Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scalon. Dorothy. 160pp, $16.00.
I remember as a high school student in the late Seventies voraciously reading Plath’s roman à clef, The Bell Jar. Like many upper-middle class girls who dreamed of making it into the literary limelight, I identified with both with Plath and her sensitive and gifted alter-ego, Esther Greenwood, who travels to the bright lights of the big city to make her name as a writer. Instead of becoming famous, she loses her faith in the dream and, ultimately, herself. A botched suicide attempt lands her in the psych ward, a gated-community for promising, but deeply wounded, women like Esther and Plath whose potential was restricted by the narrative of male social privilege. Back then male domination drove promising young women mad and, if one takes Suzanne Scalon’s Promising Young Women into account, even now.
Plath’s ghost haunts the pages of Scanlon’s book, a non-linear narrative that hinges around Lizzie, a bright liberal arts student from Barnard and aspiring actress who has much in common with Plath’s protagonist. We’ve fast-forwarded forty years to New York in the early 90’s’; like Esther before her, Lizzie has come from the provinces to make a name for herself in the Big Apple and she, too, grieves for a lost parent, her mother who died when she was a young girl. These personal losses, coupled with the mounting disillusionments over career and relationship failures, drive both women to the mental ward. There, the similarities end. Lizzie comes to New York with some life experience: as a UCLA student, she lost her virginity to Nick Martini a D-list actor and screenwriter with whom she had a one-night stand. In The Bell Jar, social class plays a pivotal role in Esther’s identity crisis, while in Promising Young Women, Lizzie’s Irish Catholic faith fuels her sense of alienation and loss. As Lizzie struggles to come to terms with her mother’s death, neither the Church nor her education at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows has delivered on their promise of solace in the face of her yawning grief.
While the differences in characterization are fairly minor, Scanlon’s structure and narrative technique diverges sharply from the earlier work’s. Unlike Plath, who chronicles Esther’s descent chronologically using a traditional narrative style, Scanlon immediately plunges us into the world of Lizzie’s fractured psyche. We first meet Lizzie on Ward Six of a New York mental hospital; Scanlon leaves us guessing as to the identity of her first-person narrator whose wry observations paint a sad portrait of life on the Ward. We have no context for who she is or why she’s there or whether her point of view is reliable. As the narrative continues, Scanlon reveals Lizzie’s fractured identity, piece by piece, shifting from first-, to third-, to second-person so we feel her disorientation, and the blankness of it all in the Ativan induced flatness of her affect, the pain and confusion she suffers because of her inability to connect with anyone either on the Ward or off:
There is a kind of loneliness that comes from being with people. The kind that is more about a recognition of the failure of communication. The gaps. Like the other day this woman came over and I served her tea and her child played with my child. The woman told me of her career trajectory, which I have already heard in this same excruciating detail twice before. It involves a broken engagement and an incomplete PhD program. Which she considers a failure, having come from some ambitious North Shore whatever world. I nod, sip my tea, thinking about how hard it is to really truly connect with another human being.
This empty sadness pervades the novel in a patchwork that Scanlon stitches together to bridge the gaps, the disassociated pieces of Lizzie’s troubled soul. In key moments, her portrait of Lizzie is moving, especially the chapter that Lizzie narrates about her child-self trying to understand death and the meaning of her mother’s funeral. Scanlon captures Lizzie’s anguish with the image of her mouth frozen in a small o, the primal scream of loss.
Yet the droning emptiness at the heart of the novel and Scanlon’s literary pretensions come at a cost. Scanlon shows some daring in terms of content and structure, but these days, it is not enough to provide the unreliable and/or mad narrator. These techniques have been employed many times before, often with far more honesty, originality and power. Scanlon’s frequent name-dropping also detracts from the novel’s power: peppered among the obligatory references to Woolf, Stein and Plath are, among others, Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Chekhov, Oscar Wilde and Faulkner. Scanlon juxtaposes these names with those of pop culture icons, drama queens, like Meryl Streep, and Holocaust victims like Anne Frank and Viktor Frankl to suggest that Lizzie’s promise is as monumental and her suffering as great as the company she keeps. But she’s out of her depth. Scanlon has merely stripped the meaning from these figures and posted them to what feels like a prior-day Facebook wall. The references come off as too smug, as though we can feel good about ourselves because, like Scanlon, we’re in the know.
Another troubling aspect of Promising Young Women is that even though women have supposedly been liberated from the corset of society’s Mad Men narrative, they still love the straightjacket. Women’s affinity for this particular genre lends credence to WC Field’s wry observation “that all women are crazy; it’s only a question of degree.” After all, real men don’t read women’s lit; women do. And crazy, like a sexy pair of 5 inch Louboutins, sells. In this day of Shades of Grey branding, an aspiring woman writer can hardly get a book contract, no less appear on O, if she doesn’t go for the self-referential whip. Smart women’s inner-lives are far more complex than the publishing biz would let on which is why Lizzie’s case and this important theme deserve a more nuanced and skillful treatment than Dr. Roger, publishing in general, or even Scanlon offers. Take the sentence fragments which start one chapter—”Sometimes Molly refused. To get out of bed“—they hardly seem torn from the Joycean stream-of-consciousness handbook; or, consider the lackluster prose that conveys Lizzie’s reflections on her one-night stand with Nick Martini:
For an hour, maybe longer, I lay in the bathtub of Nick’s Hollywood Hills two-bedroom home high over the bright sadness of Los Angeles. I felt myself come alive. Lying there I knew I would be okay. The hot water washed away the wine and the smoke of the bar, washed away the cynical actors and the sad women.
Scanlon’s evocation of Lizzie’s tragedy, while heart-felt, is sad because it reveals how dull and superficial these mad women narratives have become since Esther struggled to find her way out of the bell jar. I loved The Bell Jar not because I found Esther or Plath’s suffering for their art romantic or hip; I loved their life, their vitality, wry insight, the smarts that allowed us, to transcend the suffering through literature, if only for a fleeting moment. Plath never returned from that last descent into the darkness, but her ability to illuminate the darkness still shines. Such smarts are what Scanlon’s Promising Young Women lacks, the lens that distances the writer from her creation to see the humor, bitterness and sad irony of a life lived through the bars of a woman’s broken consciousness. While Scanlon tries her hand at irony with puns like Our Lady of Perpetual Suffering, U-G-H, and the S.S. Roger (Lizzie’s term for her psychiatrist’s ward of affluent mentally ill young women), she takes herself too seriously, despite her love for Woody Allen. It is the wit and laughter that make the painful truth about sensitive women’s lives poignant. Without them, the author can only skim the surface when it comes giving voice to bright, promising women and their psychological troubles which are, even so many years after the Bell Jar, still all too painful and real.
Deborah Helen Garfinkle’s translation The Old Man’s Verses: Poems by Ivan Diviš was nominated for the 2008 Northern California Book Award. This year, she was awarded an NEA Translation Fellowship and a Translation Grant from the PEN Center USA for her work on Worm-Eaten Time: Poems from a Life under Normalization by Pavel Šrut 1968-1989. She is currently revising her intellectual history of the Czech Surrealist movement, The Surrealist Bridge: Czech Surrealism’s Interwar Experiment 1934-1938.
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