This is a brief essay about three to four years in my life that I have managed to put behind me, but will carry around with me at all times. I am haunted by a death I didn’t achieve and a future that slipped away in the meantime.
I live with a black Box of terror.
The full text is at ric journal: The Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression
Forney, Ellen (2012), Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me, Robinson
You know how when you feel a bit unwell and you go on WebMD and suddenly, you feel as though you were dying of a terminal illness because ALL THE SYMPTOMS FIT. Now imagine if you were given the DSM manual and asked to self evaluate your mental state and were given a list of symptoms – what are the chances you’d behave exactly as you’d do when exposed to the unfiltered WebMD? I have always considered these self-diagnoses a form of psycho-astrology. I have seen people rationalize the vagueness of horoscope prose as fitting for their lives. “Yes, yes, that applies to me! I am SUCH a taurus!” These self diagnoses of mental illness work, in my opinion, very much like that. Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir of bipolar illness, Marbles, is predicated on all these intuitions being perfectly valid and accurate – and applicable to people (like Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Randall Jarrell) who have been dead for decades or even centuries, because this flim-flam system of symptoms is impervious to questions of reasonable and evidence-based inquiry, of course. In American politics, there’s the Goldwater Rule, instituted by the American Psychiatric Association. It is well summarized by a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale and a member of the APA’s Ethics Committee who said: “If you’re going to talk to the press and spread stuff on your opinions, it’s important to at least say very clearly, ‘I have not examined this individual and therefore much of what I’m saying is sort of mystical black magic.” Or, as I like to say, psycho-astrology.
Ellen Forney is a fantastic artist, and the book itself is extraordinarily well made. It combines a variety of styles and forms to tell the story of how Forney discovered and came to terms with her mental illness. There is so much that’s amazing and admirable and extraordinary about this book that it is quite regrettable that it is so thoroughly dedicated to the arguments put forward by Kay Redfield Jamison and some others. Jamison’s Touched by Fire is something like the spiritus rector of this book, and if you have done or read some literary criticism on writers who have admitted to or been accused of having a mental illness, you have probably crossed paths with Jamison or one of the other like minded writers. In Lowell scholarship, there’s Jeffrey Meyers, for example, who has just put out a new book that I don’t have to (but regrettably will) read to know what it is saying. This “mystical black magic,” rejected by the APA, but embraced by people writing on arts and literature, is not just invariably badly argued and based on flimsy evidence, but it is also, overwhelmingly so, dull and boring. In all of these cases, we find a complex work reduced to the (mis)firings of a few synapses. As a (good) philosopher would say: it is a category error. The weakness of these arguments does not, of course, reduce the seductiveness of their academic or popular application. An army of frequently contradictory studies have been marshaled to prove one point or another about this, with small sample sizes and dubious methodologies. Recently, a cultural movement to embolden (no pun intended) sufferers of mental illnesses has been instrumental in enshrining many of these ideas as not just profoundly true but fundamentally emancipatory.
What’s most remarkable (and regrettable) about Marbles is how single-mindedly it pursues its ideological thesis about mental illness instead of delving more deeply into the actual experience of mental illness. The book is always strongest when it finds images, scenes and examples for the way the suffering person’s mind, Forney’s graphic representation, deals with depression, mania or the liminal states in-between. There is a series of panels showing Forney in the shower as the fog of depression lifts that are extremely well paced, well drawn and true to at least my experience. Forney’s skill in this area is immense. She manages to do two different things, equally well. One is finding the right kind of scene or situation to encapsulate the manic or depressive state of mind her memoir-self is in, the other is finding the right art to go with it. The visual grammar she employs for mania is vastly different from the one she uses for depression and this goes beyond what she draws. The crushing emptiness and devastation wrought by the depressive state is rendered in sometimes sequential art of solitude, sometimes in stark, powerful images drawn on a single notebook page. We get a page of the notebook itself, binding and all, to represent the way these states of mind are resistant to the usual flow of narrative. Many who write about the experience of particularly heavy depressive episodes will repeat this indescribable aspect of it. And this isn’t just true for memoirs. The Hypo, Noah van Sciver’s graphic biography of young Abraham Lincoln uses a breakdown of routine pencilwork to represent the heavy melancholy that sometimes took hold of Lincoln in his formative years before his engagement to Mary Todd.
I do not, however, think, I have ever seen an artist achieve this level of reflection and complexity while still remaining completely in control of a coherent narrative, although some have come close. Just looking at depression (in this review I discuss comics dealing with OCD and schizophrenia), there are two texts in particular that are extremely well made, and approach the topic from two different angles. The fundamental problem is, for these books as well as for Marbles, that some aspects of autobiography are more problematic in graphic form, I think. And critics much smarter and way more accomplished than me have tackled this. I recommend, for example Mihaela Precup’s The American Graphic Memoir: An Introduction as an excellent primer on the subject. I am here however particularly interest in a remark by Georges Gusdorf who once wrote about autobiographies which he called “scriptures of the self” that in them the “subject remains an I, who refuses to transfer his problematic to the level of we.” There is no direct access to meaning, no community. There is only the gnarled core of “revelation” – and for Gusdorf, autobiography is a way of negotiating, revealing this revelation. Autobiography, according to Linda Peterson, is inherently a genre of self-interpretation, and much has been made of how, with enlightenment, it has become this very linear story of self examination and masculine self-projection. That is not, however, how graphic autobiography, especially of depression and other hard to reveal subjects works. A key to understanding how these work is, I think, in Hsiao-Hung Lee’s study of Victorian autobiographies, which frequently have ghosts, fairy tales, doppelgangers and other elements that undermine the structure of normal autobiographies, presenting instead “a submerged counter narrative.” This tradition is the one we find in these texts here, and for two reasons, I think. One is textual in the sense that the tradition of autobiographical comic books is one that comes into the genre sideways, through odd texts like Binky Brown, and is often tied to all these genres that came out of the mid to late 19th century, from Dickens to ETA Hoffmann and others. Fantasy, science fiction, horror.
