September 2012

Jill Talbot

fiction

Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon

The moment I opened Suzanne Scanlon's Promising Young Women on the beach over the summer, a young couple not far me started arguing. The girl told the boy he had been unsympathetic, not in his actions, but in his words. And then I heard her (belly ring, cut-offs, killer figure) offer this: "I'm sorry that I said that, because I don't think I said that at all." I still hadn't read a word of Scanlon, and before I could, I wrote down that young girl's sentence at the bottom corner opposite the first page. I had no idea how fitting it would turn out to be, like a preface.

Scanlon's main character, Lizzie, does not trust language: "Language ruins everything: thought and impressions and each particular sensation." But it becomes clear it's only her own she doesn't trust. In the opening chapter, she is a patient in a psych ward, an event that happened "a long time ago." Her doctors require her to write: "Writing in the notebooks filled me up and calmed me down: the world was something I created. Which made it less terrifying. Even if the words were not my own. Especially if the words were not my own." From the beginning, Scanlon (and her protagonist) are aware of how language (not ours, but others') manipulates reality -- we are so tuned into the worlds of Others that we lose ourselves. Or we can't figure out why our reality is not like the one in the book, on TV, the stage, in the dark theater. In one chapter, Lizzie goes on a two-page rant about Friends: "I wondered how all the patients could watch the Friends without feeling completely betrayed and deeply sad and even more alone than they must already feel." Scanlon's narrative involves a postmodern, end-of-twentieth-century Jenga tower of allusions.

To add to that (dis)allusion layering, Lizzie is an aspiring actress, spending her time pretending not to be a character, but the way the character was played by another actress, such as Shelley Winters, or Meryl Streep, or Patti Smith in "that Sam Shepard one-act about a lobster." Eventually she's asked to read not for a part she wants, but for another, a woman who slurs and has difficulty standing (very Lizzie-esque). Her director's direction: "Just don't act." It's an important moment in the narrative, because what these Promising Young Women seem to be struggling with is how to have a voice in a world that doesn't have a part for them to play. Or, how, in a "very post-Cuckoo's Nest, but also even post-Girl Interrupted, which maybe hadn't been published yet," everything seems to be post-something. And where can a girl find an identity in that?

Scanlon illuminates the way young women struggle to find their reflections in contemporary culture and society (pre-ABC Family Network). Here's how far Lizzie goes: There are (at least) thirty allusions to writers (Chekhov, Stein, Plath), actors (Streep, Winona Ryder, Marilyn Monroe), books (Beloved, As I Lay Dying, Walden), and films (Heathers, Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Misfits). In a small-sized book of only 160 pages, the literary-pop-theoretical roulette can be dizzying. On a narrative level, the use of allusions can be justified by Lizzie's love of the language she trusts: "not her own." Yet there's another level, perhaps of a writer who has yet to separate her world from her character's. For a reader, it can be like a game of Jeopardy! in which you pat yourself on the back for catching an allusion, "My mother is a fish." ("Who is Vardaman?"), but not one crosses the complexity border to intertextuality.

Beyond the allusion-laden narrative, Scanlon's prose is experimental. Her work is a collection of vignettes that alter in point of view, structure (lists, sections, dream sequences), and time (then and now and before then). One of my favorite chapters, "Girls in Trouble," is metafictive ("Here is the rising action." "Here is the climax.") and in second person directed to (Lizzie's?) boyfriend: "You won't call her your girlfriend, even after she calls you her boyfriend." I see these second-person narratives often enough that I have labeled them "ironic instruction narratives" because they invariably explain in a "how-to" something no one would want to (or should) experience. Overall, the altering points of view create a persona sleight of hand akin to Abigail Thomas's Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life. It's as if the character is unable to commit to a self or perceives the self as Other ("Who is Hegel?").

Perhaps it's clear now that I have been unable to commit to calling Scanlon's work anything beyond a narrative. The Dorothy Project, the independent press that published Promising Young Women is described on its website as being "dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction." While Promising Young Women is labeled as a novel, it reads like a memoir. Beyond biographical overlaps (both Scanlon and her protagonist attended Barnard, acted, performed in a revival of Hatful of Rain, lived in New York City), the voice is immediate, intimate, the work more essayistic, searching. Yes, fiction can do all of this, too, but I'd call Scanlon's work both "near fiction" and "about fiction." Or maybe, like that young woman on the beach ("I don't think I said that at all"), Scanlon allows Lizzie to rely on words that are "not her own."

Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon
Dorothy, a publishing project
ISBN: 978-0984469352
160 pages