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Breath of Art

The crux of the matter, for the young artist, shows up in both these anecdotes. Metaphor is real to her; it is her only method of conveying her sense of the world. It is the artist’s Comme C’est (Beckett), “Motive for Metaphor” (Stevens), “Shall I compare thee to—“ (Shakespeare). But for other people it is an obfuscation rather than a clarity. “For God’s sake what are the units?” is the world’s exasperated query; are we talking about a father joking with his daughter or are we talking about a murder wish; is the person doing the talking a privileged Harvard-student-yes-grieving-but-unharmed or an expiring Match Girl?

The plots that an adolescent girl has in her head are likely to be the high-pitched, romantic, and providential ones surrounding the characters she found in her early reading: the changeling, the Little Mermaid, the Match Girl, Briar Rose, Hansel and Gretel, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Princess and the Goblin, Jane Eyre. The first wish of virtually any young person is to make the world conform to the plots of his or her culture—then one can see oneself as the hero in the heroic plot, or the princess in the romantic plot. When the world does not comply, the ordinary person splits in two; the common-sense adult part adjusts to the world, while the child part watches, say, Clint Eastwood movies or reads Harlequin romances (or their upper-class equivalents). The artist has no such capacity to lose reality in escapist fantasy; the artist must rewrite the childhood plots into a plot that symbolically represents the disappointing adult world. The Dead Girl is a series of attempts to deal with the frayed and disjunctive parts that make up the Bibi Lee story.

The story is an extreme one because Thernstrom had virtually made Bibi Lee into an alter ego. The two girls clung to each other through high school as fellow nonconformists and fellow writers, until, when Bibi was murdered, Thernstrom’s own life seemed meaningless unless she could find a way to incorporate Bibi’s brief and tragic time on earth into her understanding. “What is life like, if this is an example of it? How am I to think about what living is, if Bibi’s living is what living can turn out to be?” For the artist, the quest for an accurate sense of life eventually embodies itself in a long series of books: Dickens’s “sense of life” is coterminous with the Dickens oeuvre. But there is a moment of crisis in each young artist’s life in which all the inherited plots of the surrounding culture are vividly seen to be grossly lacking. This is the moment of vocation, when (as George Eliot represented it) the young Saint Teresa sets out on her quest, and the young Dorothea Brooke, centuries later, is inspired by her Spanish predecessor. It is the moment when the accommodating snares proffered by family, religion, and politics become insupportable, and (whether noisily or quietly) the young artist determines, as Joyce put it, “to fly by those nets.” Bibi’s murder is such a moment for Thernstrom. She cannot “adjust” to it and go on with her life. It makes her longstanding romance with Adam insufficient and yet indispensable; when he leaves her, she attempts suicide. It makes her education seem a random set of arbitrary impositions:

Although I did just fine on my SATs, after all, and can always make conversation at cocktail parties and with my parents’ friends, upon any real inspection my understanding of all the founding concepts of modern civilization—or even of the precise definition of modernity itself—dissolves. What, for example, is the surplus in surplus value? Surplus of what and who gets it? Or the zero in the zero-sum game? Is the intentional fallacy entirely fallacious?… If a deconstructionist had a chance to have a chat with Mallarmé, do you think he’d tell the poet, sorry, I’m busy, I have my own theories as to what ptyx signifies? Is modern architecture actually uglier than all previous architectures, or does it just look that way?… Why doesn’t falsifiability work in the reverse, and how do you feel about living in a world where the only things you can be certain of are the things that are not true? Did Dr. Skinner really raise his daughter in a box?… Do commodities traders care a fig about corn and hogs—or really even about the price of corn and hogs, since whether it goes up or down they can still take advantage of price fluctuation? How much money do you have to spend on therapy before quitting isn’t resistance?… How come no one I know knows how to breakdance?… Does absence make the heart grow fonder, or is out of sight necessarily out of mind?… Where do butterflies go when it rains? What is the least number of these questions you can answer and still consider yourself educated, or can you proceed through the whole of life perpetually vague?

