if I don’t share it, I won’t be able to help others who are struggs to func.” He falls back on obvious phrasing and cliches a lot of the time, which is something that a judicious edit could make easy work of, but when your book’s subtitle is ‘A Raw Journey to Self-Love’, maybe that’s too baked into the DNA to edit out.
There are near-constant tangents into ice-skating trivia and the pop culture references that might feel authentic when spoken absolutely clunk when written down – if you can explain what the heck “I guess I really am a Kelly Clarkson girl” means in any context, power to you. Those work on a podcast where the listener can zone out a bit. But in a book, where you’re expected to take similar care reading the words as the writer took writing them, it doesn’t track.
The book is successful as a story of someone coming to terms with their demons, and turning the spotlight on those demons so others might come to terms with their own. Where the book is less successful, is, well, as a book. More often than not, it feels like a lightly edited and transcribed monologue podcast, and I’d argue that the entire thing would work a lot better as an audiobook, listened to over meals or on commutes. It’d even do better as a TED talk – an edited hour that can be buoyed with Van Ness’s obvious charisma.
The structure is bizarre – an honest-to-God book report about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is dropped in the middle of a long section about his meth addiction – and as JVN’s own life clicks into place, the book accordingly loses any sense of dramatic tension. When you lose that tension, you have to have something to fall back on, and without a compelling enough (written) voice, the memoir falls apart entirely. A two-and-a-half page section on the travails of taking selfies with his fans is the book’s clear low point. It ends not long after that, not because that’s where the story ends, but because we’ve essentially reached the present day. There’s no more memoir to remember.
With memoirs like this, you have to wonder whether the writer had done this at the right point in their life. Did they start writing because they got famous and it made business sense for both publisher and celebrity to cash in on it? You might sell more books by releasing a memoir from someone who’s at the height of their career (or at the very least the height of their public exposure), but there’s no doubt that there’s a more interesting memoir waiting after the 260 pages of this one.
Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness (Simon & Schuster, $46.99) is available at Unity Books.