Promising Young Women

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Reading for Instructions on How to Live: The Millions Interviews Suzanne Scanlon

The first line of Suzanne Scanlon's novel, Promising Young Women, is a knockout -- “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” -- and from there the book only continues to deliver jabs of trenchant insight and fine-tuned language. The novel proceeds in a series of fragmented portraits that follow the young Lizzie, actress and wandering, suicidal soul, through a series of psychiatric institutionalizations, most significantly in the SS Roger, a ward for super-sensitives. Promising Young Women is a writer’s novel in its preoccupation with language and its many facets, and it’s also a performer’s novel in its concern for the performative, and especially in the (re)performance of texts it's aligned with, like Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Curtis White likens the experience of reading Promising Young Women to riding a wave: “The reader is driven before the story like something driven before a wave. And that is a deeply pleasurable feeling.” And Kate Zambreno, in her 2012 Year in Reading, called the book “a series of fragmented, poetic portraits...marked by Suzanne’s really gorgeous, wry, erudite voice.” Suzanne and I corresponded via email in a conversation that touched on the ways narratives are codified to create meaning, the liberating experience of reading and working with David Foster Wallace, and art as "the impossible trajectory of hope." The Millions: The epigraph for Promising Young Women contains three quotes; I’d like to focus on the first two, by Clarice Lispector and Ariana Reines, that allude to the inevitable interdependency of literature and life. Lispector’s quote, “She wanted to explain that that’s what her life was like, but not knowing what she meant by ‘that’s what it’s like’ or ‘her life’ she didn’t answer,” implicates language and all of its inadequacies (an idea you return to throughout the book) while Ariana Reines’s asks if a book can sufficiently construct other worlds and transport the reader between these worlds: “Can a book carry you into the world you have to pretend doesn’t exist most of the time, can a book carry you back out into what first made you alive.” With this in mind, how do literature and life intermingle for you as a writer, and also in what way does this interaction speak to your vision for Promising Young Women? Suzanne Scanlon: I'm not exaggerating when I say that much of my identity has been founded or invented or re-created on the books I've read. I've always read that way -- for instructions on how to live, as Flaubert put it. There have been times in my life when the worlds/ideas offered within a book -- Virginia Woolf or Marguerite Duras or Shakespeare or Erica Jong -- were immensely comforting to me -- a balm, a relief from the limitation of the worlds/ideas most present in so-called real life. I guess I'm also very influenced by and interested in writing that, as Ben Lerner put it in an interview, recently, “collapses the distinction between art and life.” I wanted the referenced literature to be central to the life of Lizzie, she has collapsed this distinction in her mind (for better or worse), such that while she's lying in the quiet room, having been administered a shot of Thorazine, she's thinking about Virginia Woolf. That's funny to me, and problematic and true; it might be as dangerous to her as it is her salvation. TM: I’d love to hear you talk about the performative aspects of writing as an actress and theater critic -- how does writing character in fiction compare to taking on a role as an actress? What inspiration does your writing draw from theater and acting? SS: As a theater student, I was very early educated on a voracious reading of plays, of going to the theater -- part of why I went to college in New York. Theater has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember and I think the world of it is great training for a writer. I recall very well the excitement of my first exposure to Beckett, Ionesco, Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn, Karen Finley, to name only a few playwrights -- it was simply magic to discover these writers. And in a contemporary sense, I think some of the most interesting writing these days is happening for the theater (Young Jean Lee, Annie Baker, my dear friend David Adjmi, to name a few); there's an attention to language, to rhythm, and an openness to experimentation that isn't always valued in (mainstream) fiction. There's also a playfulness, an awareness of the futility/absurdity of language, the artifice -- but with a persistent sense of hope, which is taken for granted in the theater. Erik Ehn once said that the theater is about “the impossible trajectory of hope” and I never forgot that. I suppose that's what I think all art should be. TM: You touch on the power of spoken language in your story (or is it an essay?), “How I Lost My Dictionary,” where the narrator is carjacked by a boy claiming he has a gun that he never reveals: “This is a stick-up. If you say something, does it make it true? If you call your finger a gun, does it make you powerful? Do the words matter?” In Promising Young Women, it seems that the psychiatrist’s diagnoses function in the same way -- if Roger says Lizzie is sicker than he thought then this becomes truth. In what way do words matter, especially in the ways they define identities and catalyze interactions? In what way is life a performance? SS: Thank you for reading that piece! Yes, that's long been a concern and, at times, obsession of mine. The way narratives get codified and repeated to create meaning. There was a time when this terrified me -- the way that naming, labeling, delimits identity. As