Being Melanie is exhausting, but comic though this list is (and comically presented), it illustrates one of the characteristics of people of artistic sensibility compared to other people, a lack of capacity for keeping things in compartments. That is how metaphors are made: X (from compartment #1) resembles Y (from compartment #37). Keeping all the compartments perpetually in play with one another makes for a kind of seasickness, as Keats knew:

Dear Reynolds, as last night I lay in bed,
There came before my eyes that wonted thread
Of shapes, and shadows, and remembrances,
That every other minute vex and please:
Things all disjointed come from north and south,
Two witch’s eyes above a cherub’s mouth,
Voltaire with casque and shield and habergeon,
And Alexander with his night-cap on;
Old Socrates a tying his cravat;
And Hazlitt playing with Miss Edgeworth’s cat.
“Dear Reynolds,” 1–10

For all the playfulness of this beginning, it leads Keats to his true topic—which is also Thernstrom’s in this painful book about the sudden and meaningless extinction of a dearly loved friend. How is the imagination to compass things for which it can find no law, no aesthetic purpose or aesthetic resolution?

Things cannot to the will
Be settled, but they tease us out of thought.
Or is it that imagination brought
Beyond its proper bound, yet still confined,—
Lost in a sort of purgatory blind,
Cannot refer to any standard law
Of either earth or heaven?—It is a flaw
In happiness, to see beyond our bourn
It forces us in summer skies to mourn:
It spoils the singing of the nightingale.
“Dear Reynolds,” 76–85

Dear Reynolds, I have a mysterious tale, / And cannot speak it,” Keats wrote to his friend. The mysterious tale of meaningless suffering, unredeemed by religious consolation, cannot really be spoken by anyone; and Thernstrom’s “purgatory blind,” after her friend’s death, is endured rather than survived, in this memoir. Thernstrom is hard on others (callow roommates, vulturous publicity hounds, her own parents and even Bibi Lee’s). But in writing her book she is most of all hard on herself. She unsparingly reveals herself in moments of babyishness, hysteria, unreasonableness, anger, dependency, sulkiness, self-pity, narcissism (the list could be extended), but she also reveals herself as unremittingly unwilling to settle for any evaluation of the events surrounding her except for one she can agree to in her inmost being.

The deepest discovery of the book for Thernstrom is that she will never cease rewriting the story of Bibi’s death. She can abandon it (at least temporarily, as she seems to do at the end after the catharsis of writing), but the compulsion to “make sense” of what has happened, and to find correct names for it, is the artist’s compulsion and cannot be escaped. The young woman artist cannot escape into being a good student, or being a good friend, or being a good girlfriend, or even being a good person. The twin demons of epistemological truth and metaphorical accuracy are her true gods, and they are jealous ones. They bring her to reject all her original hopeful responses to Bibi’s disappearance (Bibi has gone off by herself; Bibi has been captured; Bibi has been in an accident; Bibi will turn up) for the awful fact that Bibi is dead and has been dead throughout the whole time that Thernstrom’s imagination has been embroidering explanations for her absence.

The importance of truth and metaphorical accuracy brings her to reject the at least understandable explanations relying on a random murderer (The Man in the Van), for the chilling truth of the affectless boyfriend-killer with whom Melanie has been spending weeks searching for Bibi. Self-deception and the deception of others are shown to be the grain of life; and the formal strategies Thernstrom devised for this “true story” (A TRUE STORY, says the book-jacket), enact the deceptions they retell. “Ordinary life” is jumbled together with life invaded by murder; Thernstrom’s chronological diaries inventing explanations for Bibi’s disappearance and murder are intermixed with reflections after the fact. Her account of Bradley Page’s participation in the search is presented along with the subsequent discovery that he knew all the time where Bibi’s body was to be found. (Different typefaces—bold, italics, etc.—keep the various layers visually distinguishable.)

Even before Bibi is killed, Thernstrom expresses a fear of the incalculable, of something that cannot be compassed by the intellect or the imagination. She has decided to take a year off from school, but tells her friend Bob that she is (her favorite word) “frightened“:

Frightened of what, exactly?” he asks impatiently.

Something terrible happening?”


