Review of Girl,
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/30/05
My wife was recently going through old books of hers she wanted to sell back to used bookstores and asked if I wanted to read some. I told her to put them on my TO READ pile. One of the books was Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted, about her several year experience before, during, and after her stay in a famed Massachusetts mental institution (McLean Hospital for Mental Health) in the late 1960s that also housed Ray Charles, and Sylvia Plath. Having seen the film starring Winona Ryder as SK (one nutty privileged Jewish girl playing another) when it came out a few years back, and not being that impressed with it- perhaps being a little better than the more recent Mona Lisa Smile, I figured that the book was a typical PC rant about mental illness, describing in intense and gory detail, how badly SK suffered.
To my surprise it wasn’t. It’s actually one of the better memoirs of recent vintage (it came out in 1993 and became a bestseller in 2000, with the film’s release). Not that SK is very insightful about her ‘borderline personality’ disorder, nor capable of extended moments of insight nor poetry, but she compensates for her lack of great craftsmanship in wordplay and sentence/paragraph construction with a daring approach to the memoir.
The book, with larger than normal print, is not even 170 pages in the Vintage edition I read, and there’s plenty of white space, as well as transcripts of SK’s mental diagnoses within. In a sense, this sets up the piece to be quite poetic. In fact, this is where the poesy of the prose comes from, not the ability to craft gorgeous prose. Most of the few dozen ‘chapters’ are brief- 3-4 pages is usual, and they are often dreamy or hazy recollections that sometimes briefly, violently come into focus, in describing a fellow patient’s ill or death. In other chapters SK goes off rambling about mental ills, philosophy, her sexual precocity, and other things. While many of these individual reminiscences and airies fall flat, the way they are woven together and contrast with each other allow make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
This synergy got me to thinking of a poetic equivalent, and the manifest answer was the long Maximus poem series by Charles Olson- another Massachusetts resident. In that poem series, one of the few ‘experimental’ works of poetry that actually coheres and is good, CO strings together many poems about his hometown, yet each poem/stanza is, in a sense, lacking- it fails as an individual work because it is incomplete. Yet, read one after the other the incomplete figurines each ‘poem’ makes connect up. It’s like looking at a single Matissean line on a piece of tissue paper. The individual curves and twists seem random until you lay each tissue paper over the next. Then, the full, intricate, and interesting picture emerges. Such it was in CO’s poem sequence, and such it is in SK’s memoir- each ‘chapter’ a single line, sometimes non-chronological, that gives a better representation of her mindset than any straightforward prose could. Interestingly, in looking up reviews of the book, I was struck by how not a single published review (at least those online) ever mentioned this, even though the form of the book jumped out at me. This is evidence of piss poor criticism. It’s akin to reviewing the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, dismissing it as smutty, and not even commenting on the breakthrough structure of the free verse.
There is little bitching, and poseur pity. Had SK experienced her ills 25 years later, when she wrote the book I’m sure her work would have been much more puerile like the writing of other noted memoirists Elizabeth Wurtzel (sexy, but vapidly faronzaled) and Dave Eggers (even emptier than he portrays). As for her tale- it’s rather familiar, due to the film and the classic trope she follows. SK is ill, checks herself in, meets girls far worse off than her, sort of recovers, foolishly marries young, then reflects on what it all means. Was she mentally ill? Probably not. Was she masochistic? Probably, but little more so than most females who are anorexic or bulimic- unknown maladies back then. Yes, there are highs and lows in the writing, the style, and the self-analysis, but it’s the style that really stands out. The style separates the book from the pack of lesser memoirs out there. It has its flaws, such as dull and repetitive parts that merely echo earlier, better descriptions of emotions or inmates, but only the two successful, if likewise flawed (for different reasons) non-celebrity memoirs of Frank McCourt are as good, or arguably better.
It’s also what makes the book better than the rather A to B to C Hollywood film. The end of the book is particularly strong, and probably the best pure writing in the book. After telling us where the memoir title comes from- Vermeer’s painting Girl Interrupted At Her Music, SK ends the memoir this way:
….And the wall is made of light- that entirely credible yet unreal Vermeer light.
Light like this does not exist, but we wish it did. We wish the sun could make us young and beautiful, we wish our clothes could glisten and ripple against our skins, most of all, we wish that everyone we knew could be brightened simply by our looking at them, as are the maid with the letter and the soldier with the hat.
The girl at her music sits in another sort of light, the fitful, overcast light of life, by which we see ourselves and others only imperfectly, and seldom.
That is truly great writing, and hopefully SK has followed up on it in later works. The writing is spare, jagged, yet coheres almost like a Pointillist painting, her prose seeming dotting the reader’s mind with images, rather than smearing long brushstrokes through the memory or her memory. As an ending it also works because it takes us elsewhere. We are given only hints of what happened to the other girls, but since they are only sketches it’s not necessary to know this one committed suicide, that one was ok, the other one became a prostitute. This is like real life, people wander in and out- what becomes of them is a mystery we rarely solve, just as SK’s internal mysteries remain open ended. As a work of art this certainly leaves readers wanting more.
Now, that I’ve given an idea of what the work is like let me turn to its creator, for most of the book’s critics have focused on the author rather than the work. It’s true that there is little illumination of the mental healthcare system of that time, but that’s missing the point. Yes, there are times when SK, the author years later, looks back and seems to be hiding something. But, since this is made manifest in the prose, almost all readers having commented on it I would argue that, duh, that’s what the author intended. The very manifestation of her lack of self-illumination was deliberate. In writing my own memoirs I faced a similar dilemma- should I try to paint myself more heroically than I actually was, or simply describe events as my flawed memory willed? I chose the latter. So, too, did SK choose to open her writing up for such a critique; this was not a flaw. It would be difficult to believe that someone capable of crafting such an intriguingly structured work would not be aware of such an obvious thing. That this has been criticized only reveals the lack of reading depth of most published critics.
An example would be a passage where SK rails against the ‘sexism’ of learning part of her diagnosis of being borderline was that she was promiscuous, even though she only serially flirted, and perhaps had had a few experiences. She questions whether this ‘diagnosis’ would have appeared if she were male, and how many sex partners and/or acts would she have needed to have to be so labeled. Some critics have pooh-poohed her point by stating that it was the ‘self-destructiveness’ behind her promiscuity that was the problem. But, this merely rephrases the plaint, and sidesteps the issue. It’s no secret that from time immemorial women have used offers of sex to gain love and males whispers of love to gain sex. No male, especially then, would ever be called on being ‘self-destructive’ for simply having a healthy libido. In short, in aiming to be SK’s psychiatrist most reviewers have forfeited their role as critic- that is to deal with the work presented, not their beliefs about what motivated the work, or its claims.
A support for this idea that SK is knowingly giving only details to control her readers’ perceptions comes from how little we know of her life before and after this experience. It is all shadows- yes, her parents get a brief mention, she seduced a high school teacher, her later husband and she were ill suited for each other….yet it’s all told with a complete lack of pretension. It’s been compared to Plath’s ridiculously bad and puerile novel The Bell Jar, but only because the protagonists of the two works were young, female, and had problems. By that rationale I, The Jury and Ironweed are kissin’ cousins because they both have male protagonists who like to drink and have difficulty getting in touch with their emotions.
In short, Girl, Interrupted is a very good work, and what any memoirist should strive to achieve. The very fact that many critics criticized it for, when boiled down, not filling their conventional needs as a reader, and chose to review it against what what they wanted (expected) it to be, argues for its specialness, and I’d bet that it will be read long after Prozac Nation or A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius have gone out of print. Smile at that, Susanna.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Spring, 2005 Laura Hird website.]
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