The other reason is personal, in the sense that one frequent topic of writing about your own depression means acknowledging that there are fissures in your self, that there is a profound, fundamental discontinuity between various impressions of what one’s self is. That’s why a book like The Nao of Brown, written by a person not afflicted by the mental illness he describes, feels so exploitative, because Dillon has not gone the extra mile of research to make his book work. Dillon finds one visual language that speaks for all states of his afflicted character. By contrast, Marbles frequently comes up against the impossibility of doing both: depicting a certain mental state and keeping to a fixed visual grammar. There’s a curious phrase in an essay by Shari Benstock who insists that for Woolf, the past doesn’t exist as subject matter, but “rather as a method.” A method? Aside from all the implications this has for modernist fiction (and I am sure there’s a study to be done that applies Woolf’s thoughts on fiction and method to the perennially undervalued work of Jean Rhys, by the way), it’s very interesting to look at this as a very fitting way to describe graphic memoirs, particularly memoirs of mental illness. If the past of people with mental illness is discontinuous, if it feels partly not within the subject’s control, then this informs the methods writers and artists use to cope with telling stories of a self and that past. The two books I want to mention here as providing different angles on the idea of writing graphic memoirs of depression are Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, a collection of pieces from the webcomic of the same name, and Joshua Cotter’s dense, but magnificently realized memories of an unhappy childhood, Skyscrapers of the Midwest.
Allie Brosh’s book is the most conventional. Consisting of short stories, told in chronological order, with images roughly within the borders of realism. Brosh, to tell a story of a self, has created a visual character that is a stand-in for herself. Unlike Marbles, you couldn’t really recognize the author behind the cartoon figure. That figure, however, is the central visual element of all the stories. Importantly, it doesn’t really change except in size, no matter whether the story is one of early childhood or recent adulthood. In it, I think Brosh contains an implicit theory of emotionality. By contrasting the vibrant energies of that cartoon self, displayed with a gusto that exceeds realism, with an environment that is static and does not react in a way that is commensurate to the cartoon self’s agitation, Brosh succeeds brilliantly in creating a visual representation of extreme states of emotionality that stresses both the exterior aspects of it, as it interacts with people, as well as the interiority, loneliness of it. Marbles shows images made during that time as representations of interiority. Brosh doesn’t need that. She uses images of surreal distortion of environments very sparely, and when she does it, the effect is immediate and plausible as a mental effect that we immediately comprehend. Like Marbles, it also relies heavily on text. There is some commentary, but the most effective kind of text just offers us the distorted mind of a person in a depressive episode, presented clearly and sequentially, thus increasing the effect of the fundamental strangeness of these thoughts. There is very little in Brosh’s book that corresponds to Ellen Forney’s therapy-trained commentary from the ‘healed’ outside.
Meanwhile, Joshua Cotter has even less of that. It is less explicitly autobiographical, although various hints exist. Taking a page out of Art Spiegelman’s book (Spiegelman, Crumb and other underground artists are also clear touchstones for the book), Cotter’s book is filled with people-like cats. It is a chronological story-in-scenes of growing up in the Midwest. Frequently, Cotter interrupts the story to give us a surreal tale that sometimes – but not always – is explicitly framed as coming from the protagonist’s brain. The overwhelming feeling is an oppressive melancholy and loneliness that at times makes it hard to read. The visual language, Cotter’s art, is consistent, almost oppressively so. It’s a book dense with shadings and crosshatching. A palpable feeling of texture. In his next book, Cotter would go away from the uniformity of style that he employs in Skyscrapers of the Midwest, but that doesn’t make this one a consistent realist narrative. The truly crushing moments of emotional volatility are all told with surreal or fantastic visual elements. One of them is the fantasy of the protagonist, who was fat and unpopular in school and who imagines himself as a powerful robot. The other one is stranger, it’s of some kind of alien slug that attaches itself to people. Indebted, no doubt, to artists like Charles Burns, this device has no simple resolution. It can mean death, or just a warping of the spirit. It is, as Gusdorf said, a problematic that is inexplicable and doesn’t easily fit narratives. In fact, of the three texts, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is the most, as Gusdorf would have it, Gnostic. Brosh evades simple explanation, but she does provide commentary and some context. We get none of that with Cotter. In fact, the book ends on a scene that is both fragrant with light, and devastating. It’s a conversation between the book’s protagonist and his brother. It culminates in the protagonist’s admission – which, I think, is an admission even to himself- that he doesn’t know what’s “wrong” with him. The dark inexplicable core of depression – there’s no easy resolution. Not for Brosh, not for Cotter.
For Ellen Forney however, there’s a semblance of a resolution, and that’s because, despite making that impression on the surface, the memoir only appears to be about experience. In fact, it’s an intellectually structured discursive text about creativity and bipolarity. Trust meds, trust science, trust psychiatry, don’t trust yourself. This is the mantra and it’s repeated over and over and over. Forney uses the word science with an incredible frequency and insouciance. Creativity is testable! “Science has an answer for this, too!” Her model scientist for the creativity idea is J.P. Guilford, about whose model of the intellect John B. Carroll wrote “Guilford’s model must, therefore, be marked down as a somewhat eccentric aberration in the history of intelligence models; that so much attention has been paid to it is disturbing.” Similarly, Forney describes an odyssey through medication, which is so disturbing and disheartening that it is ultimately puzzling that she arrives at an affirmation of medication and isn’t instead questioning the placebo effect. For every page of visually powerful, arresting or simply awe inducing art, Forney offers an artless page containing thought bubbles, square boxes summarizing dubious science or koans to her well being. The discursive nature of the book is borne out by the two last chapters. The penultimate chapter is a full adaption of the incurious nonsense about creativity and mental illness, with Kay Jamison’s god-awful book and Guilford’s “eccentric aberration” as guardian angels. I have not really gone into detail about the nonsensical idea of mining the lives of people long since dead for evidence of mental illness. It relies too much on the accuracy of testimony and what the American Psychiatric Association calls “mystical black magic” – I have no patience to dismember that theory, but I do want to recommend Janet Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath, the writer who is most frequently posthumously psychoanalyzed (incidentally, in Marbles, Forney meets someone who did their PhD on Plath who says “you need to know her biography to really understand her work,” if you can believe it, I mean JESUS fucking Christ), which is a good antidote to all that.
