Comparative Book Reviews

I’m in this book club. We meet every three weeks. It goes how all these things go; someone picks a book, we all find a copy and read it, we come together with ideas of how it’ll go and it always goes in one or two ways. Either everyone agrees about the context, relevance, and overall enjoyment of the piece, or all sort of disagree, unable to find any sort of common ground, and trudge home frustated, half-defeated, and listless. Books like Dorota Maslowska’s Snow White and Russian Red should have put us all in the second category, but somehow we all tended to agree on just about every aspect of the piece.

Released three years ago internationally but only translated to English earlier this year, this book is pretty well the opposite of what you’d find on your typical best seller list. Passages are difficult, ramblings are scattershot, and the overall flow of the book is spotty. Not being a Polish speaker, I can’t say whether it is because of a shoddy translation or simply bad (or is it method?) writing, but it’s easy to read all 300 pages and wonder if the writer has ever heard an editor tell her to use less fragmented sentences.

The incomplete feel of every line might very well be there on purpose, however. The main character and first-person narrator, Andrzej “Nails” Robakoski, is a speed addicted teenager who can’t seemingly wrap his head around any concrete ideas about anything. He certainly drops his opinions on selected topics—the uselessness of Capitalism, the evils of the Russians, the objectification of women, etc—and rambles on at length over each subject, but his actions almost completely contradict all of his philosophies. Not a page goes by where he doesn’t mention his hatred for Russians and/or Americans, but he’s often at fast food places, or eating candy, or in a room where there’s a television and VCR. Most of all, his hatred of commodification hits it’s hypocritical high in terms of drugs and women, the two themes omnipresent in the text. Drugs to him are useful not to bring him a high, but to reach a liveable middle in which he isn’t depressed (this is debatable, of course. It’s possible he simply can’t remember a time when he wasn’t peaking or downing all the time).

The women in Nails’ life are the saddest of creatures. Madga, the girl that breaks up with him on the first page (through mutual friends, since she fears his impulsive violent tendencies) is a girl completely willing to give herself up to a man simply for access to America. It’s implied that she’s slept with every male character mentioned in the book, and when she’s present she’s constantly wasted (only two or three characters aren’t in this situation). As well, even though Nails mentions that he loves her, he also mentions (in the same sentence, a few times) that he wouldn’t mind killing her. The way he actually treats her within the first third of the book (she disappears until the last few pages) again contradicts all his thoughts. Instead of loving or killing, he treats her indifferently, until the morning comes and he unapolagetically tosses her out.

After this first act, it becomes clear that Nails has no direction. Over a long weekend, we see him with several women, doing many drugs, saving each other from dying from drugs, and threatening each other with death unless they are given more drugs. I’d compare it to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (the awkward writing structure is certainly reminiscint) but Trainspotting had a point. Renton may have been a consciousless coke addict, but he had a charm that put him pointedly in the corner of a protagonist (his epiphany in the climax also makes him the de facto hero of the story), but Nails has no such resolution. His self aware philosophies are so far off the mark he becomes a lost soul character wasting away in a sea of negative thoughts about everything around him. It is pretty well impossible to like him in any way, and when you couple that with a difficult writing style nobody used to straight English would stick with, this is a hard book to get through.

What do we receive at the end? Like Trainspotting, there is a moment where all the impulsive (albiet, usually the wrong moves) actions slow down and true reflection sets in, but it’s coupled with the most egotistical thing I’ve ever seen a writer do. I’d say it’s worth reading through to simply get to this moment where the fourth wall shatters and we realize the writer (who was 19 when she wrote this) is going somewhere no other writer (other than perhaps Shakespeare in The Tempest) has gone before.

Just about every professor I’ve ever had has mentioned at some point that no piece of literature can exist in a vacuum. That’s why in my reviews I will really be reviewing two books that I believe compliment each other to a point. The companion piece is rarely going to be as new as the other, but it won’t likely be that old, either. I won’t be reviewing any Byron anytime soon, in case you’re wondering.

Anyways, my companion book this week is Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Much like Snow White and Russian Red, Prozac Nation is a first person trek through a depressed, drug-addled youth’s life. The immediate differences are that Prozac Nation is a memoir, and so it makes a little more sense that the narrative is relentlessly self-centred. As well, the drugs Wurtzel involves herself with are (usually) prescription based, as she has been a chronic depressive since she was 12. Also, Wurtzel is a much, much better writer than Maslowska, and if you’re in the market for a book about a selfish youth who can’t think about anything but their own problems, Prozac Nation won’t make you want to feed the book to the closest wall. At least, not at much.

Prozac Nation is still by no means a cakewalk. I mean, Wurtzel does write for the New Yorker, after all, a tabloid slightly above the reading level of middle America. Still, with patience to taste, there are moments of true poignancy and beauty whenever Wurtzel stops and realizes certain truths in her life. The scene where she struggles with wanting to thank her mother for everything with her mom leaving, weeping, is truly sad and brings you closer to the character you thought possible anytime before page 320 or so, because during those pages she seemingly has no regrets for the hurt she causes others. The major difference between these two books is that while Nails’ introspections are hypocritical, banal, and repulsive, Elizabeth’s are heartwrenching because she knows she’s in a bad state and has always wanted to get better, but has seemingly found nothing that can cure what ails her.

What makes her character tough to empathize with (outside of those small moments where she is truly sorry for everything) is that she lives a fairly priveledged life and is fairly oblivious to where she is in comparison. She attends Harvard, is a gifted writer capable of churning out impressive columns even at 6 in the morning after an all night binge of Queludes. Her abilities to succeed are never actually compromised by her depression. Her abilities to fall in love, or have a stable friendship with anyone, for that matter, are pretty well impossible, and it becomes clear that the depression is not only a causation of her character but also a theme in her writing. She stays for pages on subjects of failed boyfriends, lost friends, lost fathers, but her successes are practically footnotes. Most folks out there would find the idea of going to Harvard, writing for major newspapers all across the country, and making good money enough, but for Wurtzel it’s barely a blip. The depression forces her to focus solely on the negative, and so even when something amazing happens, she can only see the black cloud.

Though the entire narrative is first person and never explains anyone else’s problems, the epilogue is a more objective, researched section on the status of prescription drugs in America (in 1992). Wurtzel was one of the first patients to be given Prozac, since at the time it was still in a beta version and not avaliable to the public, and her case became bad enough to require experimentation. By the time Prozac becomes the de facto drug of choice of depressed, Wurtzel becomes jealous. A diatribe about how she has to explain to friends that’s she’s actually screwed up while two thirds of people on Prozac don’t even need it shows exactly how selfish and sad a character she is. With the attention off her and on to a larger aesthetic, she has to claw deeper in order to appear (at least, in her own eyes) special.

At the same time, however, Prozac Nation is reminiscint of most other Gen-X books. The main themes are selfishness, a lack of a true role model or direction, a great doom in the feeling of uselessness, and a world with every possibility but no appealing choices. As well, the main character is beautiful but also pointless in any form except a warning to not live that sort of life. Nothing about Elizabeth Wurtzel could be romanticized. She makes the drugged-up rocker chick look pathetic instead of gothically pretty, and because of that it’s impossible to call her a protagonist instead of a sad figure lost in a world not created for people like her. What makes it all the sadder is that you can’t help but want to shake her out of it, but when she describes that any of the things you might think would help would only make it worse, then you as a reader feel helpless. Not too many books do that.

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