I don’t know. Like, you know the way you feel—like there’s something scary going on but you don’t know exactly what—or rather there would be something scary going on if you weren’t a privileged-in-school person, which makes it sort of improbable that something scary is really going on. But once I’m not in school…”


Then I could—“


Fall into the indifferent abyss.”

There’s no indifferent abyss,” he says definitively. “That’s not real life, that’s literature. Real life is getting up in the morning and having breakfast and driving to work like everybody else. Maybe you just don’t know enough about real life. You’ve been imagining it too long, hon.”

So you think that’s the only problem?” I ask hopefully, because I love it when people distinguish life from literature for me.

Real life, it turns out, is the falling into the indifferent abyss (for what else could we call Bibi’s end). The “elegy to reality” which the book becomes, as it struggles through its original naiveté into a solitary sorrow, is also an elegy for Thernstrom’s younger self. The sorrow is bearable only because she comes to see the reality of what happened as something she can incorporate in her own life. She talks to herself:

What is it that you’re so afraid of?

It will be just like nothing ever did happen. It will be just like Roberta is dead.

But Roberta is dead. I don’t even remember what she looks like.

And then, clear as a vision—it must be only a memory, but it appears so clearly I imagine it is a vision—I see her face. The real thing, not a photograph: her face.

… You remember everything, everything is there, nothing has been lost, only you were too busy trying to find it to realize that it was always there. Not a word, her face. You can pick up the story anytime you want to feel, and you can put the story down anytime you get tired because before and after and there all along there was something besides the story; there was her face. Dear God, her face.

The young writer, exhausted from the pursuit of meaning and naming, comes to rest in the purity of visual memory. This may not be her final end; the illusions and delusions of memory present their own problems (see Krapp’s Last Tape). But this passage comes as a welcome relief after the anguish of the preceding pages.

The nature of female friendship, of the closeness of “best friends,” and the importance of friendship to the evolution of personality, are visible here as in few other books I have read. The excessive dependency of the young writer on her circle of male and female friends and on her boyfriend, as well as on her high school English teacher, her minister, her brother, and (in a more difficult way) on her parents, makes believable her real fear of advancing into solitude, into exploration of personal meaning, and into a recording of experience that will have aesthetic form. That she is willing to reproduce in print the sillier and more hysterical aspects of her own personality helps to give credibility to the account of her coming of age through tragedy. And her concession to the ultimate resistance of reality to interpretation marks her adulthood as a writer:

Brad is as mysterious as a facedown card. You don’t know what it signifies. You don’t know: that’s all there is. You can pretend and imagine and interpret and think him dark and interesting, but the truth is: you know nothing about him. Turn the card over and you’d know. There’s no lake to fathom; it was merely inadequate information. There was more information about him in time, of course, but not necessarily more meaningful information. No one knows why Brad did the things that he did; even he may not know. Even to himself he may be a face-down card.

Not only is reality uninterpretable, but (worse) the imagination is powerless over “real life.” At best, it accompanies it on a parallel plane. During the six weeks of the search, Roberta Lee was lying dead all the time:

She is dead, and she was dead long before I ever got to California. Nothing I thought or worried or imagined matters. Roberta isn’t thinking, and wasn’t even then. She wasn’t thinking, she was dead.

The book ends with a brief recollection of the last time the girls saw each other. Bibi is leaving for her sophomore year at Berkeley.

The car pulls up and she turns to go. “Good-bye,” she says, getting in.

It is a mark of Thernstrom’s success that we feel the whole of her eloquent book washing up behind this apparently insignificant moment. And although the book has its faults (I grew tired of the conversations with the relentlessly avuncular Bob and of the idealization of Adam), it stands as a notable model of the female Bildungsroman—marked not by a wish to forge the uncreated conscience of the race, or to find out one’s true lineage, or to carve a niche for oneself in the adult world, or to be initiated into a male fraternity of writers, or to defeat a mythical beast, or to win the hand of the princess, but rather marked by a wish to commemorate a dead girl, so like oneself that she becomes the vehicle for all one has to sacrifice in the way of hope and companionship and trust in order to encompass and name, as an artist, the fact of her dying.

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