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Breath of Art

The Dead Girl

by Melanie Thernstrom
Pocket Books, 431 pp., $19.95

The portrait of the artist as a young man is by now a classic literary theme, given its generic title by James Joyce’s half-ironic, entirely serious, narrative of his self-invention. What happens when the artist is a young woman? A young woman’s search for an authentic life is not a particularly new theme, but in the literature we have she often finds herself through an adult choice of vocation, as Jane Addams did in Hull House. An artist’s vocation, however, is given from the start by the peculiar conjunction of flayed sensibility and talent. I don’t mean anything emotional by “flayed”—I mean only being unable to bear a sound off-pitch, or an ugly combination of colors, or unctuous language. A young artist cannot help wincing, and he or she is also likely to be exaggeratedly grateful for the slightest relief granted the flayed sensibility. This gratitude is natural to the young artist who finds at last the singer whose voice does not offend, the teacher whose methods do not irritate, the friend who is also writing poetry, the editor who is an artist manqué.

In every historical period, the young woman, like the young man, will probably encounter harrowing difficulties on the way to an artistic vocation, since relatively few families think of art as the family work in which the children are to join as by dynastic succession. Most families are taken aback by the embryonic literary artist in their midst, hardly knowing what to do with the cranky child whom nothing satisfies. Precocious musical or graphic talent is easier to deal with, because it can be immediately set to training. There are no academies for the infant literary artist, mostly because acquiring the expressiveness of adult language is necessarily a slow process, and because the emotional maturity necessary for literary achievement comes, if it does, only after puberty.

In the meantime, the juvenile writer-to-be is likely to hang about, watchful, critical, demanding, rebellious, supercilious, melancholy, diligent and indolent by turns, passionately loving and passionately hating, literally incomprehensible to the more phlegmatic or orderly members of the household. The young artist seems on the one hand needlessly cruel (Joyce is haunted by having refused his dying mother’s pleas that he take the sacrament) and on the other hand needlessly sensitive, the princess of the household who flinches at the pea no matter how numerous the intervening mattresses. Families may tolerate this behavior better from young men than from young women, of whom more submissiveness is expected, but for the most part they don’t warm to it in young men either.

But if the first self-liberation of the young artist happens within the family, equally significant subsequent ones must take place. Both young men and young women must strenuously define themselves against their peers (as Stephen Dedalus decides against staying in Ireland with the young nationalist writers, but decides equally not to be a “west Briton” writer who would take his cue from England). Young women artists must, it seems to me, also define themselves romantically earlier and often more seriously than young men do, since marriage and childbearing loom, even if subconsciously, as an implicit threat to the internal autonomy essential for art. (By this I don’t necessarily mean anything Romantic like the egotistical sublime; I simply mean that artists, male and female, are launched on a trajectory that may not coincide with other trajectories in life.)

The self-cultivation—against opposing pressures—of the young woman artist has much in common with that of the young woman intellectual. But the intellectual usually has much to pacify her family with—her achievements in school, her prizes, her drive to master a visible subject matter. The juvenile artist-to-be, entirely aside from her intellectual strivings, which may be considerable, is trying to master the hidden impulses of life, and to decipher and chart the eddying countercurrents of that most mysterious and hypocritical of enclaves, a human family. She is also trying to master language, refusing all taboos on utterance. She may become, whether she eventually produces first-rate work or not, something of a household monster. Who would have wanted to have in the kitchen the vengefully watching eye of Flannery O’Connor, or “Vesuvius at home” (as she called herself) Emily Dickinson? (Of course there are female artists, however unaccommodating, who have had allies at home, as Emily Brontë and Marianne Moore did; there are also those who pretend to be accommodating until they escape, like Elizabeth Barrett.)

Melanie Thernstrom’s The Dead Girl is best read, I think, as a portrait of the artist as a young woman, and it has great interest as a Bildungsroman of a different sort. Thernstrom (whom I knew at Harvard as an excellent student) starts off with all the apparent advantages—intelligent parents, decent schools, enough money, good looks. Nonetheless, she thrashes her way through her freshman year at college worrying, being overwrought, uncertain about her own future, dissatisfied with life and education, frustrated by being separated from her best high-school friend, Roberta (Bibi) Lee, who has gone off to college at Berkeley while Thernstrom has stayed in Cambridge and gone to Harvard.

Thernstrom has a boyfriend, Adam, whom she almost superstitiously reveres as a “good” person, fearing all the while that she herself is a “bad” person. Adam is described as a generous, solicitous, and genuinely kind young man, intelligent enough to understand Melanie’s extremities of feeling, enough of a writer himself to sympathize with her aspirations to write, and yet spared her “oversensitivity” and “overreactions” (as the world would regard them). He finally leaves her because he cannot make her “happy.” Of course nobody will ever be able to make her “happy,” because happiness of the ordinary sort is not available to artists; “I saw too distant,” Keats writes to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, “into the core / Of an eternal fierce destruction.”

