Sunday, April 23, 2017

The literary legacy of Carrie Fisher

When Carrie Fisher died suddenly on Dec. 27, 2016, there were the predictable tributes to her iconic role as Princess/General Leia in the “Star Wars” movies, the memories of her struggles with addiction and mental illness, and mentions of her career as a novelist and screenwriter. But there haven’t been many examinations of her writing, beyond noting its autobiographical qualities and acknowledgments of her ability to craft memorable, devastating phrases.

I kept thinking about this while watching the film version of “Postcards from the Edge,” when Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep), Fisher’s literary doppelganger, sings “You Don’t Know Me.” In the nature of entertainment, we think we know Carrie, but how much of it is what we know from that readily available biography? Making my way through her fiction, I got the impression that the story is much richer than has been acknowledged. I should point out that I didn’t come to any of Fisher’s works until her death. I had more-or-less avoided her novels for years, thinking they were clever reimaginings of her life with little to draw anyone beyond the fan for whom the films weren’t enough.

Fisher is credited with four novels, three memoirs, and a feature screenplay, all largely mining the details of her famous life. Some of the more memorable lines show up in both the fiction and the reminiscences. The world we inhabit in the novels is Hollywood and New York, the small global village of the entertainment industry. There are “fun and feigning friends,” parties where $10,000 dollars get spent for five minutes of fireworks and a knowledge that somewhere, on the fringes, desperate people are struggling with “an abundance of indignities.” The protagonists are always women who are writers or actresses who have issues of varying seriousness with their resilient mothers. Fisher has a lot of weapons at her disposal to make one laugh – wordplay, puns, ironic variations on familiar phrases, random literary allusions, absurd situations, the value of humiliating the characters, the devastating putdown. Her go-to joke is to say that while something is awful, it’s the best kind of awful one could ask for.

Fisher’s second career as a novelist began in the eighties with “Postcards from the Edge,” the story of actress Suzanne Vale’s slow recovery from drug abuse. The tone is set with Suzanne’s opening sentence: “Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares?” Immediately, we are introduced to the acidic musings of a woman who is broken, but unbowed.

A reader might approach Fisher’s work expecting an amusing, edgy, somewhat superficial exercise in harmless brain candy, the brash, slightly toasted movie star oversharing her rehab experiences behind a thinly-veiled (Valed?) mask. This changes abruptly when Fisher begins writing from the perspective of Alex, another addict. Over 11 pages, we listen to the internal monologue of Alex, resolved to be clean, as he slowly justifies his unraveling until he is literally passed out on the floor on several different drugs, feeling “like Jesus slipped me in the pocket of his robe, and we’re walking over long, long stretches of water.” It’s a harrowing, terrifying, totally recognizable trip into another mind, and quickly shows us that Fisher is capable of something with serious heft. As I read on in Fisher’s novels, I kept waiting in vain for this sort of thing to reappear.

“Postcards” is the most ambitious and unconventional of Fisher’s novels, as it has only the suggestion of a plot and uses various literary devices to get inside and outside its characters. One of her recurring themes is the artificiality of life – not just in the entertainment industry but in everyday life. Suzanne is obsessed not with being okay, but appearing to be okay. There are billions of people on Planet Earth who attempt this, and most of them don’t work in an industry where every facet deals with appearance. In that world, being broken can be a plus in the long run, because being broken means you’re interesting. To be complicated means you’re unable to process the complications that the world throws at you. With the existential dread in the air, who wouldn’t do drugs? It used to be that the people on the screen just took drugs. Now the people in the audience are in on the act:

“It’s all about distraction, a way of being transported out of your life, of having someone else’s life for a while. Identifying with them. Feeling relief that their predicament isn’t yours, or feeling relief that it is. A way of dreaming outside your head. Tilting your head with the actors when they kiss, thinking, ‘it’s so real.’ The New Real. The New Real was not being real, it was acting real.”

There’s something Biblical in all of this. There is in fact a scene in “Postcards” when Suzanne appraises herself in the mirror as appearing to “have it all together,” yet at the same time feeling she doesn’t. I was reminded of James 1:23-25, where those who are hearers but not doers of the word are likened to someone who looks in a mirror and immediately forgets his appearance. If left to our own, we will inevitably fall for choosing and chasing after the wrong things. Reality demands to be dealt with. Retreat only prolongs the inevitable, or with drugs, ironically hastens it – the inescapability of mortality.

James wasn’t talking about appearance any more than she is. Carrie Fisher wants desperately to know what the meaning of Carrie Fisher is – What is her purpose? What does all this mean?

