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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?”

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?”

Like?”

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…”

What?”

Then I could—“

Yes?”

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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