The final chapter, then, offers adherence to the medical science of psychiatry almost like an article of faith, telling her younger self to trust the psychiatrist. In the middle of this review there is a lot of talk about autobiography and the indescribable and unsayable and how visual art tries to get around it etc. I then offered Allie Brosh and Joshua Cotter as two incredible artists who dealt with the issue in two different ways. But ultimately, it is Ellen Forney who had the strangest resolution to this. Her frequently silent descriptions of experience and her discursive portions are at odds with each other. Just one example among many: the experience based portions say that mania has only become such an immense problem now that Forney is watching herself, is constantly self medicating with 5 different kinds of meds, keeping journals, basically creating her own doppelganger, her own postmodern detective that watches her suspiciously: is this a sign? Are you up? Are you down? The art “balanced” Forney produces now and the art she documents at having earlier produced provide an interesting contrast as well. I admit: I am biased as someone who has been diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation and has never been on medication for any serious length of time. Ultimately, more than anything, this feels, despite the discoursive nature, like an enormously private event: this is Ellen Forney telling herself that all will be well. I’ve heard that one before. At least the art is sometimes extremely good. Read it for the art, and skip the last two chapters. Please.
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Young-Ha Kim (2007), I have the right to destroy myself, Harcourt
[Translated by Chi-Young Kim]
So, as you’ll notice in this review, I am so extremely under-read in Korean literature that all my frames of reference for this book are non-Korean. I have read a paltry handful books by Korean writers, but not enough to notice resemblances or traditions. Certainly none of the Korean books I have read resembles this one in any way. This does not, however, lead me to suppose that Young-Ha Kim’s novel I have the right to destroy myself is unique among Korean books. My reading is just shamefully, miserably lacking. That said, I do think that the novel works well even for a reader who is not acquainted with the larger cultural and literary contexts. One reason for this is that many of the literary allusions and references are actually European and American ones. For a European reader, it’s interesting to see Europe treated as a geographical other, which allows the book’s narrator to take a break from his life, and implicitly compare & contrast with his life back in South Korea. There’s an almost Irvingian whimsy to the role that Vienna plays in the novel’s structure. As a whole, the book is certainly worth reading. It’s a dense narrative about a love triangle and suicide, about ekphrasy and life, and it’s also a -possibly unintentional- meditation on the misogyny that underwrites our narratives on each of these things. There is an air of immature disaffection throughout the book, but apart from the occasional banal meditations on life, much of Kim’s novel is fairly exact, all of its parts serving a purpose. If anything, it’s too overdetermined, too focused. It lacks a certain levity, a certain creative freedom. For a short book that I ended up enjoying quite a bit, all told, I came remarkably close to abandoning it mid-way. It can appear to be nothing more than a smug intellectual exercise, a kind of book that I’ve only ever seen men write. I recommend sticking it out. The final discussions of suicide ring remarkably true to me and I feel that the book does an exceptional job of tying together its various threads without actually offering a resolution to most of its characters.
So as I said on the outset, I have not read a ton of Asian literature, in part because I am wary of translation, in part because of availability issues, in part because I dislike some of the popular writers. So when I read a book like this, there’s a temptation to read it in some vague pan-Asian context. The harshness – is this like Murakami and his use of American noir? Clearly, Western literature is an influence, but my mind, instead of reading is broader, considering Handke, maybe, or French existentialism or the roman nouveau, immediately went to American crime fiction, one of the few cultural touchstones that’s not actually dealt with in the book. So why? The only reason coming to mind is some dim connection to one of the few other Asian novelists I’ve read, Murakami. Similarly, the desolation and bleakness of the book made me think not of other Korean writers, or of one of the many explicit literary references, or, again, the Austro-French cohort of darkness. It made me think of Osamu Dazai, whose novel No Longer Human has been a touchstone to me for many years. There is, to my reading, no obvious textual element in the book that would make me connect it to Dazai and not to some other writer of despair and suicide. The only connection, again, is the shared ‘Asian’ heritage of their authors. If I were to review Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s recently finished trilogy, and I was discussing the parts set in Asia, my mind wouldn’t associate the spareness of the book with Japanese writers, at least not primarily. Toussaint’s roots are elsewhere, in a tradition that includes Robbe-Grillet. But for French literature, I can access -correctly or not- a context. For Asian books – especially Korean – I cannot.
That’s actually what makes this book -for me- so rereadable. It’s like the first read, for me, helped to wash off my first wave of associations and then try to look at the text again in a second or third reading. And despite its spare writing and the sometimes flat pop-cultural discussions and quasi-philosophic statements, the novel is intricate enough to warrant and reward rereads. As I said earlier, it’s a bit lacking in energy and inspiration, but its construction is frequently remarkable. Take this example: the novel tells us two stories. One is of two brothers who fall in love with the same woman, Se-yeon, who is also called Judith for her resemblance to Adèle Bloch-Bauer in Klimt’s painting of Judith and Holofernes. The other strand of narrative is about an unnamed narrator who sidles up to sad, lost-looking people, primarily women, and offers them a way out, for a fee. A curated suicide, if you will. He listens to their stories and gives them advice regarding methods, means and timing. Once his task is completed, he takes a trip abroad and writes a book telling the women’s stories. So it’s basically two novels in one, but they are connected through the women, as the two brothers, and the narrator both encounter Judith/Se-yeon. So the struggle, silent, unspoken, between the two brothers is mirrored in a struggle between the brothers and the narrator, a struggle that serves as a larger conflict between life and death. A second woman, later in the book, even goes back and forth between one of the brothers and the nameless narrator, similar to how Judith slept with both brothers. In this literary game, women have very little agency. When Mimi picks death, she says about one of the brothers “He couldn’t save me.” The narrator does answer “Nobody can save anyone,” but the novel never makes the alternative explicit: that we have to save ourselves. That it is this passivity that allow death to enter the lives of all the people in the book, even, if only in the form of a death wish and a contemplation of suicide, the lives of the two brothers.
