Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas

    Tom Robbins always has the dopest titles. Every good title needs a good bookmark to complement it, so I paired Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas with this little number:

A staple of every young woman’s repertoire: a penis that holds your place in a book. Shout out to Ashley McHugh for the stellar gift.

     Speaking of penises…Tom Robbins loves to talk about them. This 1994 novel was reminiscent of the other two I’ve read (and reviewed: here and here), particularly in his inclusion of lurid sex scenes, which have me rocking the rosacea look on the subway. Other distinctive Robbins signs:
  •       Use of women as powerful protagonists. The main character here is Gwendolyn Mati. It seems that she is intended to be unlikeable and, sure enough, she is. She’s an uptight, judgmental stockbroker who is unwittingly swept into a swarm of scandals. In his other works, the fabulous female characters have driven the plot; I’m always curious as to what they’ll do next because I find them inherently interesting. In this case, since Gwendolyn fell flat, I was more prone to boredom.
  • Not-so-subtle social commentary. Robbins has fully embraced a hippie persona in real life…and it shows. I eat it up. He emphasizes how important it is to protect our environment and not treat the world in such an entitled way. He makes clever digs at the church as an institution and encourages us to think for ourselves rather than blindly embrace religious dogma.  He basically kills it on this front.
  • Exploration of the supernatural through symbolism. Still Life of Woodpecker centered on a pack of Camel cigarettes and the pyramids on the package. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas has less to do with pajamas and more to do with frogs. Robbins toys with the idea that our ancient ancestors are actually an extraterrestrial race of amphibians, insinuating that we’ll return to that state of being in a future evolutionary step. I don’t think that Robbins actually believes this; the point is that he wants to gracefully efface our belief systems and question our conception of reality. Currently, we’re in our pajamas on the brink of snoozing through life, not fully attune to its intricacies. Or perhaps my impression is wrong, and Robbins actually means that we literally look like this creepy man: 

Unfortunately, the symbols in this book are excessively complicated and frankly unexciting. Gwendolyn is on a judicious path, but she’s concerned with the accumulation of wealth at the expense of actually living an abundant life. Robbins sticks an eccentric, sensual man named Larry Diamond in the middle of her path to help her realize her wrongs. Diamond attempts to demystify humanity’s amphibious roots but he does so unsuccessfully. The intricate connections Robbins tries to make remain muddied through the end of the book. Perhaps he stuck too many things in Gwendolyn’s path to help veer her towards a different course? The story involves more than just Larry Diamond; it includes a thieving monkey who escapes captivity (would have preferred a thieving puppy monkey baby), a 300-pound psychic who disappears (she should have read her tarot cards better), and mysterious crime on the streets. Robbins has never adhered to the axiom “less is more”; it’s worked for him in the past, but it fails him here. I didn’t find the action very suspenseful because there was simply too much going on. It was like a Law & Order episode with ten poorly related crimes.

Still, Robbins challenges me as a reader. Always—even when I’m not feeling the plot. He drops rando facts that are so obscure, you’re forced to look them up because you’re not sure and you’re curious. He applies multi-layered analogies that make me do a double take. He uses quirky language to convey ideas that we can all get behind, like when he says, “Satisfaction is nothing but a temporary anesthetizing of the numinous noogie of existence” (Robbins, 348). I will continue to respect Robbins as one of the greats, but I will not recommend this book, as I don’t think it’s representative of what he’s truly capable of. Compared to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, this novel pales in comparison. Consequently, I give it 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Robbins, Tim. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. New York: Bantam Dell, 1994. Print.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Franny and Zooey

            Franny and Zooey* sounds like it’d be a Netflix show about female best friends going through a mid-life crisis. Fran gets pissy that Bart wants to grow out his sideburns and Zooey whines that Dennis won’t stop feeding pigeons on their walks. In actuality, it’s a combination of two short stories by J.D. Salinger, originally published separately in The New Yorker as Franny (1955) and Zooey (1957). I’ve been a subscriber to the renowned Condé Naste magazine for all of thirty days now, but I can already vouch for its good taste in fiction. The three issues that I’ve owned thus far feature short stories that have struck me as both introspectively sentimental and intellectually engaging. Franny and Zooey is no exception.

