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By Miriam Felton-Dansky
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When Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," he probably didn't have Wurtzel in mind. At the age of 34, she has published two books about her life as an unstable woman (Prozac Nation and this new one), one semi-facetious self-help book for unstable women (Radical Sanity), and one sloppy nonfiction tome celebrating unstable women throughout history (Bitch). She has spent her entire publishing career taking interesting arguments about female power and twisting them into a Wurtzel-shaped apologia for her own reckless, narcissistic ways.
Prozac Nation was proclaimed a zeitgeist-defining book when it was published in '94. Like Douglas Coupland's Generation X, it was marketed as "a generational status report on today's young people" and as a contemporary successor to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, a rite of passage among adolescent women who felt society's strictures were driving them toward depression. Wurtzel paid tribute to Plath and other melancholic heroines in Bitch, airing the provocative argument that feminism has promoted respect for powerful women but banished sad women. Mourning the new anti-victim bias, she wrote: "The whining is overlet the fighting begin!" If only.
More, Now, Again duplicates the clichéd narrative arc underpinning almost every episode of VH1's Behind the Music: After years struggling to overcome obstacles, the protagonist achieves fame and fortune, only to be brought down by drugs, then painfully climb back toward recovery and redemption. In Wurtzel's case, she started snorting coke and heroin in the wake of Prozac Nation's success but managed to evade debilitating addiction until her psychiatrist added Ritalin to her daily cocktail of antidepressants. Soon she discovered that if she ground up the pills and snorted them, they gave her vertiginous energy and a self-contained bliss. Her intake leaped from four a day to 40, supplemented by speed, coke, and whatever other stimulants she could find. Since she had moved to Florida to work on her book in isolation, Wurtzel was able to feed her increasingly voracious habit with little interference from family and friends.
Everything about this book is déjà vueven the title has a weary ring to it. Wurtzel admits in the preface that every addict has a story to tell, and that hers is not particularly dramatic: "There are no extremes of poverty or wealth to speak of. There are strip malls and a housing complex with a swimming pool that no one ever uses. I sit at a raw bar and eat oysters, or I make copies late at night at Kinko's, and when there is a Clinique bonus, I buy a new lipstick at Burdine's." Wurtzel makes the most of the incongruous Floridian backdrop, setting her own extravagant self-destructiveness against early-bird dinners and efficiency condos. In fact, she depicts the early stages of her swan dive into dissolution with precision and mirtheven her compulsive habit of tweezing body hair until her legs are covered in festering sores (a symptom of stimulant abuse) is couched in dry humor. "This is my life," she writes sardonically. "I snort and I tweeze. It could be worse, I suppose. It could be worse."
But it is claustrophobic hanging out with Wurtzel for hundreds of pagesjust Liz, her problems, and her drugs. Anyone who's read her previous books knows of Wurtzel's voracious neediness, but now, she explains at the height of addiction: "I can see nothing and no one besides me and Ritalin and anything else I might pump into my body. You're all objects to me now. That's what I want to say to all my friends, my objects. I needed you all so badly, and it was never enough. . . . So now I have found something that sates me." The first half of the book is spent pursuing pills and fucking up while tweaking on Ritalin. Wurtzel misses a big photo shoot. Spaces out on Politically Incorrect. Screws a married friend. Ends up in jail for shoplifting jewelry. And always there are peoplefriends, editor, agentin cameo roles scrambling to pick up the pieces. There's a certain momentum, propelled by Wurtzel's appropriately speedy prose. But then the remainder of the book bogs down in the familiar narrative of rehab and relapse, Wurtzel locked in an ongoing skirmish with those 12 steps, trying but never quite surrendering sarcasm and drugs to God.
She mocks the New Age nonsense that envelops the recovery movement, but in the end, most of Wurtzel's insights into the process are no less mundane and indeed are frequently filched straight from that very genre. She aspires to be a powerful creative genius, a modern-day Plath or Anne Sexton, but although Sexton was dubbed a confessional poet and Plath wrote an autobiographical novel, both of these writers used their angst as raw material from which to craft something deep and resonant. Wurtzel's only subject matter is herself, and she seems too ensnared in her own issues to translate her pain into cultural commentary, let alone art. Wurtzel never ventures any perspectives on Ritalin as a mass phenomenon or the allure of stimulants in our hyperkinetic culture. Instead she provides interminable analyses of why she's ended up such a mess (seemingly reprinting therapy sessions verbatim), territory she already explored in Prozac Nation.
Ceaselessly maligning herself, Wurtzel offers much evidence of her badness: poor credit rating, a porn habit, and of course, drug abuse. It's hard to genuinely dislike someone so bitterly aware of her own shortcomings. But it's also hard to stomach her increasingly repetitive self-exploitation. Wurtzel would probably agree, since she herself is repelled by this compulsion to confess. In the midst of a bizarre, nine-page-long digression on the death penalty and Timothy McVeigh, she excoriates the families of victims who woo the media: "I cannot fathom what makes these people think that a public discussion of their trauma will resolve it, will heal it in any way. It gives me the creeps."
Wurtzel's first book was all about timing: When Prozac Nation appeared, hardly anyone was talking about what it felt like to be debilitated by depression. But now that every other kid on the block is peddling their pain, we expect more. And not just more of the same.
Other book reviews this week:
Richard Gehr on In A Dark Wood by Amanda Craig
Joanna Smith Rakoff on Zirconia by Chelsey Minnis