Fisher later turned “Postcards” into a serio-comic movie with Streep, and Shirley McLaine playing Doris Mann, Suzanne’s old show business trooper mom. Fisher said the movie is only marginally based on the novel since the novel had no discernable plot. That’s not entirely true, though she elevates Doris from the margins and gives her the complete Debbie Reynolds makeover. The film dwells on the dependency between mother and daughter, and how the mother has a talent for one-upping her showbiz offspring. The themes of the novel translate onto the screen – chiefly that same nagging itch for the answer to the question, “Why am I this way?” Suzanne’s struggle out of rehab is basically cut to provide the comic fodder of Suzanne’s attempt to resurrect her movie career.

Knowing the demands of the medium, Fisher allows Suzanne (and the audience) an epiphany when Suzanne, struggling with relapse and frantic over her career, encounters the director of her previous picture, played by Gene Hackman. She’s there to loop dialogue for a movie she barely remembers filming through a drug haze. Hackman’s character reminds her how talented she is, even when she’s barely there. He assures her that she has been spoiled, that’s she’s unable to realize how good she has it. All she needs to do is slow down and appreciate her life. She smiles politely, but we still sense there is something unreachable inside her that will not allow herself to believe this. What does she want? “I don’t want life to imitate art,” she says. “I want life to be art.” We still haven’t heard the last of Suzanne, though. 

With “Surrender the Pink,” Fisher attempted a more conventional “chick lit” novel. This work is supposed to have dealt with her marriage to Paul Simon, and is her exploration of what she calls “The Jewish Thing.” Dinah Kaufman, screenwriter, falls for Rudy Gendler. When their relationship disintegrates, she is unable to deal with it. So she flees Hollywood for the Hamptons – because that’s where Rudy is. Is she trying to rekindle the romance, or reconnoiter? Agonize or antagonize?
While Dinah seems slightly more stable than Suzanne, she is still emotionally fragile, needing the validation of relationships, friendly or romantic. She is “a center of attention who’s drawn to centers of attention.” She is perhaps what Carrie would like to be, alone with herself – a woman assured enough to spy on her ex-husband in an eavesdropping scene that reminded me of similar passages in 19th century British fiction.

Sex is understood to be the next best thing to a fulfilling relationship, since men cannot be trusted. This book shows Hollywood in the post-60s, post-Sexual Revolution moment when the threat of AIDS hangs over relationships, but the principals still seem happy with temporary connections as long as they are passionately felt. The struggle is against the superficial, both within and without. But the reader understands that Dinah’s feelings, at least to her, are intensely lived, and intensely felt, and somehow, more authentic. The mind struggles, but not against itself.

“Delusions of Grandma” uses the device of having its narrator, Cora Sharpe, (a screenwriter, again) writing letters to her as-yet unborn daughter. The story takes off with Cora becoming a caregiver to her friend William while he is dying of AIDS. William moves in and Cora provides amusement and entertainment to ease his passing. In the process, Cora grows closer to Ray, a quiet man who draws closer to her as the two experience William’s death. Yet Cora grows desperate believing that Ray’s attachment to her will fade once William is no more. Death is a great clarifier, and there is no appeal.

There is a scene in a church for William’s memorial service where Cora takes in the picture of Jesus on the Cross, resembling a survivor of Auschwitz, his head bowed: “the air of exhaustion – of exhausted, exalted peace.” Cora senses at least momentary consolation in the shade of the Ultimate Survivor. This is another aspect of Carrie Fisher’s life – the absolute nature of her friendship, assuming roles to strengthen others when she did not feel strong, paying profound “sympathetic attention” to victims of depression or disease. But not everyone can carry the weight of the world:

“Cora was frequently frightened by the certainty crowded and cheering in her own voice. Hers was a hybrid of her mother’s rowdy sureness and her own efforts to rally herself over the finish line, through the hoop, straight over the astonished heads of the crowd in the bleachers and out of the park. But force of will didn’t always translate into a more festive fact of life.”

This eventually drives Ray away, leaving her feeling like an “overconfident failure.” But he left her pregnant. As Cora’s baby hurtles toward existence, she tries to make sense of her life with the help of…her mother Viv, an ex-Hollywood type with a collection of film memorabilia she plants in a Las Vegas hotel. (Sound familiar?) When Viv enlists Cora in a scheme to kidnap her dementia-addled father and take him back home to Texas to die, it allows us to see three-and-a-half generations take shape. “Delusions” has the most hopeful ending of all of the novels. Through them, we can see her steady maturation through the landmarks of her life – addiction, marriage, motherhood, survival.

The addiction wasn’t just about drugs, either. The novels are concerned as much with the reasons for taking the drugs as what they did to her. Reading the novels or the memoirs, one can appreciate what it was like to be in her skin. She didn’t want for money or attention. She had education and was multi-talented. There were always more than enough people around to sing the praises of her looks and her prospects. But she could never feel completely sure of herself – was it really her, or her roles, or her mother, that they were interested in? She had seen for herself, through the lives of her parents, how quickly fame and satisfaction can disappear. So – why wasn’t she happier? Why was she, as she wrote, obsessed with the “crippling addiction to the idea of better”?