The narrator is the only one completely untouched by this. That is certainly in part due to the fact that he is the only truly active person. He literally writes the story of the lives he touched. They blink out, and he puts out a book. This is an unsubtle, but nifty allusion to the way society generally structures narratives between the powerful and the powerless. It is no accident that the novel starts with a contemplation of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat.” That picture was meant to stir up revolutionary fervor, and it draws heavily on Christian iconography. Marat was murdered by a woman, Charlotte Corday, but she’s not in the picture. She’s not really important. A letter in his hand records her anger, but the final word, unwritten, belongs to Marat, who is shown to have died pen in hand, asking the revolutionaries implicitly to finish that reply for him. Corday is really unimportant to the larger picture which is about a great man dying in the manner of a saint. Even the knife she stuck in Marat has been removed by the artist. Similarly, I have the right to destroy myself is about the actions and passions of men. Women may appear, but of the three women featured prominently, only the last one’s emotions and passions are actively discussed in even minor detail, and that only serves to illuminate the ineffectiveness of one of the brothers’ efforts and entreaties. I have no idea whether the title (titles are often not even picked by translators but by the publisher) is accurately translated, but if so, it’s the oddest inversion, given that the only person consistently speaking in first person singular is the unnamed angel of death, who is, by far, the person least likely to destroy themselves in the whole book. I have difficulties deciding whether what I see as a more or less explicit spin on gender and misogyny is intentional or accidental. The title’s interesting spin on the book makes me think intentional. Other elements of the book are more ambiguous.
The reason for this is the general air of comfy laddish existentialism. You know the kind. It’s not atypical of debut novels written by men. It starts with all these inane, flat, faux-insightful phrases like “An artist’s supreme virtue is to be detached and cold.” or “There are two kinds of people. Those who can kill and those who can’t. The second kind is worse.” Most of these are spoken by the nameless narrator, but some, like that second quote, are given to the other characters – that suggests a lack of control. Or rather: a lack of awareness of the flat properties in these statements. Another element typical of the laddish ‘bleak’, detached style is an almost dismissive, derisive treatment of female sexuality. Now, it’s true that none of the book’s characters are bundles of joys between the sheets, as far as I can tell, but quotes like the following have a certain haut goût that’s a bit brazing, especially because it’s reserved for the female characters:
I thought of something fun to do,” she says, packing the snow into a small ball, the size of a golf ball. She parts her legs, giggling. The snowball slides up inside of her. She still has a lollipop in her mouth. She shivers. Her brow is furrowed for a long time, as if she can still feel the snow on her skin.
Nothing slides up in any of the male characters. Other female characters are given water that makes them vomited, filmed intimately etc. Female bodies are used as symbols, as objects, as means to a narrative end. Finally, it’s the language itself that feeds into this perception of laddish misogyny. That quote represents the book overall fairly well. Short sentences without the depth that we find, say, in Hemingway’s early work, and a disaffection without the stylistic control that Bret Easton Ellis’ good books exhibit. I have not mentioned the translator so far, because I have no idea how good Chi-Young Kim’s work is. I’m inclined to believe it’s good, because in this book, style and content complement each other. It’s plausible that this book would be written in this style and the book overall is short enough for this writing not to become grating. What’s more, the style is similar to the sparse writing that the poems of Ko Un exhibit, in a collection that was translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach.
That previous paragraph offers some evidence, I think, for the book’s faults to be the author’s and not elements that Kim was aware of and critiqued. At the same time, I was never able to shake the feeling that the book as a whole was a kind of performance. The final chapter is the only one where we really see the narrator accompany a woman to her death, and in it, the narrator offers us a third painting and his description of it. That painting is The Death of Sardanapale by Delacroix and in his enthusiastic description, the narrator ends with this dubious but interesting statement: “Delacroix understood the inner thoughts of a person presiding over death.” That is it – but that sentence is so absurd, so self centered and unaware that it’s impossible not to read this description as really being an unflattering description of the narrator’s state of mind – after all, this is a common function of ekphrasis. What’s more, his books, the ones we are told are being written and published, the books that contain the lives of the women whose death he has supported – I find it interesting to consider those books, to their audience, to be part of a canon with a particularly enduring tradition, starting in the 19th century: of men writing books on the desperate lives of women, frequently ending in suicide. The most famous, at least for this German reader is Arthur Schnitzler’s masterful novella Fräulein Else (collected in English in Desire and Delusion: Three Novellas, translated by Margret Schaefer), a book generally praised for its intense yet nuanced psychological portrait of a woman driven to suicide. Kim shows us the commonalities among those books and what they share with that more modern or postmodern laddish literature of disaffection. It is, finally, the title, after all, that, for me, unlocks the book. The odd inversion that I mentioned carries all the weight of balancing so many ambiguities. Jean Améry, still the author of the best book on suicide, despite the awful, harmful pap recently published by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Stay) and Matt Haig (Reasons to stay alive). In contrast to these writers, Améry points to the validity of making such a decision for yourself. In making the title the one space where the suicidal women of his book get to really express an active wish, Kim exposes the gap at the root of so many books on suicide, men or ‘modern society.’
