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Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women.

By Elizabeth Wurtzel. Doubleday. 434 pp. $23.95.

In Prozac Nation, her bestselling memoir of lifelong depression, Elizabeth Wurtzel describes a night wherein, off her lithium and coked up, she begins to unravel, again. She's 25. She and her roommate are having a party, the apartment is full of people, but Wurtzel, in her black chiffon party dress, is "curled up in fetal position on [the] bathroom floor." From that vantage point, she relates, "I'm making plans, I'm thinking grandiose thoughts...I'm deciding to spend the whole night writing an epic Marxist-feminist study of Biblical villainesses which I've been meaning to get started on for years." She compares herself to Sylvia Plath, to Anne Sexton, to "Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, receiving supplicants." This, in a prologue titled "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die," establishes the paradigm for Wurtzel's self-presentation: simultaneously completely abased and completely exalted, not just any old depressive lying on the bathroom floor but a famous poet, a movie star.

The grandiosity was clearly symptomatic. (It would seem of manic-depression, although that wasn't her diagnosis.) When Wurtzel took off on tears in which she attempted cultural analysis of, say, her parents' generation, or the evidently precarious mental health of the entire United States, the simplistic quality of her sweeping generalizations seemed to partake more of that grandiosity than anything else. These analytical forays had a warmed-over, debate-team air, were studded with statistics and seemed desperate as well, desperate to make her plight emblematic, iconic, exemplary of some large and extremely important reality. One of the hardest things to accept about mental illness is that it doesn't mean anything any more than diabetes means anything; it's just illness, no more, no less. But, as Wurtzel wrote, "In a strange way, I had fallen in love with my depression," and the exhibitionism of her text ("The first time I took an overdose was at summer camp ... the year I turned twelve, when I had thin thighs, big eyes, peachy breasts"), the waiflike cover photo of Wurtzel herself, all her wounds, often felt like an invitation to the reader to fall in love with her illness, too. Prozac Nation was, among other things, a seduction, and that seemed just as symptomatic of Wurtzel's condition as her grandiosity and overdosing. "Depression," she wrote, "is all about If you loved me you would." Buy my book, for instance. Make me famous.

With Bitch, Wurtzel attempts to extend this transaction. A study, nominally, of our attraction to such iconic, and, in her view, depressed female figures as Taylor, Sexton, Edie Sedgwick, Delilah and Marilyn Monroe, as well as such depressing female media spectacles as Amy Fisher and Nicole Brown Simpson, it seems the marketable cousin to the epic Marxist-feminist chronicle of biblical villainesses Wurtzel dreamed of while lying on the bathroom floor in a manic haze, and it reads as if she typed it up that very night. It's a mess, a heap of contradictions and poorly supported half-arguments, ridiculous assertions ("These days putting out one's pretty power, one's pussy power ... makes you smart"), trite observations ("God gave Elizabeth Taylor one of the all-time, awe-inspiring faces"), pointless digressions, schoolgirl gushes or rages, and endless synopses of popular movies. It's misogynist and homophobic ("For whatever reason," she muses, "many gay men I know were raped by uncles or family friends as children ... never considering the possibility that their psyches may be accommodating an uncomfortable trauma by turning it into a triumph"); it's ill informed; it's often spiteful; it's foolish. Ornamented by a cover photo of Wurtzel, topless, with middle finger upraised, it has a coy, fuck-me/fuck-you sensibility that suggests it should not have been called Bitch but Brat. Wurtzel's main idea, I guess, is that most of the legendary "bitches"--Delilah, Taylor, Zelda Fitzgerald (although why she was a bitch escapes me), Frances Farmer, Princess Diana, etc.--were as marked by depression and general fucked-upness as they were by fame and charisma (whiteness is basically a prerequisite for invitation to this notorious company; so is heterosexuality). Bad girls, writes Wurtzel, "live miserable unfulfilled lives, lives of great style and utter misery. This book is a chronicle of that unhappiness." Her other point, maybe her only valid one--and I skip over a lot of boggy terrain here--is that the culture generally illustrates the "reigning attraction of the madwoman," that we love these crazy bitches because of their craziness and "brilliant excess," not in spite of it. Interesting enough. But because she can't stop herself before she's slammed into a wall, she speeds on to the grand idea that "behind every great woman there is a madness. If the male driving force is the need to make a living, the female ambition is fueled by suffering." To which one wants to say: Speak for yourself

Actually, one wants to say: Please shut up, because Wurtzel rambles endlessly, making points and then abandoning them, piling up plots and song lyrics and media detritus, pausing now and then to opine on various things--such as her feeling that Mira Sorvino, "who had been a classmate of mine at Harvard," should have won an Oscar for her role in Quiz Show and that Dennis Hopper's personal quirks can be explained by his having appeared in Giant. When she remembers what her book is about, her tone in relation to these crazy bitches she is purportedly praising swings wildly from overheated identification to a strange sort of contempt. Nicole Brown Simpson is possessed of a "heartrending beauty" but, a page later, she's a "simple" woman whose "big goal ... would have been owning a coffee bar in Brentwood." Until Monroe committed suicide, the actress was "laughable"; Hillary Clinton has "thick calves"; Amy Fisher isn't very pretty. (Who's pretty and who isn't are constant preoccupations.) Wurtzel drags her icons on stage, batters them, then loudly mourns them, like Maggie Tulliver beating her doll in The Mill on the Floss. Almost nothing about these women or their vexed power in the collective imagination can be apprehended through the cyclone of Wurtzel's projection, transference and displacement. This is some variety of cerebration, but it isn't cultural criticism.

