Thursday, February 22, 2007

girls, interrupted

1. rhymes with bitch

One great thing about driving down highway 99 in a rental car (and there are not a lot of great things) is that you can listen to the CD of the Wicked soundtrack that your sister burned for you over and over. That’s how I spent Thursday and Friday of last week, and by last night, I was fully prepared for opening night at the Pantages (Cathy’s awesome Christmas present to me).

I knew that Stephen Schwartz’s score was as catchy as his earlier musical Godspell and that the lyrics were even better (no offense to Matthew). He is a master of breaking words in half and sewing them together to make unpredictable rhymes. For example:

And helping you with your ascent al-
lows me to feel so parental


Uh, Nessa,
I’ve got something to confess, a
reason why I asked you here tonight.

Add to that a story ripe with political allegory and literary allusions and I’m in heaven. The musical opens with all of Munchkin Land ding-donging about the witch’s death, then flashes back to the years when Glinda and Elphaba, the green girl later to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West, were classmates at boarding school. What begins as a classic tale of a snotty prep and an awkward outsider forming an unlikely friendship evolves into much more.

Glinda and Elphaba’s grudging respect for each other as well as their very real differences of opinion regarding the importance (or unimportance) of public opinion form the roots of Oz’s future. Thus, in addition to Wicked’s more obvious (but still smartly executed) allegories about mob mentality, racism and revisionism, it is boldly and subtly political in its suggestion that female friendships—the subject of so many concerned parenting books and titillating memoirs—could influence what happens on the world stage.

2. i think you’re craaazy, just like me-eee

Wicked was a nice complement to Girl, Interrupted—another story about a troubled outsider that everyone but me has already read. Whenever I get too bogged down in the literary world to actually read, AK does her best to bring me up to speed, and so she nabbed a used copy of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir at Alias Books on Sawtelle last weekend and encouraged me to read it.

It could be described as a titillating memoir of female friendships (and female insanity—do they always go hand in hand?), but it’s the best of its kind. Actually, I mostly thought it was going to slam the medical establishment and be all, “What is crazy anyway? Aren’t we all crazy?”

I thought I would come away feeling boring and conventional and resentful. Some books have that effect on me, and this one could have if I let images of Winona and Angelina creep into my brain the way they kept trying to.

But, with its simple prose and short vignettes, Girl, Interrupted is more delicate and complicated than any of my potential reductions. The narrator doesn’t deny that she was troubled and needed help, yet she also refuses to acquiesce to the labels thrust upon her. She portrays the rituals of treatment at McLean Hospital as absurd, but she doesn’t make out its staff to be villains.

Kaysen, whom I’ve decided must have had a profound influence on Andrea Seigel, has an enviably high ratio of amazing sentences to just plain good ones. So I’ll close with one of many passages I’ve liked so far:

The student nurses were about nineteen or twenty: our age…. They were living out lives we might have been living, if we weren’t busy being mental patients…. We did our best to control our snarls and mutterings and tears when they were around. Consequently, they learned nothing about psychiatric nursing. When they finished their rotation, all they took with them were improved versions of us, halfway between our miserable selves and the normality we saw embodied in them. For some of us, this was the closest we would ever come to a cure.


Claire said...

Love that picture. I'd heard of Wicked but didn't know much about it. Definitely sounds like a show I'd enjoy.

I read Girl, Interrupted a couple years ago and enjoyed it. I'd seen the movie before too, but there were enough differences I considered them separate things.

Cheryl said...

I don't remember the movie too well, but reading the book, I think it would be a tough one to adapt--it's sort of defiantly non-narrative.

Tracy Lynn said...

That was an amazing book, and I was profoundly affected by it. I'm not sure if it was because of my own mental illness, undiagnosed at the time, but it really hit me.

The movie just pissed me off.

Claire said...

I wrote about the differences a bit here.

Cheryl said...

The book is almost defiantly non-narrative/non-linear--I think to deny readers' desire for a "girl goes crazy, girl goes to the hospital, girl gets better" story. Like the passage Claire quotes reveals, she wants to show us that the cure isn't any less complicated or more sensical than the disease.