And yet – is this enough? An intelligently structured and clearly written book does not great literature make and the flatness of the style, while fitting the structure of the book, does not transform into an aesthetically pleasing object for all that it is well considered. I liked reading this book, and rereads enhanced my pleasure, which is a good sign. But I, as a reader, am biased. I have been in the headspace of women like that, and I’ve had a friend who took the role of that nameless narrator – and despite squandering that opportunity, the few things we learn about the women, the few words they get to speak about their death, they ring true to me. So take what I said with a grain of salt. But if you want even less ambivalently positive takes on the book, you could read this one from Tony and this one, by MAO himself.
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Vizzini, Ned (2006), It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Hyperion/Miramax
So as a matter of fact I tend to read quite a few novels written in the genre commonly referred to as “Young Adult” (YA), but I don’t think I’ve reviewed one yet (unless we count The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, cf. my review). There’s been quite a wave of those in recent years, with some of those novels clogging up the bestseller lists, including, very prominently, John Green’s sentimental exercises in mediocrity. With a few exceptions, the non-science fictional YA books tend to be a bit underwhelming. I am a fan of children’s fiction, but YA often replaces the linguistic openness and epistemological wonder of children’s fiction with a dour and moralistic realism. Writers like Green are better creators of plot than they are writers of prose. It’s mainly the age of his protagonists and the audience of his books that distinguishes Green from novelists serving the adult audience like Nicholas Sparks or David Nicholls. Part of the reason for this are the simple, sentimental plots. It takes the talent of writers like Rainbow Rowell to imbue these simple plots with some resonance, both linguistically as well as in the way these writers locate urgency and impetus in their books. Rowell’s breakthrough effort Eleanor & Park engages questions of body image and poverty, without having to mine them for sobs. A surprising (or not) amount of non-science-fictional YA novels go for the emotional jugular by presenting us with the Big Topics. Green tackled topics like cancer and suicide, other popular options include abuse, bullying or the Shoah. It’s a cheap and easy shorthand that manages to both lock into the angst of the target audience, as well as present a topic that is already moving as it is. In this context, Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which looks at suicide, depression and high school pressure, could be seen as one of many more or less uniform books using suicide as a hook for its prospective teenage readers (click here for a goodreads list of recent/popular books dealing with the topic). However, it’s much better than that, I think. There is no doubt that it’s flawed, and that it could have used a very stern editor, as it sprawls over 400 pages, mainly because this writer apparently has difficulties saying no to himself. But the core of it is extremely well realized, and Vizzini manages to give us a story about depression and hope that has room to breathe, that does not hit us in the face with the sad plot and that has room for digressions. He has interesting ideas that go beyond the cold/cheap utilitarian logic of the common YA book. Even the undisciplined length and structure has a charm. Plus, suicide is always a hoot.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story was Ned Vizzini’s third book and second overall novel, and he retained the teenager focus of his earlier work, even though the book’s setting was inspired (according to the afterword) by events in Vizzini’s own life a mere two years prior. It’s hard to comment on the book’s structure because there isn’t a lot, apart from the chronological movement of the plot. But there are three distinct phases of the book, all three easily distinguishable. Vizzini’s character, 15 year old Craig Gilner, is a gifted child (the single most overused YA trope) who lives with his mother. They barely make ends meet and so his acceptance to the Brooklyn Executive Pre-Professional High School, a kind of elite high pressure high school, is a blessing and a curse. It is a drain on his family’s resources, but it also allows him the potential of ‘going places’. As is the case in many poor families, the talented offspring often carries the hope of the less fortunate older generations, and not always willingly. The first part of the book shows us his life with his mother and the way his life changes just by having the possibility of going to that school in it. He has to learn hard for the entrance exams, and feels constantly intimidated by friends who also apply and who – to him- seem so much smarter. Eventually, he ends up doing really well on his exams, entering the high school only to feel crushed by the pressures there. The double pressure of being a teenage boy, with crushes and insecurities and the obscure land of sex and booze just out of reach, combines with the new pressures of being in a high stakes, high expectation environment now. It doesn’t help that one of his best friends is a rebellious but brilliant fellow student who, to top it all off, is also successful with girls. As he is starting to struggle with school work, he starts breaking down, a process that eventually results in suicidal ideation and a call to the suicide hotline and finally, a trip to the mental health ward of a nearby hospital. This is the third and final section of the novel and the one that readers and reviewers tend to focus on most, for obvious reasons. Vizzini, in a move that is either clever or tedious (I can’t decide), clearly constructs Craig’s experience in the hospital as an odd, and much less pressure filled, mirror image of Craig’s elite high school life. Without spoiling the plot, let me just say that things happen, insights are gained, cookie characters met and resolutions arrived at.
I know I am not making the book sound terrifically appealing right now, but hear me out. Because Vizzini has written a novel clearly reliant on and cognizant of a wide array of literary traditions, first of all. One of these is the phenomenon of the precocious child who has to cope with school pressure. I skimmed some reviews of the novel before sitting down to write this and there’s an awful lot that discuss how Vizzini looks at a modern phenomenon here. That, however, is clearly not the case, unless we have a very wide definition of modern. Two of the best (maybe the single best, actually) treatments of this topic are early 20th century texts, Rainer Maria Rilke’s masterful story “The Gym Class” (1899-1902) and Hermann Hesse’s novel Beneath the Wheel (1906). Rilke’s story is part of a whole wave of fascinating prose about Prussian military academies, much of it no longer in print, regretfully, and it features a boy who, during a gym class, pressured to perform, suddenly overextends himself so much that he collapses and dies. Rilke, who’s mostly known as a poet, was actually a fantastic prose writer, and this story, in the space of only a few pages, manages to offer up an atmosphere dense with pressure, with the need to conform, and, paradoxically, pushes a boy to perform better than his classmates. Since standing out by failing is not an option, he strives, in one tense moment, to stand out by being better. He rises above his fellow students, figuratively and literally (the exercise is rope climbing). Conversely, Hans, the protagonist of Hesse’s novel, goes down the other route – he fails, and this, in turn, breaks him. If Rilke’s story parallels Vizzini’s novel in spirit, Hesse’s book has more similarities. Hans is a gifted student from a poor background, who studies hard for an exam that would allow him to enter a prestigious school. The pressure on him is enormous. Like Vizzini’s protagonist, he suspends his entire life to study for the exam, and everything depends on him making it. Once he’s in, however, he starts caving to the increased pressure, both from the overwhelming expectations at school, as well as from his adolescent life. It doesn’t help that one of his best friends is a rebellious but brilliant fellow student. Eventually, after some incidents, Hans has a breakdown, falls into persistent depression and commits suicide. Even though I believe that both texts are translated into English, and despite the similarities, it’s hard to say that this is consciously part of Vizzini’s tradition, but it does help in debunking the claims of a modern malaise being at the heart of the book.
