“I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity. “
— Sylvia Plath, “Elm” (in Ariel)
“This wasn’t like in the movie Heathers, which had come out a few years earlier. We watched it over and over again. It was something we did. Back then, I hadn’t read Ariel. In the movie, Ariel is a punchline; Sylvia Plath is a joke. This was before I’d learned that Sylvia Plath was real, not a joke.
— Suzanne Scanlon, Promising Young Women
Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women is a novel-in-fragments that doesn’t wear its influences and inspirations lightly. The author’s note acknowledges that the book uses lines and images from The Bell Jar and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and although there is one significant chapter/story towards the end that refers to the latter, the book is largely haunted by the spirit of Plath.
Promising Young Women quietly and discreetly echoes The Bell Jar, but is also in conversation with it. If Plath’s only novel was a searing and caustic portrait of white middle-class female sadness in the ’60s, then Scanlon’s debut is a sensitive and troubling portrait of white middle-class female sadness in the ’00s. The book as a physical object—published by Dorothy, the Publishing Project—is very much like the women Scanlon writes about: it’s beautiful and elegant, with a lovely cover that somehow evokes melancholy without revealing too much. Intensely personal and pared down—the stories in this book are moods, feelings, thoughts, and experiences observed in close detail—Promising Young Women looks back at The Bell Jar and seems to say, Dear Sylvia, Everything has changed but nothing, really, has changed.
Promising Young Women
“The other thing was that I’d discovered I was a cipher.
‘I am an empty thing. A fragmented mutating subject.’
‘No, you just feel that way,’ they told me.
‘What’s the difference?'”
Language is a trap for Lizzie, yet writing calms her down because “the world was something I created.” Scanlon’s use of language is so light and deft, almost given to aphorism—there were so many short phrases and pithy quotes that I had to keep scribbling down in a notebook—but it becomes clear that for Lizzie (and perhaps for everyone who ever needed to write), language can be harnessed, modified, manipulated, and writing can be salvaged as a form of power.
As Helene Cixous writes in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, “To begin (writing, living) we must have death,” and Lizzie is, in fact, always thinking about her mother’s death, even when she’s not. Lizzie’s destabilisation doesn’t happen on the page; her life is one long process of destabilisation, aided and abetted by the institutions of the psychiatry industry. On the page is where she rearranges the pieces, or sifts through the detritus to make sense of her world by creating new or different worlds. In one of her dreams, for instance, Lizzie sees herself in a group meeting, speaking up in a way she never actually does in her waking life:
“‘There is an instability of knowledge!’ She has raised her voice now; she is nearly screaming. ‘It’s terrifying!’ The group leader lifts an eyebrow, looks around the room. The others don’t say anything. In the dream she is articulate and focused. She is all language and all voice, in a way that she never was.”
My favourite segments from the book include “Girls in Trouble”, “Constant Observation”, and “All That You Aren’t But Might Possibly Be”. These stories are experimental exercises in metafiction, a play on conventional storytelling forms that places the reader on unstable ground: Just who is doing the talking here, you wonder, just who is telling this story?
Promising Young Women is filled with a multiplicity of voices, which seems fitting considering that Lizzie goes on to become an actress (much like Scanlon herself). Acting, like writing, becomes for Lizzie a way out of her own voice, or maybe a way into the voices of others, or perhaps just a way of having all the voices in her head speak their lines and have their say, which is probably why Oscar Wilde is quote in the book: “I love acting. It is so much more real than life.”
Like Plath before her, Scanlon is merciless in interrogating how promising young women are produced, reconfigured, and then recast as troubled young women by institutions heavily-invested in ensuring that “career patients” continue to exist. “Career patients” is a term that Lizzie discovers is part of the bureaucratic-speak of psychiatry: it refers to people who “were hooked on their illness, on the idea of being sick, on the idea of suicide.”
In a chapter that references James Joyce’s “The Dead”, Lizzie has an epiphany: “The recognition that she was becoming a career patient. That she had to stop trying to kill herself. Or that she had to kill herself. But that she could no longer live in this liminal state and spend days or weeks in woodsy hospitals where everyone spoke in acronyms and watched Friends. That this was far worse than death.”
Scanlon isn’t explicit about the connections between capital and psychiatry, the veritable industry of exploitation of pretty, young, sad women—but her earliest, foundational experience of institutionalisation is onboard what she calls the “S. S. Roger”, a ward created by a man who specialised in fixing—or perhaps (un)fixing—promising young women such as herself, and how much of this “promise” is located in a young woman’s physical appearance and exteriority; how much of value is accrued to the appearance of beauty. “You are attractive. That matters,” Roger tells her, and that this meant that she was worthy of investment: “That I had enough going for me to make it worth it for them to bother.”
Scanlon’s constant references to pop culture and books and films—“Ugh” is a clever chapter that begins with a Molly who “refused” to get out of bed, a bedroom Bartleby—underpin even the most complicated passages in a book that only comes up to about 155 pages. Essentially, it’s A Portrait of a Young Woman Shaped by Pop Culture. Scanlon isn’t just interested in showing how a young American woman of the 21st century relates to, and mediates, much of the world through the stuff she’s heard, and seen, and read, but also in how art is shaped and made through this mediation, a sum of all things that have touched you and stayed with you throughout your life.
The formal invention and stylistic sophistication of Promising Young Women allows Scanlon to show how this is done: early on, Lizzie meets a fellow patient who jokes about her attempt to drown herself by attributing it to “a bad day”; later on, Lizzie succeeds in an acting class where she has to play a woman who sticks her head in the oven by incorporating this line. It’s a quiet but illuminating insight into the process of creation; a bit of a cliché perhaps, but true all the more because of it: life feeds art, art feeds life, and skulking around at the edges is death, always death.
I cringe a little to talk of hope, because I’m never really sure where hope is meant to go, but the meaning of accumulated affects, feelings, and experiences are pretty much summed up in the book’s ending note, where Lizzie recollects a few of her favourite things. As such, I would say that Promising Young Women ends on a hopeful note, but the sadness has found no resolution. The problem of emotions still has not been solved:
“What she did not know was that Prozac would lead to Zoloft would lead to Ativan would lead to Mellaril would lead to Halcion. Would lead to hypnosis and shocks and lots groups named with acronyms. She did not know that the week would turn into a month or that the month would turn into an interview with Roger, who ran the famous Institute. It all just sort of happened. She did not know there would be consequences. No one spoke of stigma—and jot just societal stigma, the kind you internalize, the kind Woolf internalized, which wasn’t romantic after all—the way you come to think of yourself as sick or mad or mentally ill. Loony or bonkers or someone with emotional problems. Which is how they put it these days. As if. Aren’t all emotions problems? she wondered.”
Some of the promising young women, like Lizzie, might “make it”, somehow, but many do not. And what of the unpromising, the ugly, the poor, the not-young; the countless many on whom the bell jar descends over and over? The only thing that seems to be certain is that the Rogers and the institutes of the world will continue to proliferate.