Classic Books: More, Now, Again

In the day patient room in Leeds, a room that smelled of gently boiling vegetables, a room full of men and women who had long crossed the border and gone into the garden, another patient came up to me as I was reading The Bell Jar and struck up a conversation about Plath’s novel. Have you read it, I said. No, she replied. I like happy books.

I didn’t understand all those years back. I think I do now – the comfort book that you can dream yourself into. More, Now, Again was published in 2002 and I first read it the year after, when I got the scary dislocation one sometimes has shortly after pulling a geographic. I had the book on me when I went to the GP in autumn 2008, sprinting down the Crescent with a panic attack at my heels, to arrange a return to medication; I had the book later that same year when I finally made the first appointment for cognitive behavioural therapy. I’ve always carried books everywhere and at all times, I cannot function without that physical link to the world of ideas and dreams, but Wurtzel’s last novel was always the one I relied upon when the sun went down for the last time and I could hear the grunt of that stalking creature behind me; could hear the stomp and scrape of its hooves and feel hot, moist breath on the back of my neck.

Because, unlike Wurtzel, my troubles are based around anxiety rather than pain (I’ve always been arrogant even at the worst of times; I remember my therapist looking at the results of the ‘Top 10 Things I Like About Myself’ exercise and saying, you know, most people have more trouble with this) it’s fear that was at the centre of those long, long nights – no more than six or seven, I’d guess. The fear that everything you love will be taken away. The fear at that point was my only animating impulse. I have never been convinced by the view that depression is anger turned inward. Depression is nothingness compounded upon nothingness. I couldn’t do anything except sleep, read Elizabeth Wurtzel, and drink screwjack wine. All else was an epic of terror. Walk across a room and the displaced air molecules feel like the caress of tiny blades. The slightest social interaction is akin to being shot in the stomach. All I could do at this stage was dream myself into the comfort of the book. After her suicide attempt in Prozac Nation, Wurtzel discovers a paradox. She doesn’t like being alive but is forced to live for the sake of her accomplishments in the future. Think of pretty things, Wurtzel counsels herself: ‘yellow submarines, stars in the sky, blackbirds flying overhead, trees in Central Park… it’s cats and dogs that make life worth living.’

So: in my late twenties, I began acting like some teenage girl who worships Sylvia Plath, except I’m too old and the wrong gender and Wurtzel was my Plath. I understand, too, that despite her wealth and talent, Wurtzel’s troubles were much more serious than mine. My depressions only lasted a few nights or so, before lifting like a fog in summertime, leaving me blinking with gratitude, with some grainy taste in my throat, the smell after rain in my nostrils, a sense that I’d just been crying. She’s the laureate of feelings that live just under the rim of the soul and that, once experienced, we try to forget as soon as possible. The books feature long italicised chunks of stream of conscious self expression in an attempt at communicating what it’s like under that rim. These passages are rarely successful, in fact they are the only wearisome parts of the books; depression is more like an H P Lovecraft story, full of strange gods and hungry ghosts.

The books were written long before the misery memoir became a genre in itself. I’m convinced that Wurtzel will be remembered as a poet of pure angst in the style of Plath and Sexton – Wurtzel, if anything, is Plath with style. More, Now, Again reads more like a gonzo adventure than an extended self-pity diatribe. Having replaced Ritalin with cocaine as her drug of choice, Wurtzel commandeers an office in her publisher’s building and writes her second book there; the room gets progressively messier as the project nears completion, with coke wraps and takeaway cartons piling up, while the day staff have to work around her. After a disastrous, strung-out book tour, Wurtzel ends up in rehab, where (against doctor’s orders) she begins a relationship with a mathematical genius who is in for alcoholism. Both relapse shortly after their release, and the madness continues. 

What’s that line Lionel Trilling used about George Orwell – that the great thing about Orwell was that he wasn’t a genius; that he achieved what he did purely through a total intellectual honesty? It seems like an absurd comparison, but I feel the same about Wurtzel. Most writers, writing about ourselves, turn into press officers; there are airbrushed truths, doctored birth certificates, things you don’t talk about. With Elizabeth Wurtzel, we feel like we’re getting it all: the author in all her spoilt, self-obsessed, dependent, manipulative, grandiose glory. We go on about the confessional culture, about Jeremy Kyle and Di’s funeral, and how the British should rediscover their stiff upper lip. And I agree, for the most part. There is a place for repression of the emotions.

But Wurtzel was not content to flaunt a wound: she made pain into her song. It’s a song that will always have the power to soothe my own wounds and transport me to NYC on a summer’s day; a song in which, somewhere, you can discern the traces of not only courage but honour.

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