Review of Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman
When the thick manila envelope containing a pre-release copy of Jeremy Blachman's Anonymous Lawyer arrived at my apartment the day before graduation, I have to admit to both excitement and nervousness. On the one hand, no one had ever asked me for a review before, certainly not a pre-release one, so I felt a bit puffed-up in the chest. On the other hand, unlike some of my friends, I never really got into Anonymous Lawyer the Blog.
I'd wander over to the website every so often whenever a classmate would chirp, "You should see what AL is saying." And yet the blog never made my sidebar and I was never a daily reader. Sure, AL was a villain, and I like villains, but to enjoy reading about one I have to have some way of feeling sympathy for the character. I never found that hook with Anonymous Lawyer. The writing was funny more than occasionally, but the online persona seemed unrelievedly grim: a fifty-something sadist with the maturity of a pampered eight-year-old recounting either his sorrows or how he would take them out on those less powerful than he.  After reading a few entries, any form of empathy became impossible.
There was also the anonymity thing. As my readers know, I distrust anonymity in bloggers. Yet when Anonymous Lawyer was the hot thing online, the mystery surrounding the author's identity attracted as much attention as anything he said. Was he really a partner at a firm? A frustrated associate? As everyone now knows it was in fact law student Jeremy Blachman, and as his name is right on the cover in big grey letters, the novel doesn't exactly make that a secret.
Having now read Anonymous Lawyer as a novel, I'm happy to say that it made a fantastic transition to the page. My concerns about writing a good review had re-emerged after the first fifteen pages or so, as the opening blog entries were pretty much what pushed me away from the online version: nasty little scrawls about how the tax partner is anti-social, the Anonymous Wife only spends money, or the Anonymous Children remain destined for failure. But Jeremy made the excellent decision to scatter emails between AL and several other characters in between the blog entries. At first, he's talking to his niece about her upcoming graduation and entry into Yale Law School, and then the setup of the blog itself. As the novel progresses, a few more people discover just who is behind the blog--while a lot of other emails reveal mistaken identity--and the cast of characters widens.
These emails nicely humanize Anonymous Lawyer. His character blossoms in the spaces between the impersonal blog entries and the private correspondence. Occasional missives provide the backstory for a later post. Sometimes he berates a poor associate, while other times he smooth-talks his niece. These little glimpses of his "personal" life make the reader care about the jackass buying $180 meals for his family or throwing a tantrum when the Chairman only shows for fifteen minutes at his backyard barbeque. The forces that drive him are only really revealed when he half-seduces/half-justifies his lifestyle to his niece.
Once you can care for him, and even cheer for him a little, the trials and tribulations of the Anonymous Lawyer are fantastic fun. He and his rival ("the Jerk") spend most of the novel competing for the last brass ring they can ever hope to have: the chairmanship of the firm. Vile as AL is, the Jerk comes across worse: a Harvard snob willing to turn everything into a competition with his Michigan rival. Of course, it's impossible to tell if the Jerk really deserves such scorn, or if he's a hobgoblin of the Anonymous Imagination.
Anonymous Lawyer is a fun book, a clever book and a book worth reading even if you've already followed the blog. My fears about writing this review completely evaporated when I reached around page fifty, and by the end I was skipping forward to read the email exchanges and find out what was happening in the "real" world. Better yet, I'm enthusiastically awaiting whatever Jeremy's next project might be. To be honest, the best parts of Anonymous Lawyer are the parts that aren't blogged. I can't wait to see what he does without those shackles.
: A slight digression. Several centuries before its time, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon stands out as a kind of prototypical blog: a diary kept by a lady in waiting, the book was obviously meant for a public audience and reveals the character of the author as she sets down little vignettes. Sei Shonagon at times comes across as a conniving, brooding, paranoid and oversensitive bitch, and in this sense she and AL have a lot in common. But unlike the AL blog, every so often she scribbles down something that twists your perceptions and lets you see the flesh underneath the robes. I doubt I would have liked her, though I think AL might have.
At one point in the novel, one of AL' correspondents remarks that what he writes seems more honest. It never seemed that way to me. Rather, AL's blog never gets much beyond being one more mask--albeit probably a thinner than his office face--that he uses to address the world. As a character, AL abuses his readers no less than he does his associates. When I would follow the website, there was a definite sense that the readers were there for his pleasure, rather than the other way around.
In any event, I frequently take my copy of Sei Shonagon of the shelf, while as I said, I only wander to the AL blog.