Fisher revisited Suzanne and Doris in what ended up being her final novel, “The Best Awful.” Now Suzanne is dealing with the aftermath of her nervous breakdown when her husband Leland leaves her - for a man. This comes after the birth of their daughter Honey.

The tone is very different from “Postcards,” because Suzanne is dealing with being bipolar. When she sees her story in the pages of the Globe, she calls it “a hearty mix of hilarious and humiliating, like so much of her existence.” Again, she relies on Doris, the trooper, who will persevere “come hell or high daughter.”

But she can’t wallow in any of the old pathos, because of Honey, who needs her. Honey serves as Suzanne’s lighthouse back to sanity and stability. The imperative of the child demands that she claw her way back to reality, which follows after a surreal sidetrip to Tijuana, which is easily the strongest part of the book. For a few pages, the edginess that she began with in “Postcards” returns in horrifying detail.

Suzanne seems more surely Carrie in this novel, as some of these vignettes and one-liners in “Awful” are revisited in her subsequent three memoirs. It shows the same voice as “Postcards,” though older, a bit studied and frequently savage. The narrative is much more focused, and not as experimental as the earlier work, which is a weakness. Suzanne is angry at Leland, who has none of her post-relationship issues, but is more angry at fate, which seems to continually conspire against her. One still gets the sense of a mind that cannot turn itself off – with no filter, no ability to focus or ability to discern the real and discard the immaterial.

It is the nature of autobiographically-inspired fiction that the reader feels compelled to ask what is real in the narrative and what is invented. I had the feeling that Fisher felt she needed a conventional ending for “Awful” that somehow made peace with Leland’s decision in a way that was acceptable to Honey. That ending, where Suzanne and Leland have a platonic and social reconciliation for Honey’s sake, and out of their shared love for each other, felt natural and fine - until Suzanne began to justify it. Then it suddenly seemed contrived and slightly pathetic – with Suzanne “taking one for the team” because it’s the most she’ll probably ever receive from life.

I was reminded of the ending Fitzgerald gave Dick Diver in “Tender Is the Night.” As a reader, I didn’t feel Fisher had earned this resolution in the novel, nor did I feel she arrived at it of her own free will. It seemed to smack of resignation, though that may have been the point of the novel – that the “best awful” was one where Honey still had both of her parents.  

It’s also probably worth noting that when Fisher picked up her pen again, it was to make sense of her real life through memoir. Perhaps she was tired of inventing – after dealing with fame, addiction, mental breakdown, the breakdown of relationships, motherhood, shock therapy, and the pressures of existence. To record reality is another way of dealing with it, shaping it, hopefully mastering it. She was constantly doing this, as “The Princess Diarist” makes clear – putting her feelings, thoughts, actions, emotions, justifications, explanations, down in poetry and prose. As she wrote of one of her characters, “She righted herself with words.”

“The Princess Diarist” is also an interesting corrective to the rest of her books, because we see Carrie Fisher before it all. Readers who raced to learn the details of her fling with Harrison Ford during the filming of “Star Wars” may have been disappointed to instead encounter an emotionally-needy 19-year-old in the middle of her first big job, entering a relationship with an older, married man wanting to believe it was more than a fling, trying to mask her insecurities behind humor and silent observation.   

Still, Fisher’s novels, especially “Postcards from the Edge,” show a talented, gifted writer with the kind of personality that endears itself to readers. We root for her. She could easily have been a writer in the mold of Evelyn Waugh or even Austen, cataloguing the lives of what people used to call the Jet Set. Maybe at some point she wanted that, until life intruded. Or maybe the demands of commercial fiction are why her non-Suzanne Vale novels occasionally come right up to the point of breakthrough without stepping over the line completely.

No one reads an author the same way after they’re dead. Passages take on unintended resonances in the author’s absence. They are no longer around to answer questions. The audience is left to its own conclusions. A scene in “Delusions of Grandma” where Cora and friends browse through cremation urns inevitably reminds the reader that Fisher’s ashes rest in a giant receptacle shaped like a Prozac pill.

And it is impossible to watch “Postcards from the Edge” without appreciating a dialogue between Doris and Suzanne, with Doris telling her daughter how her near-death to drugs made Doris appreciate how little time she herself had left, and that Suzanne should therefore appreciate her more. It’s funny and typical – what happened to you is important if it makes you appreciate how much you need me. Knowing the real-life counterparts died about 24 hours apart burns the scene into you with laughter.

This ambles in the direction of another of Fisher’s themes – the fragility of time. We only get one life. We don’t know how long it lasts. We’d better savor it, regardless of what it does to us, and try to find a meaning we can live with, before another is imposed on it by events we will not control. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.