a parent, I see it anew: how a child may take to a label s/he is assigned (shy, smart, naughty, etc.) and then live up to it; the way families begin very early to assign, and repeat narratives (the lazy one, the difficult one, the responsible one). When Roger uses the term “Designated Patients” this speaks to the same idea -- there is always a scapegoat, one to play the role -- we like to limit identity and are less comfortable understanding the self as a fluid, multivalent thing. If we did accept that, we might see that we are all more alike than we could bear. TM:  Many reviews of Promising Young Women have remarked on the number of literary allusions folded into the relatively short novel -- from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Ariel, from Joyce's “The Dead” and Ulysses,, from Tolstoy and Melville, too. You’ve also borrowed scenes and structural devices and integrated them into Promising Young Women, and specifically scenes from The Bell Jar. This strikes me as a form of acting, perhaps in the sense of adopting roles of other novels and acting them out within your own. It also seems like an intriguing, fresh take on allusion. Could you talk more about the literary ancestors and allusions and borrowing, and how these play into the novel for you? SS: Well, you know David Foster Wallace, who was my teacher at one point, does this throughout his work -- he samples, alludes directly and indirectly -- this is something I learned reading his work, and also through things he said. Reading him was mind-blowing: Wow, you can do that?! It was as if he gave me permission. I didn't realize what fiction could be. I can say that about many writers, I guess, but for someone alive at the same time as I was -- it felt huge. I remember reading “The Depressed Person” for example, and thinking, wow, so you can take that language and turn it around, make it do something else? Perform it, yes. I think his work is very performative, hysterically shifting, constantly referencing other works, other writers, while becoming his own. Taking on the role of Plath, of course, using her words -- well, it is easier in a novel than it is in real life. Just as Lizzie plays a woman who puts her head in the oven, I can play with Plath's novel. I feel quite privileged, in fact, to be able to learn from Plath -- to recognize her genius and the truth of her writing -- and yet to have lived in a moment which has allowed me to approach it as one voice among many, one within a dialectic. TM: The artist/writer Alexandre Singh recently laid out his own beliefs on the simultaneity of art-making by referencing Borges's idea, that “every new artist causes the past to become deeper and richer. The past isn’t a dead, fixed place but one to which we’re constantly looking back to, discovering things, seeing things anew.” How do you envision this playing out within your writing? (Or do you?) To what extent do you see literature as enabling a dialogue with writers past and present (and future)? SS: I do love the idea of the past as a shifting place, open to revision -- and I like his idea that interviews are fictions! Yes, I feel like various dead writers are dear friends of mine -- from Woolf to Plath to Duras to DFW -- their lives and lessons and warnings and urgings are constantly informing my own, challenging my own. In this book, in writing in part about my mother's death, I was both performing her life (which is supposedly fixed in the past, a space we are meant to leave behind) and her death. I was inventing a mother and then finding a way for her to die, to allow her to die. To move her to that place so that I might move there. I don't know if that was conscious, but that's how I see it now. For years I longed to speak to her, to get her advice, and I suppose a comfort in writing is being able to create her as much as I create a self. TM:  I was impressed by the verve and tone of the narrative voice -- from the striking opening line, “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” to aphorisms like, “There is a kind of loneliness that comes from being with people.” Much is said about the failure of communication, about the gaps between what is said and what is conveyed, about distances that cannot be bridged, about the utter failure to find the words, to convey messages. Very few writers who attempt this are able to communicate this breakdown so well. And yet this focus on the failure of language, its limitations, this occurs with a novel that, of course, relies on words. Would you speak more to the general weariness here, and also specifically the weariness towards language -- the gaps and spaces? SS: Well, yes, a general weariness. But I think the joy of writing is the feeling of reaching across or through those gaps. I love this essay by Susan Griffin where she states that her favorite moment in writing is “when the writing falls short.” I, too, find that exhilarating -- that even at times the awareness of its limitation is comfort. This essay is in John D'Agata's Next American Essay which also contains an essay by Annie Dillard, who is always working toward and around and through these gaps. I am not wearied when I read a line, a paragraph of hers or a line of DFW's. I'm regularly thrilled by the movement toward or across that impossibility. I suppose there was a time when I felt like Lizzie the narrator -- that it was a waste to even try. The older I get, the more grateful I feel to have the chance to try, to work within and against a tradition. TM: One of the things that Lizzie says she learns on the S.S. Roger -- the psychiatric ward for super sensitives where Lizzie is a patient -- is that she’s a cipher: “I am an empty thing. A fragmented mutating subject.” This is central to Lizzie’s desire to try on identities through acting, and is echoed through the novel’s structure. The novel, too, is a fragmented mutating subject, told from various overlapping perspectives. