Notes on Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. I ignored this when it came out a few years ago, consigning it to the category of Chick Lit. That was a mistake. The memoir focuses on the year and a half during the late 1960s that Kayman spent as a patient at McLean Hospital. She was eighteen when she went in and twenty when she came out, “stabilized” but skeptical of conventional wisdom, a trait that makers her a good writer. There isn’t a wasted word in the 168 pages of text. The portraits of her fellow patients — other adolescent girls — are moving and funny, but not sentimental. Kaysen refers in passing to some of the famous people who have passed through McLean — James Taylor, Robert Lowell* — establishing the class affiliation of the patients. She points out that you don’t get to stay there unless someone keeps paying the bill each month.
When the teen-aged Kayson refuses to consider going to college despite her obvious intelligence and verbal gifts, I found myself reacting with incomprehension until I realized that this was the most radical form of rebellion a young person of her class could engage in, whereas, where I came from, going to college was very often considered a kind of betrayal of one’s family. Remember Huck’s father berating him for going to school? Something like that. Going to college, I aspired to transcend my class; Kaysen does the same thing by “attending” McLean Hospital.
Kaysen’s personal recollections are for the most part objective, with a minimum of interpretation, so that when she does reach for the larger meaning of her madness her observations are grounded in direct experience; furthermore, she rejects easy conceptualization at every turn, refusing to create meaning where she does not see it. This gives the book an unsettling quality that emerges from this rhetoric of negation and refusal. The effect on the reader is a sense of the author’s integrity. Girl, Interrupted presents a fragment of the 1960s. From her genteel madhouse, the young Kaysen looks out on the assassinations, riots, the hippies & the Yippies, the Vietnam War & Watergate. These details are sketched sparingly, like the distant city in a Renaissance landscape, but they serve to establish both the cultural and personal context for the story.
*She might also have mentioned Alice James, sister of Henry & William — and perhaps William himself, the records are missing and there is only circumstantial evidence.
A colleague with a self-improving streak mentioned that he and a student were having a contest to see how many books each of them could read this summer & so, having a self-improving streak myself, I asked if I could go along for the ride. This blog used to be called Reading & Writing, so it is appropriate, I guess, to keep track of my books here. I’ll also encourage Stephen & Louis to post what they are reading in comments, or link to their own online lists. What, though, do we mean by reading? I read some things, for classes, say, in one way & other things, for research, or pleasure, etc. in other ways. What counts as reading for this competition?
I’m used to feeling a major relaxation at the end of Spring Semester each year, but this year the relaxation has only been partial. Partly, this is because I’m going to be teaching a summer course online, which begins next week, but the course won’t really take that much time since almost everything is already online from last summer, the first time it was offered. Also, I’m going to be spending a month at the Blue Mountain Center up in the Adirondacks. That’s obviously not a hardship — quite the opposite, it’s an luxury to be able to spend a month doing nothing but writing, reading & hiking around one of the most beautiful lakes in the country. It does, however, reduce the amount of time available to complete several projects around the house & yard. To say nothing of golf & bike riding. I just took my bike in for a tuneup this morning & I’ve already been to the driving range a couple of times, where I hit the ball better than I had any reason to expect.
I guess I should be grateful that I’m not going to Vietnam this summer, as I had hoped earlier in the year. I did not get the NEH summer stipend I applied for, though it was always a long shot. (They funded around 70 of 800 proposals.) I wanted to do a series of interviews with Vietnamese poets as the foundation of a sort of poetic ecology of the country. Actually, I was very disappointed when I got turned down for the grant, though the proposal I submitted got some decent comments from the reviewers. It turns out they wanted me to provide a much more detailed schedule of activities while in Vietnam — hard to believe any of them have actually worked there! (Otherwise, they’d understand the difficulty of predicting what will happen when.) My plan now is to resubmit the proposal for the summer following my sabbatical next spring. I should be in a better position to carry out my plans then, honestly.
So it’s going to be a compressed summer in anticipation of a compressed academic year, since I’m only teaching during Fall Semester, with a sabbatical in the spring. I want to use the summer to get a running start on my sabbatical — don’t want to have to waste any time “warming up” in the spring. To that end, I have been pulling disparate pieces of manuscripts together & trying to finish the things that are finishable in order to clear the deck for things that are going to take more extended & focused work.