There are many dubious connections made in Bitch, the most worrisome of which is its foundational obsession with depression and fame; as if one had anything to do with the other. To put it simply, most depressed people aren't famous (and vice versa). Maybe it makes you feel special to be lying, blackhearted, in your own house, or your own bathroom, while everyone hovers around, but out on the street you're just a lady in a housecoat who hasn't brushed her hair in a while. When I started reading Bitch, I made the notation that if Prozac Nation was about the glamour of mental illness, this book is about the mental illness of glamour: I thought Wurtzel was heading toward a point about the cultural hunger for celebrity being more thanatos than eros, but she's still so entranced herself by Lady Depression that she never gets there. This book, too, if it's about anything, is about the glamour of mental illness. All that glitters self-destructs. "It is a girl who is exquisite," she writes, in a discussion of the dangers of being young and beautiful and troubled as exemplified by the movie Darling, "or preternaturally sexy, or possessed of a talent that makes her beautiful--it is a girl who is special, radiant, a sensitive artist, a delicate flower; it is a girl whose loss to the world would be viewed as the greatest tragedy ... she is precisely the one who is most likely to mistake her own delicacy for invincibility." Teen suicides everywhere could ask for no more alluring elegy.

The only difference between the Ophelias of the last book and this one is that this raving child is meaner, and more arrogant. Wurtzel, following in the seedy tradition of Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia, never misses an opportunity to disparage feminists while advancing tepid feminist arguments that seem designed to titillate men who like their women with long red claws. "By now it is basic Freudian-feminist cant," she sniffs, "that the socialization process tends to make men flee from women," and goes on to conclude that the way women really want to get out of this bind is "to be so enchanting that men don't even notice that they're falling in love until they're already there, don't even notice that they need to be afraid, be very afraid." Or, because feminism "can't cure" the gender power imbalance, she has another solution: "When I have a man in front of me, even one I really like, one who is quite literally putty in my hands and wherever else, I feel the incredible urge to use the power he has given me to ruin his life." (This from a woman who wonders in the Epilogue why she's still single.)

She earnestly delivers long, quasi-feminist readings of movies as if no one had ever attempted such a thing before or, indeed, had seen any movies. She demands, self-righteously, to know why Katha Pollitt never wrote about Amy Fisher ("Earth to Katha Pollitt--hello?"), citing this absence as indicative of feminism's general prudishness, without having noticed that Pollitt did write about Fisher soon after the story broke. She informs us that Plath is emblematic of, and to, a generation of women who wanted to be more than housewives. No kidding.

Wurtzel also tosses off the enlightening bons mots that Anita Hill is "the modem incarnation of the house nigger," that Mary Kay Place is homely, that model Bridget Hall is a "brainless boozer" and that "there is no point in reading more than any one Jane Austen novel (Pride and Prejudice would be my pick)." And on and on. She chatters, ignorantly, in the way of someone who is determined to believe, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that it has been left to her, alone, to explain the world.

Perhaps Wurtzel, who was briefly a rock critic at The New Yorker, is going for writing that approaches the condition of rock and roll--what are her come-on author photos if not album covers? Her paragraphs tend to build in speed, piling up clauses to a kind of bridge set off by dashes. The most generous reading I can make of her work is that all the posturing, the loose-cannon bullshit, pouty rage, look-at-me outrageousness and preoccupation with fame are Wurtzel's version of intellectual as rock star--Prozac Nation her Blue, Bitch her, well, "Bitch." Perhaps she wants that kind of speed and flash, Fiona Apple ("I've been a bad, bad girl...") crossed with Patti Smith. Depression is her bass guitar, her satanic wildness.

But listening to her is neither an empowering nor a liberating experience. Her self-imposed intellectual isolation, her rhetorical slashings at other women, her illogical and manic arguments, her bellowing of "facts" that are either self-evident or wrong, her dismissive rehearsals of ideas she seems barely to have understood in the first place: These struttings and preenings suggest that she prefers her audience prone, passive and awestruck. When I finally put this book down, my overwhelming feeling was one of relief at having been released from such a confining role.

Stacey D'Erasmo is the fiction editor of Bookforum, a quarterly publication of Artforum.
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Author:D'Erasmo, Stacey
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 11, 1998
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