Additionally, these texts only cover the first two sections of It’s Kind Of A Funny Story. The second half, set in the psychiatric hospital, probably feeds off the much more American tradition of psychiatric hospital books, from Ken Kesey’s classic to Susanna Kaysen’s memoirs, with books like The Bell Jar as links between one and the other. But Vizzini doesn’t care much for the difficulties of social pressures on less than privileged groups. Sylvia Plath’s subtly voiced distress of having to field the pressure of trying to be a high achiever and of being a woman in a society that increasingly treats women in contradictory and complicated pressuring ways, of having several goals some of whom contradict each other, none of this turns up in Vizzini’s book, which is very much a book about white male adolescent angst. Then again, it’s not as simple as that. Among the many things Vizzini throws at his readers in his rambling, associative narrative, is the fact that Craig Gilner is an artist and has one particular artistic obsession. It’s so central that it made it onto the book cover: he loves drawing maps. Not maps of real places as much as imaginary maps, of personalized cityscapes. He makes this intricate and inscrutable kind of art for people, creating portraits of them in the hard, straight and angular lines of maps. More than just an oblique reference to Korzybski’s dictum, the project thus is a kind of inverted psychogeography if that makes sense. The multifaceted theories of psychogeography grapple with the fact of architecture, with the way it suggests meaning and structure, and offeres ways of drifting, of playfully destabilizing that structure and meaning. In a way, Vizzini’s character re-imposes structure. He creates meaning through maps, using a visual language that we all identify with order and clarity. This is clearly part of the emotional core of the book. At the end of his 5 day stay in the hospital, Craig is happy. In just 5 days he gained a lot of insight into his life and the novel ends with a paragraph of affirmation. Craig, thanks to a benevolent mental health institution (contra Kesey and Kaysen), finds a new path, evading the fate of Hesse’s protagonist or Plath’s. Fittingly, the book’s language is calm and simple. It eschews dramatic or cheap shots, but it’s also a bit dull. It’s a lot like listening to an actual teenage boy prodigy tell a story for 400 pages. Sometimes entertaining, sometimes less so. And it’s very frequently funny, which makes the ending absolutely the one you’d expect. The ending ties up the whole story in one neat bow. There are no inconsistencies, no breaks. And then life intervened.
Look, I’m probably going to veer a bit off course here, so I apologize in advance. You can stop reading now, you know what I think of the book. And here’s another caveat: I know there’s always a danger of reading books autobiographically, and God knows I have a bunch of angry footnotes on that topic in my Bishop chapter. Scores of excellent scholars have pointed out, for example, that The Bell Jar should be read as fiction and not as veiled autobiography, but here’s the thing. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story itself makes the connection to Vizzini’s own life by pointing out that the story was inspired by a brief stay of Vizzini’s in a hospital in his early 20s. It’s hard, then, to disconnect the loud wishful thinking at the end of the book from Vizzini’s attitude towards his own mental well being. Vizzini killed himself in 2013 by jumping off the roof of his parents’ home. Last year, after Vizzini died, I reread the last paragraph of the novel (I added it as a picture above) and it sounds much more desperate, much more like a sad, fervent hope rather than a projection of personal happiness. Between Vizzini’s own stay at the hospital and his final suicide attempt were 9 years. Getting released from a hospital after a mental health breakdown is not like getting released after breaking a foot. In The Bell Jar, Esther’s mother, when Esther returns early from the hospital rather than having an extended stay, says “I knew you’d decide to be all right again”, misunderstanding the depth of her daughter’s condition, and indeed what follows soon after in the novel is one of the most harrowing and accurate descriptions of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide I have ever read (and I’ve read a few). As many writers, among them Jean Améry, have pointed out, there is no illness like depression for bringing out the unaffected but well meaning talking heads, especially when it comes to suicide. One of the worst things I have heard people say is “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” – I’m not sure 9 years qualifies as all that “temporary”. Similarly, when Ned Vizzini’s death was publicized, and again, when Robin Williams was found hanging from his belt a few weeks ago, Brad Listi’s literary podcast Other People aired an interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht, pop philosopher and poet, whose book Stay reminds me of nothing so much as the books on dealing with cancer that Barbara Ehrenreich skewered in Bright Sided. During the interview, both interviewer and guest were quick to point out that they never even came close to considering suicide. I’m not sure a person who is neither a trained professional nor someone who knows what they are talking about from personal experience should run their mouths about it. But that’s just my two cents.
Meanwhile, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is absolutely worth reading. You have to give it room, it lacks the tautness and discipline we tend to get from the YA genre, but it’s absolutely a worthy entry to a genre that now has a long and sad tradition. Vizzini captures the voice of his protagonist perfectly and the rambling narrative is part and parcel of that. And you know what, despite my leery comments on the hope at the end of the book and my grumbling about feel-good commentary, Vizzini himself, as far as I know, recommended what I call the charlatans of hope to his readers and fans, and while they clearly did not help him long term, 9 years are nothing to sneeze at and he helped many of his fans with similar struggles.
