Girl, Interrupted (Again) by Susana Kaysen: A Contemporary Outlook

A re-examination of Kaysen's memoir, which aims to reconcile young adult culture with mental illness, and capitalism, utilizing both contemporary and historical reference points...

Girl, Interrupted

Publisher: Virago/Vintage
Length: 169 pages
Author: Susana Kaysen
Format: Paperback
US Publication Date: 1994-04-19 (Reprint)

We live in an epoch of collective pessimism. Today’s youth, raised on falsely idealistic capitalist dreams have grown into a mass of self-possessed, hypochondriacs -- afraid that the cancer of the world will spell their demise. OK, perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but there still exists a certain grain of truth to this belief. As an active member of this very generation, I often find that there is a unanimous despondency amongst those around me. Small, personal traumas are elevated to magnanimous status, disavowing the historical context surrounding other members of our cohort, and our elders. The reasoning behind this is simple. We were promised the world, only to find that our parents had destroyed it with their greed. Of course, it is this very same ‘greed’ that has driven us into a state of chaos, and has made us unwilling to accept the more modest options available to us.

Whilst contemplating the melodrama surrounding young adult culture, I was compelled to return to one of my favorite pieces of autobiography, Susana Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. As many will already know, Kaysen’s seminal memoir released in 1993 became a best seller in the late 1990s after it was adapted into a Columbia motion picture starring Winona Ryder, and the now infamous Oscar-winner, Angelina Jolie.

The tale begins with an 18-year old Kaysen, just out of high school, being diagnosed with ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’. This judgment led Kaysen to an 18-month stint at the McLean mental hospital, which was notorious for housing many well-known figures and celebrities, including Sylvia Plath. Before, I divulge any deeper into the story or its subtext, it is worth considering the book’s tension between conformity and mental illness. Here, Kaysen is relegated to the outskirts of society, not so much because she was ‘mentally ill’, but rather, because she was unwilling to engage with the norms of capitalist society, desiring instead to lead the life of a writer. As expected, her parents, teachers and her analyst find this notion preposterous, concluding that she must be the subject of some significant malfunction.

With this consideration in tow, it is easy to see why youth culture can often be found crumbling at its seams. Capitalist society precludes conformity, and anyone who wishes to exist out with these bounds is in turn, considered delirious. He/She is subsequently left with very few options, but to manifest this anarchy through the vice of depression. The irony of course is that consumer society also acts as a double-edged sword. Those in society, who work their way up through the traditional hierarchy (graduating from law, business school and the like), may very soon find themselves wading through the erogenous ‘depression’ zone, when they realize that they can no longer keep up with their material desires.

Indeed, consumer society is driven by continuous ‘want’, but once the desire to ‘want’ subsists; the candidate may find that there is little else to ‘live for’. Equally dangerous is the despairing helplessness that can take place after a capitalist culture’s economic breakdown. An individual who exists in a consistently elevated middle-class will certainly find him or herself, incapable of functioning if the economy were to reduce them to a lower echelon in the hierarchy. It is no surprise then that the business centers of London and Tokyo are rife with as much suicide and ‘mental illness’, as those less affluent expanses of mainstream civilization.

This view of conventional culture is echoed throughout Girl, Interrupted. Kaysen uses sparse, documentary-like prose to study the characters in the enclosed institution around her, unmasking their motives through unabashed analysis. Let us consider the author’s representation of schizophrenic mental patient, Polly for instance. Polly has been sectioned because she had attempted to burn herself alive. But instead of portraying the young Polly as a helpless hermit, Kaysen chooses to emphasize her courage. She notes how Polly simply wanted to burn her troubled past away – and in a sense she emboldens her spirit. As a child of the post-grunge period, it is natural for me to draw parallels between this characterization and the youth who sought to reclaim self-harm as a viable means of expression. In high school, teenage girls and boys claimed it as ‘right’, and perhaps also had the misfortune of turning this very act into a form of ‘designer torture’.

This notion persists again with the author’s depictions of both Georgina and Lisa in the story. Lisa’s categorization especially, is marked by an exhilarating and untamed charm that could be compared to the likes of Jack Nicholson and his band of tormented Hollywood-era aficionados. This isn’t to say that her examination is entirely glamorous. The prose that expounds upon Daisy’s character, a sociopathic young girl addicted to laxatives is far more critical, for example. Instead of associating her with the wafer-thin poster children of the era, Kaysen delineates her life with a sense of unspectacular anguish.

Certainly, some will argue that the author had little intention in ‘commenting’ on or drawing such grand comparative analysis; after all, all of these portraits are based on real, living people. However, the word ‘based’ is the key to our understanding here. Like any writer in any medium, the work of the author will always to some extent be an ‘imagined’ reality. As such, I believe that each of these characters exists out with the realm of real life, and in its place serves as an allegory to greater social tensions at play in the conformist capitalist milieu.

In the end though, the most honest examination occurs when the author holds the mirror up to herself. Whilst recounting her suicide attempt, and her comparatively sheepish desire to damage her physical exterior, Kaysen is able to unravel a debate that challenges the reader to think about the tension between freedom (mental and physical), and the captivity that we are all subjected to by consenting to civil society.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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