            For as short as Franny is, it packs quite a punch. Salinger trickily starts out the story by focusing on her lame ass boyfriend, Lane. We think that it’ll be all about him and we inwardly puke at his concern for appearances and postured sophistication. At his arm, Franny comes off as vapid and mindless until BAM…she’s throwing not-so-casual questions about the meaning of life at her boyfriend over dinner. He tries to evade her existential lobs but to no avail. She’s insistent upon figuring out the best way to make a lasting impression in this life without becoming a self-interested douchebag. Her attack on Lane’s college professors hints that she wants to make a difference in society; she hopes to leave a beautiful legacy but that’s becoming less and less possible because she thinks that everything is steeped in arrogance. Here, we have Salinger’s distinctive complaints: everyone is a conformist and that makes them phony. And if you deliberately rebel against the textbook trend of humanity, you’re just a different type of conformist-phony! You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Franny is the female version of Holden Caulfield, except she’s slightly less naïve (and admittedly, less off-putting). Both Franny and Holden recognize the superficiality of the world—specifically the adult world—and they don’t want any part of it. But if they don’t have any place within the world, where does that leave them? How can they find the sweet spot where they leave their own unique and beautiful watermark without just stinking up the place with more egotism? It seems that Salinger poses these questions and then lets readers answer them on their own.

            In Zooey, we learn a little more about Franny and her lineage. Franny and Zooey are siblings who grew up in a freakishly savant family. Salinger uses very specific language to convey his ideas and the dialogue in Zooey is characteristic of his tendency to express frustration through explicit speech. Perhaps this is Salinger’s own beautiful watermark on the literary community.  Zooey shows us a talented youth burdened by intellect. He struggles between bitterness towards the wisdom that accompanies his smarts and gratefulness that he’s not just another egghead drinking the Kool-Aid. He also happens to be smugly hilarious, as when he quips, “‘It probably wasn’t anything you couldn’t watch while you were cutting your toenails’” (Salinger, 143). The climax of the novella is when Zooey confronts Franny about her melancholic behavior. He throws some perspective on her dissatisfaction with humanity as it is, noting that it’ll just drive her crazy if she overanalyzes the current state of affairs. Yet, it seems that he doesn’t take his own advice…

            Taken individually, Franny and Zooey are heavy pieces; together, they’re bound to make you feel like you just swallowed a tub of ice cream. Franny and Zooey as characters are both so wrapped up in the negatives of life that they can’t actually notice anything nice in the world. At the same time, the book is indispensible. I’m a Salinger apologist. He forces us to confront what we’re all thinking: how do I create something in life that is lasting and meaningful? How do I avoid growing up and becoming a sucky adult? As a result, I give Franny and Zooey 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. New York: Bantam Books, Inc. 1961. Print.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Girl, Interrupted