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Looking for commentary on Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a writer I had not previously read (but do now own a novel by), I found a brief, but very good essay by Philippe Sollers which included this paragraph that I found understandably interesting:
Le suicide, pour Drieu, est une “foi sans défaut”, une religion d’immortalité nourrie par une méditation intense à partir de la métaphysique indienne. On tue le Moi, on rejoint le Soi, pas de Dieu, pas de péché, la possibilité d’une “merveille” à la portée de chacun. La dernière journée de Drieu à Paris, sur les boulevards ou aux Tuileries, est inoubliable. Il va rentrer chez lui, avaler du “luminal” et ouvrir le gaz, il a toujours mené, sans que personne s’en doute, “une vie libre et dérobée” (beaucoup de bordels), il fait l’éloge de la solitude : “Je prête à la solitude toutes sortes de vertus qu’elle n’a pas toujours ; je la confonds avec le recueillement et la méditation, la délicatesse de cœur et d’esprit, la sévérité vis-à-vis de soi-même tempérée d’ironie, l’agilité à comparer et à déduire.”
Ullmann, Linn (2005), Grace, Picador
Translated by Barbara Haveland
Levé, Édouard (2009), Suicide, Folio
[English translation: Édouard Levé (2011), Suicide, Dalkey
Translated by Jan Steyn
This is the second part of a two part review of two short novels about dying. For the introduction and a review of the first book, Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, click here. As I pointed out, Garner’s novel is a moving and intense take on the ars moriendi, that leaves out the thoughts and emotions of the dying person, focusing instead on the friend giving her shelter. The opposite is true of Linn Ullmann’s Grace.
Linn Ullmann is a Norwegian novelist, critic and actress. Grace, her third novel, was published in 2002, to instant acclaim. In Norway, it won “The Readers’ Prize” and the translation was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. In a way, it seems fitting that this book won an audience award since it feels much less complicated and skilled than Helen Garner’s book did. For all the immediacy that Garner provided, she also offered a complex framework, buttressed by unusually controlled and clear writing. Ullmann’s prose, in stark contrast to this, seems much less controlled. The book spans the whole period between the day the doctors announce the impending death of Johan Sletten, Ullmann’s hapless and cancer-stricken protagonist, in “six months, maybe more, maybe less”, and his eventual death. Additionally, Johan uses that time to reflect on his past life. All of this happens in about 130 pages. Ullmann’s technique involves examining individual episodes, and there is a genuine attempt to find original, significant, new ways to talk about someone dying of cancer. Her attempt to squeeze new life from old situations is most visible in some of her metaphors:
Mai’s face was a sign. He caught himself searching Mai’s face with something like suspicion, much as a passenger on a plane will search the flight attendant’s face when the plane begins to shudder and the cabin lights go out. Is this it? Are we crashing now? Does she look worried? Will it be over soon?
On the other hand, it’s hard not to see other situations as mere wistful riffs on established tropes, such as the moment that Johan’s face grows a horribly disfiguring boil, signifying his illness and general descent into physical decrepitude. This is not necessarily negative, however. Using these tropes and situations, Ullmann aligns herself with a much older tradition, medieval and renaissance morality writing about death. Starting with the overtly religious title of the English book (I have no cultural context for the original Norwegian title, Nåde), and contining with set pieces like the boil. She is not the first writer to go down that road, and there’s no getting around that fact that other authors in the genre, even contemporary ones, have a much more nimble hand at this kind of writing. Philip Roth (click here for more of my reviews of his work) comes to mind, and even though I find his Everyman the sad nadir of his late uninspired spike in productivity, his use of tradition as a point of reference in discussing the life of a 20th century man is absolutely masterful, whether the text in question is Dickens or the titular morality play.
Everyman, however, is also a good example of a kind of writing that Ullmann actively distances herself from: the vaguely masturbatory, self-congratulatory summing up of male experience. Even when writers like Roth examine mediocrity, there’s always an element of pride, a swagger to it. Of course, with Roth, the source of that swagger more often than not is sexuality – and its enemy, physical decline. He has his protagonist say that “eluding death seemed to have become the central business of life and bodily decay his entire story.” An anxiety about bodies, combined with sexual narratives that are often boastful even in less than stellar moments. Reading Grace, one feels that Ullmann is very aware of these contexts (while I focused on Everyman, there is an endless multitude of books doing the same thing). Her portrayal of mediocrity is harsh and thorough: Johan Sletten’s life, as we learn quickly, has been one of failure and weakness. His first marriage was doomed, but while he wished to end it, he had not been capable of doing so, waiting until the situation resolved itself. His weakness shows in this assessment of his relief at his first wife’s death
Johan often thought that if Alice had not, after twenty years of marriage, been run over and silenced at last by a black station wagon in downtown Oslo, he would have had to run her over himself.
Clearly, Johan, is an unsympathetic character. There is really nothing likable about him, and Johan himself is highly aware of that. He had a falling out with his only child but makes no real effort to repair that relationship. And it’s not just his personal life: he was fired from his position at a newspaper after he plagiarized a review. There is no sense of this being an isolated, regrettable mistake. Instead, it is accepted as a consequence of the way Johan has been leading his life.
