Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Bell Jar

This book is bound to make you feel alllll of the feelings. If you don’t know about Sylvia Plath, the author behind The Bell Jar, it’s best to imagine her as the Michael Jordan of depressed people. But in spite of it all—or rather, in my opinion, because of it all—this girl can write even better than Jordan can ball. Plath was an esteemed intellectual, collecting numerous prizes for her poetry and excelling academically. Her downward spiral began after a disappointing month in New York City where she served as guest editor of Mademoiselle magazine. Luckily, I’m ten months in and my only downward spiral occurred after one too many drinks walking down the never-ending staircase of my friend’s elevator-less apartment (lookin at you, Arturo, Matt, and Harold). Following a series of hang-ups during her city stint and an inhumane administration of electroshock therapy, Plath made her first suicide attempt by swallowing an entire bottle of sleeping pills and hiding in a crawl-space underneath her home. You would think that would do the trick; however, she was discovered and rescued three days later. Upon revival, Plath was institutionalized for her depression for six months and thereafter seemed to maintain a steadier emotional path. Fast forward nine years… at age thirty she was found with her head in the oven, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. Because this blog is intended for both literature AND laughs—here’s a picture made in very poor taste that will probably piss people off: 

"Selfie-a Plath"
[photo cred: Gina Renna]

The novel itself is labeled semi-autobiographical but the only differences I can decipher are name changes. It was published for the first time in American posthumously for fear that it would shame her loved ones who are blatantly present in the book. The Bell Jar follows Plath (Esther Greenwood) from her eager entry into New York to the day she departs from the mental institution. I knew what I was diving into with a Plath book, so I was surprised to see that the first third of the novel is not overtly depression-laden. This is precisely what makes the reading experience such an emotional roller coaster. Her depression creeps up on her insidiously until it is all-encompassing. At one point she claims, “I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it” (Plath, 77). The eyes of her self-proclaimed shortcomings glare menacingly at her in the foreground of a dark, indifferent world. She realizes that she is about to graduate from college… and she’s really only good at “doing college”! She frighteningly feels, “like a racehorse in a world without racetracks” (Plath, 77). As her future dissipates into a flat, bleak, desolate waste right before her eyes, a still numbness eerily stretches over her. She stops showering, stops changing out of her pajamas, and stops getting out of bed entirely despite her inability to sleep. Eventually, she can no longer focus and is thereby deprived of her love of literature. All of the distractions that were holding her intact disappear and she slowly unwinds until she unravels. She started with a smorgasbord of dreams and ambitions and ended with the glass shards of her shattered visions. Plath provides the metaphor of a prolific fig tree, extending in all different directions, while she stands there “starving to death, just because [she] couldn’t make up [her] mind which of the figs [she] should choose” (Plath, 77). Her paralyzation left her utterly drained inside, allowing her depression to fill and consume her completely. She “felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (Plath, 3).

The above quote is one of my favorites from the book because it is proof that the novel is engaging from both a story-standpoint and writing ability. I’m convinced that all good writers are a little depressed. To write well, you must be truly in tune with yourself/your feelings and the people around you/their feelings; when you experience life in such a rich, intense way like that, you’re inevitably going to encounter a bit of depression because you feel sadness that much more palpably. As poet David Jones once said, “It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply.” I personally love books that I can really relate to—that inexplicable moment of euphoria when you’re like damn, I know exactly what they’re describing! The only way an author can really accomplish that for the reader is by fully understanding humanity and the spectrum of emotions that accompanies being human.

For instance, I absolutely love going to Chili’s. The service is impeccable, the atmosphere is lively, the food is to die for, and they have excellent deals at the New Jersey location that I travel to on Sunday’s (because God knows why there is not a Chili’s in Manhattan). How would I write about my experience at Chili’s in a way that caters to both people who have and haven’t eaten there (God knows why there are people who exist who haven’t gone to Chili’s)? Ideally, I would want the Chili’s-attendees to read my piece and exclaim, hell yes, that’s exactly how I feel when I go. At the same time, I want to help people who haven’t eaten there understand what it could be like. You have to be able to evoke both imagination (for the non-Chili’s eaters) and truth (for the Chili’s eaters). In order to do that, you must be very in tune with your environment and emotional responses, both positive and negative. Plath is such a heart-wrenching writer because she speaks with the clarity of one who has suffered the pain. I believe that she can speak truth to those who have experienced depression while simultaneously painting a vivid picture for those who have not.

Some of you might be wondering about the book’s title. Her first verbatim usage is towards the end of the novel, when she characterizes herself as “sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air” (Plath, 185). I love when books inconspicuously squeeze their title into the story. I felt like a giddy Peter Griffin in the “420” episode of Family Guy when the policeman busts in declaring, “I don’t appreciate drug addicts in my town! I’m a Family Guy” (“420”*). The bell jar Plath resided in left her rotting behind an acerbic, distorted lens with which to view the world. When she is set to leave the mental facility, she explains that now “the bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above [her] head. [She] was open to the circulating air” (Plath, 215).  Herein lays my only problem with the novel. Now, I don’t buy into the romanticization of suicide à la Romeo and Juliet. But this woman went through a horrific, disturbing loss of the capacity to enjoy or even tolerate her life…and she somehow managed to give it all a tone of beauty by depicting her descent into madness so poetically. She does not do her ascent the same justice. While she made it clear that the bell jar hung above her precariously, I was never truly convinced that it even came off of her in the first place. By no means does this undermine the entirety of the novel, but it unfortunately does make the ending fall a little flat for me. I can only speculate that this was a reflection of Plath’s own misgivings in facing life again outside of the institution and that she did not yet know how to describe her feelings outside of the bell jar. Because of this, I give the novel 4 out of 5 camel humps. I hoped the book would never end because I wanted her to continue brilliantly describing her struggles. But when it did come to a close I was not persuaded that those struggles were diminishing, and I was left with a question mark that hung as negatively over my head as the bell jar allegedly hung over hers.

*Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1971. Print.

*“420” Family Guy. Fox. WXIA, Atlanta. 19 April 2009. Television.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea

                I’m on the subway feeling like a bag of dicks and contemplating if I have any scrap of dignity left after my friend’s bachelorette party weekend. I’m almost at the Union Square stop when I reach my inevitable conclusion: no. Fortunately, I have at my fingertips someone even more of a joke than me--and it isn't just the girl on the seat next to me sucking terribly at 2048. It is Chelsea Handler. Are you there, Vodka? It’s me, Chelsea* is a collection of short, comical autobiographical essays that depict Handler’s ridiculousness at various ages. Turns out she hasn’t matured a bit from age eleven to now. On the other hand, she’s seriously running shit. She has authored four books on the New York Times bestseller list, hosted her own late night talk show for seven years, and has even scored a spot on Maxim’s Hot 100 list a couple of times. She also has her own column in Cosmopolitan which is shamelessly my one true goal in life. The book gained widespread success after her first book, My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands impressed readers in 2005. I’m personally intrigued by that one, mainly because I don’t think I’ve got the audacity to read 50 Shades of Grey in public and a girl’s gotta spice up her day somehow.

                It’s important to understand what kind of person you’re reading about when reaching for something on the lighthearted side. Chelsea’s stand-up comedy career launched after she told her DUI story to a class of fellow offenders and realized her delivery was on point. That should accurately give you an idea of who we’re working with. This woman gives me hope that I can continue to be a hot mess and not only not self implode but perhaps even make a career out of it! And in fact, Chelsea and I vibe very well on a lot of issues. For instance, she is a huge asshole. I’m not sure if I was an asshole all along but I will say that living in New York exacerbates my jerkish tendencies. I avoid eye contact with homeless people at all costs, I’m definitely not going to take any flyers people are handing out, if you’re walking slow in front of me I’m liable to punch you in the face, and I certainly don’t plan on doing the ALS ice bucket challenge. Chels (if I may) happens to live in Los Angeles, but she still has firm opinions on a specific subset of the homeless population. While in Costa Rica, she tells us that…

“…a homeless man with a dog approached us and put his hand out. This happens to be something that I have a real problem with: homeless people with pets who approach you for food. How can they have the nerve to beg for food when they have a perfectly delicious dog standing right there? I didn’t care if this guy understood English or not. ‘Tell me when you’re out of dog, buddy. Then we can talk about splitting a falafel’” (Handler, 239)

See, she’s a jerk. While I do love that about her, I can’t ever fully respect someone who doesn’t like dogs. Or sweater vests for that matter (another serious character flaw of hers). I like most dogs better than most humans and a sweater vest is the single hottest thing a guy could ever wear. But while she does have quite the laundry list of things she does not like (redheaded men, children, doing favors for friends, going on vacations with family members, restaurants without full bars, etc.), there is one thing she is very vocally passionate about: midgets. This woman really loves midgets and there is an entire chapter devoted to explaining how her self-proclaimed “healthy obsession” developed. I’m pretty indifferent to midgets, but I will admit that my favorite Jackass bit involves them: The only thing that’s missing is Tyrion Lannister.

Midgets and all, this book was pretty good. Not mind-blowing or anything but it did its job—it made me laugh, aloud even, and it gave me a brief break from the more serious tone that runs through so many of the books I choose to blog about. With all of the sadness in life (I saw Alpha Dog the other night and that shit was depressing), it was a breath of fresh air. Chelsea doesn’t take a single bit of her life seriously and I respect that immensely. Sure, she’s obnoxious and offensive, but it’s all in the name of hilarity and I’m not entirely sure that her jokes on controversial topics are reflective of how she truly feels about the issues. She has actually gone through some intense stuff in life—one of her brothers died when she was just nine years old and she had an abortion at age sixteen—but she copes with them through laughter. She might not be your cup of comedic tea but I think that everyone could find at least some part of her book funny. If not, you probably have a giant stick up your ass and you should get that checked out.

Moreover, the writing itself isn’t so simpleminded. Her witticisms were executed well and you could tell that she has some brains. It’s certainly not something Floyd Mayweather could just pick up and read (lol speaking of 50 cent, fun fact: Handler dated him for some time). Overall, I give it 3 out of 5 camel humps. It gave me some giggles but it wasn’t a must read; it might be a good idea to have on your book list but you don’t need to drop everything and put it at the top of your queue.

*Handler, Chelsea. Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea. New York: Gallery Books, 2008. Print