      According to the DSM-V, someone with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder exhibits “a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning in early adulthood” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013*). Instability could manifest itself in recurrent suicidal behavior, chronic feelings of emptiness, inappropriate and uncontrollable anger, and more. When eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen had her stomach pumped following a suicide attempt, she was promptly sent to a psychiatrist who gave her the “borderline personality” label. The visit was disturbingly short before the doctor directed her to McLean Hospital for treatment. She voluntarily admitted herself to the famous institution (known for treating my girl Sylvia Plath as well as other celebs like James Taylor and Ray Charles) with the incorrect assumption that she would be court-ordered otherwise. The psychiatrist had originally insinuated that McLean would simply serve as a two-week repose from the stresses of everyday life. Kaysen’s stay ended up lasting 18 months and in her memoir, Girl, Interrupted*, Kaysen grapples with whether or not she belonged there for that long, if at all.
         The memoir discusses the gray areas of her diagnosis, emphasizing its vagueness when compared to something more straightforward and rooted in research like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Her insights blur the lines of how we conventionally perceive mental illness and how we delineate sane vs. insane. She was prone to depressive thoughts that clouded her world and diluted her relationships. She experienced visual disorientation that made everyday activities difficult to navigate. She indulged in the freedoms of imprisonment, often viewing the hospital as a refuge because it allowed her to avoid the demands and expectations set by society. Yet, she didn't display the sociopathic tendencies of fellow patient Lisa Rowe, an ex-junkie who relished her diagnosis and treated others with a coldhearted lack of concern. She didn't have an addiction to laxatives and an obsessive compulsive relationship with chicken like fellow patient Daisy Randone. She didn't invent fantastical stories about her father being a CIA agent or exhibit violence like fellow patient Wade. Is Susanna like the rest of these crazies just because she’s in the loony bin too? Kaysen challenges us by questioning what normalcy is. She posits that the patients of McLean Hospital are sacrifices for the “healthy population”, giving them a nice contrast so that they can live comfortably in the knowledge of their own sanity. This social commentary is accompanied by her scientific complaint that there is not enough cross-over between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. When she was hospitalized in the late 1960’s, there was not much communication between the two fields; psychoanalysts focused on the “soul” and neuroscientists focused on the chemical workings of the brain. Because little was (and is) known about the neuronal activity influencing personality disorders, this separation was particularly problematic for Susanna. How was she supposed to get better? Would there ever be a “cure”? What did recovery look like?
         When I read The Bell Jar, I adored Plath’s prose but I had mixed feelings about the ending. I knew that she had killed herself in real life, so the fact that I didn’t buy her recovery spiel isn’t surprising. I didn’t buy it because she didn’t recover. I took issue with this from a literary perspective; I thought that Plath intended to convince readers that she had gotten better and she failed at doing that, for me. Kaysen’s memoir didn’t have this problem because she gets right to the heart of the validity of recovery. Her writing style is admittedly less poignant and piercing compared to Plath’s, but I never doubted the sincerity of her experiences.
        As many readers know, Girl, Interrupted made it to the big screen in 1999 with an all-star cast including Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Brittany Murphy (RIP), Elizabeth Moss, Jared Leto, and Whoopi Goldberg. The acting in this film… Oh. My. God. Ryder had me simultaneously cheering for her to be freed and deeply concerned that her afflictions were irrecoverable, perfectly encapsulating the tug-of-war mood of Kaysen’s memoir. Jolie played a phenomenal villain, embodying true craziness-- I think this is her best performance to date. Did the movie honor the book in terms of factuality? In some ways, yes. We see that Susanna is stuck in a helpless situation where she doesn’t fit in anywhere. She doesn’t belong “outside” because she has these distressing afflictions and she doesn’t belong “inside” because she isn’t textbook mad like the others. On the other hand, there were several nonfactual plot developments presumably intended to add a more sinister element to the film.  For example, I don’t see how there’s an opportunity to gallivant around in the underground tunnels when the patients are supposedly being checked on every 15 minutes. Of course, this kind of practical lens gets in the way of a good chased-by-a-syringe-holding-sociopath story. Additionally, Susanna’s relationships with other patients are intensified in the movie and some new characters are added. Perhaps this serves to show the variability of “crazy” within the institution and to contrast Lisa to Susanna, hinting that the former was a hindrance to the latter’s treatment.
It’s worth noting that the movie was tremendous in its own right and my only qualms with it are its deviations from the memoir itself. Standing alone, I give the film 5 out of 5 camel humps. Similarly, I give the book 5 out of 5 camel humps.  I think that Kaysen was honest and careful in documenting her plight and she was able to express her feelings about her experiences in a compelling, heartfelt way. Of all of the mental-health books I’ve read and reviewed, I strongly recommend:
·         Girl, Interrupted if you want a brutally candid description of psychiatric hospitalization in the 1960’s. Pair with a glass of scotch and be prepared to reevaluate your own understanding of sanity.

·         The Bell Jar if you want to experience darkness and demise in the most poetic and beautiful way possible. Pair with a glass of red wine and be prepared to soft cry rather than soft smile.
·         Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness if you want to both terrify yourself and further comprehend the complexities of the brain. Pair with a vodka soda and pray that you don’t develop encephalitis.  
*American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.
*Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print