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role of this structural system in Promising Young Women (or other structural systems you were/are drawn to). Did you consciously define the novel against the traditional male bildungsroman, with its phallic Freytag triangle and climax? Also, in this sense, are there other literary influences to this novel/your writing, that aren’t as conspicuous as, say, the Plath? SS: No, it was not consciously defined against the bildungsroman, though I have been interested in what I read as female bildungsroman (like The Bell Jar or Kate Chopin's The Awakening) and so in that way it's a subversion. Many of my favorite books are fragmented in structure, resisting linear plot or redemption -- perhaps especially work by women -- Lydia Davis, Claudia Rankine in Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Maggie Nelson, also The Lover, Jesus’ Son, Beloved, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I think that while revising certain sections of PYW I was rereading both The Bell Jar and Infinite Jest. These novels might seem dissimilar but both are kind of anti-coming of age stories and both, of course, contain descriptions of depression that feel inspired, true. Also, my editor, Danielle Dutton, is a brilliant writer and reader and her vision for fiction and this book truly made these fragments cohere, essentially made this a book. There was a time when I saw these as a collection of linked stories, but she saw it as a novel. TM: The phrases “Promising Young Women” and later, “Girls with Problems,” are such taglines for the ways that young, attractive, women are romanticized, and even exulted, for their dependencies, their great sadnesses and weaknesses, and who become projects for the men, like the psychiatrist and like the boyfriend, who want to or need to help. While the book exposes these clichés (much like it maligns Friends, whose laugh track and faux cheery camaraderie alienate Lizzie) does participation in this system become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How does one break from the loop, and where does Lizzie and the SS Roger fall into this? SS: Honestly, I don't know how to break from the loop, save from becoming an artist who is both outside and inside. I think getting older helps, too. It's much easier not to be a young woman, though everywhere you go you're told to feel bad about getting older. I think Lizzie wants to be part of this system as much as it wants her. I think it is a mutual dependency. I don't see it in black and white terms; one can be exploited and helped all at once. But yes, self-fulfilling prophecies abound -- as with the naming of someone ill or sick; she lives up to this idea of herself, which is an idea that she, on some level, wants/needs to believe at this point in her life. Part of her breakdown then becomes a gift, a breakthrough -- a total embracing of an identity in order to exhaust it, perhaps, to wear it out. If that makes any sense.

Love You Madly: The Dorothy Project and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler

Publishing for publishing’s sake was the last thing Danielle Dutton had in mind when she founded her independent press called the Dorothy Project three years ago. “Starting a press simply to add to the piles and piles of books in the world (or just in my house) wasn’t interesting to me,” Dutton said via email. “I’ve long admired presses that seem to carve out a specific niche all their own, such as Dalkey Archive (where I worked for four years before starting Dorothy), or Siglio (a press out of L.A. that focuses on work at the intersection of art and literature, and which, incidentally, published my second book).” To that end, Dorothy follows a disciplined model: two books a year with the goal “to seek out and publish writing that takes risks, that surprises and challenges and delights us as readers; to have a tightly curated list; and to work to create beautiful book objects.” The focus on quality over quantity has had good results. “We’ve been incredibly lucky so far for a new small press,” Dutton said, citing “good coverage” for the press itself and many reviews. “I’m very thankful for that, and I wonder if reviewers and editors have been intrigued by our constraint-based plan (only two books per year, all the same size, mostly written by women). We’re doing something specific, and maybe that is, for better or worse, an ‘angle’ by which to approach us.” Well-known, experimental writers such as Ben Marcus have taken notice: for The Millions’s 2011 “Year in Reading” series, he recommended the Dorothy Project’s reprint of Barbara Comyn’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Future projects will include the final book in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, and a collection of stories by Amina Cain. The two books Dutton selects each year are intended to form a contrast. “This year’s two books — Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler — both deal with madness. Both are debut novels from younger American women writers. But stylistically they’re worlds apart, and the fact that they came together as a perfect pair was somewhat accidental.” Both go on sale this month. Fra Keeler begins as an investigation by an anonymous, male narrator into the mysterious death of the title character. The first scene shows him buying Keeler’s house from a realtor. (Certain) events of the unfriendliest category are now unfolding. I cannot put my finger on these events; I cannot pinpoint the exact dimensions of their effect. The truth is, I haven’t been the same since Fra Keeler’s death. Some deaths are more than just a death, I keep thinking, and Fra