If you don’t mind I’d like to hijack this space to consider Shulamith Firesone’s Airless Spaces, which I read last night in bed. As fiction goes, it is devastating, funny and sad, full of exquisite, piercing details. It pierced my soul in particular; though my friend Kate Zambreno, who recommended it to me, had suggested that it was akin to Promising Young Women, I had no idea just how close it would feel. In fact, after reading, I asked my husband, “Is it possible to plagiarize a book you haven’t read?”
What did he say?
He said yes. He said that in fact there is a name for this: Anticipatory Plagiarism.
I like it.
Yeah, me too. Somehow I was able to plagiarize this book without having read it. I look now at the pub date, 1998, and I try to recall what I was doing in 1998 that I wasn’t reading this book.
Well, for one thing, the book would have terrified me in 1998. But for another, I can’t remember. 1998 was the year I left New York, the year I did improv in Chicago–the year, in other words, that I tried to become a normal person. This book may have been the ax to shatter that frozen sea and so, I imagine myself resisting it. I also think that I read “The Depressed Person” (by David Foster Wallace) in that year, which feels significant.
Airless Spaces would have been the perfect companion text to “The Depressed Person” or to Infinite Jest–but no one was paying attention to Firestone. Here was the woman who wrote The Dialectic of Sex, publishing this text which is saturated with a medicated-despair (in the way that The Pale King is, or that Duras’ late texts are saturated with an alcoholic-despair). Frankly, that’s not what anyone wants. It’s terrifying to read such texts. Which makes them essential.
It seems clear to me now that Firestone was the depressed person–that Firestone was writing the story of Kate Gompert, say, twenty years on–after she’s done being young and sexy and morphed into someone decidedly hopeless.
No more promise, in other words.
Nice sequel to your book.
Why do you say you anticipatorily plagirized, then?
Aside from the content–both take place in the netherworld of NYC institutions–a spare, disjointed structure occurs in each book. Each contains a series of linked vignettes, though Firestone aims for less cohesion than I did. There are some eerily similar details: a patient asking another for a banana, for example, resulting in conflict. Each book is punctuated by various dream sequences, which links to the surreal quality of the ward itself.
Airless Spaces, however, is unlike Promising Young Women in its ability to be radically, impossibly hopeless. It is contained (as I note of my character Bliss), and that’s what is ultimately shattering about it–this inability to provide hope or redemption, the sense of deadendedness.
And you–are you hopeful?
Well, in junior high I won a speech contest for the Optimists Club. My speech was titled “Optimism, A Way of Life”. I quoted Helen Keller. I sort of think that part of me–the cheerleader, the Rodgers & Hammerstein dork–has never entirely disappeared, even in my darkest moments. But I don’t see my book as hopeful or redemptive. In the end, who knows where the main character has wound up–dead? alive? institutionalized? It’s unclear.
In my book, or perhaps just in my mind, there is an implicit critique of a system (stemming from a culture) which overvalues the superficial–youth and beauty–and that part of why these women are given “special” treatment has to do with their promise.
Firestone’s book seems to look at these women (on Thorazine, wearing sweats, watching Friends) twenty years later. Women who are symbolically and literally erased from culture (even Wynona Ryder, who I reference in Heathers, has shown up recently in Black Swan as the old hag. As if! How dare she turn forty, after all.)
What I wanted–which Firestone does–was to resist the happy ending, which is a falsity that fucks women up. For me the real hope lies in the fact of saying, “No. In fact we don’t live happily ever after. We grow old. We become less desirable. We have babies or we don’t and our bodies swell and leak and fall. We have breakdowns and we become the hags you fear and dismiss, just like Jean Rhys’ Sasha in Good Morning Midnight. We fall victim to what Richard Katz refers disparagingly to as “aging female bullshit” in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, that more recent, and much celebrated marker of our cultural moment.
The thing is, I don’t consider it bullshit. In Airless Spaces you see women victim to this culture as much as to their own mind: women who sit in a hospital thinking about their ruined figures or graying hair, women who have no better choice than to go through the dehumanizing revolving door of institutionalization. Women who, like Firestone herself, die alone in an apartment in New York, only found days later by the building’s super.
Ultimately, as a reader and a writer, I find hope in resistance, in the very act of writing against this culture–even when it is without “the old excitement of creation” as Firestone notes as now muted by medication–in telling a story. As Sherman Alexie puts it in his story “Captivity”: The best weapons are the stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes.
So, in a way, I had to tell this story forty years after The Bell Jar and nearly fifteen years after (and before reading) Airless Spaces. I think we’ll keep telling these stories, the ones that must be changed, must be retold.
Suzanne Scanlon’s first novel, Promising Young Women, was released this fall by Dorothy, a publishing project. It was chosen as the October pick for the indie Emily Books. Her story, “Her 37th Year, An Index” was chosen by Allan Gurganus for The Iowa Review fiction prize and she is currently developing this into a novel. Suzanne lives in Chicago where, among other things, she writes about theater for Time Out and teaches writing in the English Department of Columbia College Chicago.
Author photo by Jacob Knabb