There seems to be more than a little of Iris Murdoch‘s George McCaffrey, one of the most masterfully realized literary mediocrities I can remember reading about, in the character of Johan. But the protagonist of The Philosopher’s Pupil (a book that anyone reading this should read as soon as possible) fights his mediocrity, without being interested in changing its substance. George McCaffrey is smart enough to see that he is profoundly lacking; much of his actions, however, serve the purpose of trying to keep others from noticing it. As a result, George develops a great deal of resentment and aggression, impotent as much of it turns out to be. But for Johan, there is clearly no wish or attempt to do something about it one way or the other. Johan just lives on by virtue of his body continuing to function. Until, indeed, it stops. Which, fittingly, is the moment he starts to resent his decay. He starts to get into the old man complaints we know from so many other books. This is quite clever of Ullmann, as it allows her to tie this common literary phenomenon into the context of this mostly unpleasant man’s cowardly musings, thus putting on a different coat of interpretative paint onto this/a well known surface. There is, however, something in his life that seems to somewhat redeem him: his second wife Mai. Mai is a physician, and she is considerably younger (17 years) than him, and more importantly: she loves him. Johan can’t quite comprehend this love, and we can’t quite, either. Given the small girth of the book, Ullman doesn’t really have room to make Mai’s love plausible, and so she doesn’t really attempt it. This, however, leads to an interesting wrinkle in the structure of the book. There are many ways in which the book appears to suggest (and sometimes outright say) that Mai is Johan’s redemption, a fresh breath, a new lease on life, but at the same time, she is presented as a bright, wonderful, empathetic character, and Johan, well he’s still Johan.
While he is appropriately overwhelmed by her love and rightfully thankful for it, it enters his life at a time when he doesn’t have the strength to really accommodate it. There is an odd sense of recriminations. Take this example: spurred by an almost-epiphany in the park, he decides he wants for them to adopt a dog, and, excited, puts this suggestion to Mai, but she declines. This, we are told, “ruined his breakfast.” He’s upset he’s not getting his way in this small aspect, and because he is incapable of contextualizing moments in his life with the larger ebb and flow of what happens (a skill he lacks but which might have helped him to reconsider the way he’s let his life fall apart in the first place). As we find out, he lives his life inside his own head, with his observations and his decisions only related to his personal brand of whiny, cowardly logic. To take up Helen Garner’s metaphor: he has no ‘spare room’ for Mai inside his head, he is too preoccupied with arranging the place for himself. The latter half of his life has consisted of letting himself go, and burdening others with the weight of his failing life. And as his cancer, the “beast”, gets worse, he imposes the ultimate burden on Mai: he asks her to assist him with dying, to euthanize him. In the intro to my review of The Spare Room, I said that Grace is a kind of ars moriendi: but in a way, it does this by showing us a bad example. Like Nicola, Johan doesn’t really want to face his death head on; as with everything else in his life, he evades dealing with things directly. Unlike Nicola, he doesn’t actually do something to fight death, he just moans and complains.
If that was all there was to the book, it would be quite the dour piece of writing, but it’s not. The book is called Grace, after all, and indeed we see Johan transformed by the process of dying. It’s not that he becomes a better man. He remains a petty and jealous and selfish mediocrity, but Linn Ullmann makes us see, from the outside, that the situation transforms him, as an object. So far, he’s only been part of a failing life, a burden on the woman who loves him, a bad father, and a failed journalist, but in the waning of his life, something spectacular happens. Reading the book, we realize that Johan has been put through a series of events that have structural and symbolic power, and while they don’t really have an effect on him, they make the book into a kind of place where changes happen. The moment when he eventually dies is one of the most powerful moments in the whole book. It is set up as a moment where the conventional imagery of a dying person waiting for the sun, waiting for the dawn is juxtaposed with the overpowering fact of the connection that two people can have, even two people as mismatched as Johan and Mai. When making a decision whether or not to help Johan with his death, Mai tells him: “I know you better than anybody else. […] And we have a language all our own, you and I.” It’s a nighttime moment, and Johan is waiting for the light. The novel, carefully, artfully, replaces that distant light with the luminous love that Mai has for her dying man, and his dithering with the sudden decisiveness of his loving, intelligent wife. As Johan passes away, Mai offers a prayer, not for religious reasons, but because “it seemed like the right thing to do.”
In many Christian theologies, there is an active element in receiving grace, but Johan squirms and resists. But maybe his acceptance of grace (or lack thereof) is not the point. After all, he is not the narrator of the book. The narrator is a personal friend of Johan’s, who tells the story in limited third person point of view, letting us see everything through Johan’s eyes, see Johan’s thoughts and memories, except for a tiny handful of moments where he pulls away and lets us in on the wider picture. The way this works reminded me a lot of Édouard Levé’s Suicide, a pretty flawless little book addressed to someone who killed themselves, narrated by a personal friend. Levé’s narrator, while drawing up a picture of the trajectory of his friend’s life, keeps framing it in the context of his death: “ta mort a écrit ta vie.” His friend’s death has changed how his life is perceived, but also how his friends relate to their own lives: “ton suicide rend plus intense la vie de ceux qui t’ont survécu.” Levé manages magnificently to zoom in and out of knowable and unknowable facts about the dead friend, imagining his thoughts on the one hand, presenting public statements on the other. The whole book is basically a skillful interrogation of what death means to those who choose it freely and to those around them, how meanings changes in different contexts, and how we construct meanings for lives that eminently resist that. When I reviewed The Spare Room, I said that there’s a difference between preparing a space for one’s own death and preparing a space for someone else’s. In a way, Suicide, which doubles as a suicide note by Levé, who chose his death a mere three days after delivering the manuscript of the book to his editor, is just that kind of space. The room carved out is one in cultural narratives of how biographies work, and a more specific space within very precise cultural and geographical contexts.
I think that Ullmann does implicitly (and with considerably less skill) what Levé does explicitly: her book is really focused around her unnamed narrator, who controls the presentation of events. Mai, Johan’s grace, is offered to us, and Johan’s dithering and small scale rejection of that grace is only underlining the significance of what is offered. Ullmann’s book is much more openly moral than Garner’s and fits the medieval mold more comfortably: in the shadow of Johan’s meager existence and pitiful death, we are told a much bigger story about how to die and how we hope for our lives to be graced by other people’s affections. Death, in Grace, is not a dark force. It is granted by the most generous person in the whole book.
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