Keeler’s was exemplary in this sense. And it is the same thought since I left the realtor’s office: some people’s deaths need to be thoroughly investigated, and, Yes, I think then, Yes: I bought this home in order to fully investigate Fra Keeler’s death. We’re not told what the narrator’s relationship is to Keeler, why he needs to go so far as to buy the man’s house, or where he came up with the money. These omitted facts — carefully ignored pieces of character- and plot-information — belie how much this narrator depends on the momentum of his thoughts to keep his story moving. The manic energy in the language sustains a careful, unsettling tension that’s central to the plot and the novel’s meaning. We soon learn that this man is a keenly intelligent person suffering not from grief over Keeler’s death, but extreme curiosity and paranoid fixation. After telling how he moved into Keeler’s house, he suddenly stops to say, ominously, “Things creep up on us when we deny their existence. ...I must retrace,” and then he dives into a flashback that takes up the bulk of the book. In terms of plot action, he accepts a package from the mailman, makes a phone call, looks out the window, drinks water in the kitchen, goes for a walk in the nearby canyon (the valley of death?), and visits a neighbor. Meanwhile, he muses on causation and the nature of time, sits in a canoe he finds in the time-traveling yurt that’s appeared in the yard, and later decides that all of humanity’s perception of time is a “purified lie.” Headaches and dizzy spells come and go. He grows suspicious of an old woman in the neighborhood, then sees her face — or his own mother’s face — in a dream, accusing him of throwing acid at her. Van der Vliet Oloomi’s spare, clear language sets this novel apart from other fiction about mental illness. The controlled tone adds complexity to the narrator’s unreliability as we maintain an immediate awareness of who he is versus what he’s telling us. Well-placed surreal scenes are also described plainly, and then mocked sometimes, as in this moment where a cactus turns into an old woman: I spotted a cactus a few feet away. The stems were bowing down toward the ground. Not like a light bulb, I thought, this cactus, and I walked one full circle around it. It is a green mass of death, I thought. I stood there for a while, the cactus occupying the whole space of my brain, just as the sky had occupied it a moment earlier. I mused over the shape of the cactus until a chubby, toothless old lady formed in its place. She stared at the horizon. She said, “Take a good look, because this is me now, this is me as I am dying.” I felt a second pang go through my chest. I didn’t know if it was the cactus talking, or the old lady. Weren’t they one and the same, hadn’t they emerged from the same entity? Then, I thought, what rot, the things in one’s head. Because images just appear, an old lady out of nowhere, where the cactus had been. One minute, and then the next, what is the use of these things? He’s a kook with depth. As a person, he comes across as witty and self-effacing, not powerfully cold and psychotic. He later comments on why madness may be necessary in life, and makes moral judgments about other people’s behavior. Naturally, these aspects humanize him and elicit our sympathy and it doesn’t hurt that he acts like a lovable goofball at times. “Dumb as a lobster, you are Mr. Mailman,” he says at one point, while after a snack and a stroll, he says with childlike joy, “How helpful the slice of bread had been, the walk in the canyon!” He would be charming. But there’s the book’s violent ending to consider. And as I did, I saw this charm being put to a specific purpose. As I thought about it, Fra Keeler reminded me of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, Roberto Bolano’s The Third Reich, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Reticence, not to mention big classics like Crime and Punishment and Lolita. And what emerged as I considered a bit of context was that one vital aspect is Fra Keeler’s construction: the ending recasts the whole tenor of the book, illuminating who that realtor truly was and who the narrator might really have been. Then something clicked: the book had ingeniously play-acted a role I had wanted it to perform. From this angle, Fra Keeler can be viewed as a critique of the attraction many writers, readers, critics, and scholars have to the clichéd glamor of evil, who fetishize the gorgeous anguish associated with men struggling with mental illness. And once we make this connection between novels that revel in spectacles of madness to the male violence at its roots (see Raskolnikov, Humbert, et al), and after we acknowledge that readers thrill to such spectacles and scholars add them to the canon – should this not prick at the conscience and urge us to examine our tastes? Sure, it may only be fiction. But our enjoyment of it says a lot. Avoiding this issue seems to do ourselves and these male characters (and their male shadows in the real world), a disservice, waiting as it were for the next male-ghoul to be put on mad-parade in front of us to jab and laugh at as we turn the page — while pretending we’re actually learning more about the glory, jest, and riddle of the world. To be clear, Fra Keeler does not abuse its male narrator in this way. Van der Vliet Oloomi hints sympathetically that war, that poisoned source of eternal male vainglory, is what might have driven the narrator to violence and madness. Rather, one of the things Fra Keeler does is offer a wondrously clear lens to those who want to examine tastes that have been taught to lurch grotesquely in the direction of male anxiety, mental illness, and violence when seeking so-called good literature.
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