It is only a matter of time until any gifted artist sees too far into that core of personal and social destruction. For Thernstrom, the encounter with the insoluble comes during her sophomore year, when Bibi, her friend in California, disappears. The Dead Girl, drawing on Thernstrom’s diaries from 1984 to 1988 (from her twentieth through her twenty-fourth year), traces the events, inner and outer, that begin with Bibi’s disappearance and end with the conviction for voluntary manslaughter, in circumstances that remain mysterious, of Bibi’s boyfriend, Bradley Page (a conviction making him eligible for parole in two years). Flashbacks fill in the background of the story: we see the two girls and their families; letters from Bibi to Melanie (made up for the book, since the Lee family did not permit Thernstrom to use Bibi’s actual letters) suggest the personality of the dead girl; commentary by the older Melanie who knows what actually happened is interspersed through the horrifying original suspense, the six-week search in California for Bibi (in which Thernstrom participated), the discovery of Bibi’s body (with the autopsy showing a fractured skull), the arrest of Bradley Page, and his two trials (he confessed to having hit her during an argument, and then retracted his confession).

The artist in Thernstrom pushes her, from the beginning, toward arranging the elements of life into a meaningful plot. And plots abound; she has many possible interpretations of the relations between herself and her parents, herself and Adam, herself and Bibi, herself and herself. She reads life as she would read a novel: everything anyone says is taken as evidence advancing her reading of character or of motive. Of course this is a normal procedure of many writers (see James’s The Sacred Fount), but it drives ordinary people crazy. A sample incident of “overreading” arrives as Melanie is having a dispute with her father:

I am having a fight with my father as we are driving. This is a series of threats: he says he is going to make me get out of the car; I say fine. He says he’ll never drive me anyplace again; I say I don’t care. He says he is not going to pay for school and, determined not to feel threatened, I tell him to fuck off, and he roars: “I WILL LOCK YOU IN THE TRUNK OF THE CAR.”

Even as he says it, he realizes how ridiculous it is. The last word is broken by laughter, and the fight ends. I hear this—that it has disintegrated into a joke before he has even finished saying it—but it has broken a second too late for me not to get upset.

You frightened me,” I sob violently, bursting into tears.

It was a joke,” he says, embarrassed now.

It wasn’t a joke! It wasn’t a joke!”

Of course it was. Do you think I would literally try to tie you up and lock you in the trunk? You wouldn’t even fit. You’re too big.”

That has nothing to do with it,” I scream. “You know where you got that image from? You got it from a murder mystery. And you know what goes in the trunk? The body goes in the trunk—the dead body. It’s when you’ve been murdered….”

Well, I’m sorry, hon,” he says, “but I think you are reading a lot into one remark, and taking the whole thing A LITTLE TOO SERIOUSLY.”

Just to make sure he doesn’t have the last word, I repeat that he did make me feel Unsafe, and he mutters that he is a simple man from Michigan and he can’t imagine how he ended up in a family of such emotional women.

One can see both sides of this farcical exchange (and Thernstrom’s strength in the book is that she continually represents her own responses as immensely trying to other people, without concluding that she either could or should be different). Nothing is more revealing, to the proto-artist, than people’s (especially parents’) casual metaphors; nothing is more annoying, to people (even parents) speaking “off the top of their head,” than to be called on their metaphors as if they were in analysis. Melanie’s boyfriend, Adam (four or five years older), and her friends (one of whom, Bob, serves as a Greek chorus of rationality to her hysteria) unite in trying to calm her down, and put some limits to her overwrought imaginings about her own condition. She has written a poem after Bibi’s death, imagining herself as Andersen’s Little Match Girl, freezing to death alone after having exhausted the frail warmth available from lighting her matches down to the last one. She reads the poem over the phone to Bob:

He says it’s stupid. I ask why and he says, “Why do you think?” and then without waiting for my answer: “Because you made it up, that’s why. You’re choosing to see things Match Girl. Not everyone does, you know….”

It would be different,” I say, “if—if it were different for me, I guess. If I had any—mmm—I don’t know.”

And what is it you don’t have?”

I don’t know. Matches, I guess.”

What exactly would constitute a match?” he snaps. “Number of friends left alive? Balance in your checking account? Whether your mother really loves you? Looks? SAT scores? Charitable acts done in 1985? Vague general sense of meaning or meaninglessness? Save the Whales? United Jewish Appeal? Do you see how this list is deteriorating? I know you’re always trying to tally things up to show it comes out negative and you’re empty-handed—orphaned, whatever—and I don’t want to be overly analytical because I know this is metaphor, but for God’s sake what are the units?”

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