Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Two social documents

I recently read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (originally published under a pseudonym), and I have to admit, I'm a bit mystified why so many people (well, mostly anonymous-to-me online readers, grown women who read it when they were moody teenagers) think of this book so fondly.

I didn't know anything about The Bell Jar, except that it was the only novel Plath wrote. (The Biblioracle suggested it to me months ago, and I thought, huh, there's a gap in my literary education.) Talk of it never seemed to address the novel itself, but rather was steeped in the "romantic" circumstances of Plath's life and suicide.

It's often described as chronicling Esther Greenwood's descent into depression, which I think is a bit false; there is no descent into madness — the depression is always there. It's not a gradual progression, nor does it appear to be due to a particular trigger. Esther's just wired that way. And in that way, I think it's a pretty accurate portrayal of what I understand clinical depression to be. Also, the account of the experience of undergoing electroshock treatment is fascinating.

The first portion of the book tells of Esther's adventures in New York City. They're kind of crazy, not in a psychologically abnormal way, but in a wild-life-of-college-girls-let-loose-in-the-big-city way, and this is fairly comic and entertaining. The tone is quite similar to that in a couple other books I've read lately: Elaine Dundy's Dud Avocado and Rona Jaffe's Best of Everything (more on this in a bit).

And then Esther starts trying to kill herself. This is where the novel stops working for me, because I just can't connect with this character. I take this as a fairly sure sign that I don't have clinical depression, but it also makes me question how good is this novel as a novel. Forget its worth as a sociohistorical document, insight into Plath's biography, the breaking of taboos regarding mental illness, for there's no doubt the novel has great value in this regard. It just leaves me cold. And a good novel makes me feel for who peoples them, whether or not I have anything in common with them. With Esther I feel a kind of blankness (and maybe this is the point? that this depression, the suicidal ideation, is really unknowable unless you're in it?).

I'm now also seriously worried about all the young women who relate to this book. Really?

For all this, The Bell Jar is a quick (less than 200 pages) and relatively entertaining read, not depressing at all. Esther's voice is light and chatty; it's not the "poetry" I was expecting, but there are some wonderful, sometimes startling, descriptions:

That was another thing — the rest of us had starched cotton summer nighties and quilted housecoats, or maybe terry-towel robes that doubled as beachcoats, but Doreen wore these full-length nylon and lace jobs you could half see through, and dressing-gowns the colour of sin, that stuck to her by some kind of electricity. She had an interesting, slightly sweaty smell that reminded me of those scallopy leaves of sweet fern you break off and crush between your fingers for the musk of them.

There's a throwaway line in the opening pages: "last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with." Later, when Esther's steeped in her illness, I questioned whether I'd read that line at all, or if I'd understood it correctly, and I wonder now how much it contributes to the attitude I'd formed toward the rest of the book, that Esther will survive this, everything's going to be all right.

But as far as depicting the recklessness of the young American woman of the 1950s, The Dud Avocado (though set a few years later) conveys something more meaningful to me, with more comedy and tragedy, and in a much stronger, fresher, more distinctive voice.

The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, is another fascinating sociohistorical document, much more accessible, and in my opinion, an all-round better novel.

I've only recently started watching Mad Men, and at the beginning of episode 6 (Babylon) of season 1, Don Draper is in bed with this novel as Betty is chattering about the movie adaptation and whether Joan Crawford's looks are holding up. The beauty of the ereader is such that minutes after the episode finished, I myself was reading The Best of Everything in bed. (I'd be reading Leon Uris's Exodus now too if it were available as an ebook.)

No doubt Don was reading it to complement the advice of the review in the New York Post: "Any employer reading these pages will make a mental note to check up on what the girls in his office do after lunch, and with whom."

It follows the lives of a handful of women, most of whom work in a publishing office, and offers a glimpse into the workings thereof. While it might be said to focus on their romantic adventures, it's a lot more complicated than that. Office politics, gender politics, career ambition, the pressure to marry. These women have a lot to deal with, and Jaffe dispenses a fair measure of philosophical wisdom in her commentary:

Change in a person's character structure is slow and almost imperceptible, and although many people look back and say, This was the day that changed my life, they are never wholly right. The day you choose one college instead of another, or decide not to go to college at all, the day you take one job instead of another because you cannot wait, the day you meet someone you later love — all are days that lead to change, but none of them are decisive because the choice itself is the unconscious product of days that have gone before. So when April Morrison, looking back, said, "The day of the Fabian office party in 1952 was the day that changed my life," she was wrong. The day she cut her hair because she wanted to look like Caroline Bender, the day she saw her first movie and dreamed of New York — all were days that changed her life, and if it had not been for all of them she would never have become involved with Dexter Key.

(And a tragedy that turned out to be!)

Anyway, The Best of Everything is a novel that had me up late at night and snatching coffeebreaks at work just to see what happens next. It even made me cry. It had seemed to me that the only way to close off the story would be either in utter devastation or else with an unrealistically fairy-tale finish, but Jaffe surprises in offering up a perfect ending. It's completely hopeful that a balance can be struck between career and family, and that a woman's independence, whether sexual or financial, can be asserted. Sadly, I think this novel is still very relevant today.

If you're one of the many who love The Bell Jar, I'd love to hear why! Then go read The Best of Everything.
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