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Growing Up With Drugs and Sex

by CHARLES R. LARSON

How about this for an end to one’s future medical career?

“Brain surgery had been the life plan, inspired in grade school by the Time Life books.  Oh sure, when I brought the cow’s brain home from the meatpacking plant to dissect for my seventh grade ‘science project,’ not that I had formulated such a project or even knew what dissection entailed.  I imagined that once applied, the scalpel would take over, revealing colorful sections of the brain labeled Eyesight (chartreuse!), Love (pink and orange!), Memory (ultramarine), Other (psychedelic!).  I took one look at the gelatinous mass, threw up, begged Mom to get it away from me, and abandoned my medical career.”

Not the grossest part of Laurie Weeks’ madcap Zipper Mouth but, still, one in a series of insightful moments in the troubled mind of the unnamed narrator’s journey from innocent child to spaced-out adult—a little bit as if she has applied the scalpel to her own brain, not exactly a self-induced lobotomy, though the drugs, booze, pills, and cigarettes have a similar effect.  The surreal atmosphere recalls William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch fifty years ago, as do other flip-sided connections: the narrator is lesbian, barely hanging on to life, engaging in a series of somewhat dangerous sexual escapades, though she’s mostly infatuated with a straight girl with whom she shares drugs but not sex.

“Some of my personalities have had three or four amputations,” she tells us, plus lengthy fixations on famous people, including Vivien Leigh and Sylvia Plath—the former because of her depression, the latter because of her depression and suicide.  Example (in a letter to Plath), “Sylvia, I’ve been tortured about dying for years, ever since reading Little Woman made me realize we’re all doomed and it ruined my life.”  “Yes, Sylvia, you made me see how suffering is beautiful, instead of getting down on myself,” though by what she reveals of her main character, Zipper Mouth is significantly about self-inflicted wounds.  Other titles might be equally appropriate: Mouth Wide Open, Zipper’s Stuck or The Naked Brunch.

The narrator’s job at In Cold Type apparently pays the bills for her recreational drugs.  She describes cycles of crazy dreams, hallucinations, getting high (mostly from cocaine), infrequent phases of detox, a mind racing so quickly that she suffers from disturbing random thoughts.  Yet there are few obvious antecedents for these conditions, except for some vague references to her fear of her father (hence, once of her affinities with Sylvia Plath).  The racing thoughts lead to great one-liners, reminiscent of a stand-up comedian: “I had a religious experience with a moose.”  “If Rimbaud were born in a toxic waste dump would he wear a blue velvet dress?”  Or, book titles: (“Christian Ventriloquism”) that Jane—her straight friend—sometimes reads aloud to her.  Or, hints about her relationship with her father: Dad in the Afternoon.

More than anything else, the narrator’s list, called “10 Bonus Accomplishments of Today,” summarize her daily struggles for sanity, sobriety:

1.     Battled Satan

2.     Didn’t smoke pot (so far)

3.     Swept floor, tied newspapers

4.     Organized four files

5.     Went to work in spite of being broken on Rack of Menstrual Pain

6.      Ate broccoli, “the colon’s broom”

7.     Endured lengthy conversation with X; faked waves of empathy

8.     Didn’t smoke for three hours after getting up

9.     Walked to gym instead of taking car

10.  Celebrated diversity

One more caveat.  Weeks’ narrator describes her activities while she’s waiting for another addict to finish taking a shower in her apartment: “I paced, I smoked, I snorted, I leafed through Living without a Goal.” And then she does more of the same.

Drugs are also central to Niccolò Ammaniti’s Me and You, a huge success when it was originally published in Italy two years ago.  The youth narrator, Lorenzo Cumi, tells about an incident in his life ten years earlier, when he was fourteen.  Lorenzo’s not very popular, so he manufactures an elaborate story about being invited to go skiing with some students at his school, but there’s no such invitation.  Instead, after the ruse of departing with his “friends,” he sneaks back to the cellar of the apartment building where he lives with his parents.  “I loved it here.  If they brought me food and water I could spend the rest of my life here.  And I realized that if I ever ended up in solitary confinement in prison I would be happy as a pig in shit.”  Lorenzo is as much of an outsider as the narrator of Weeks’ Zipper Mouth.

Lorenzo’s escape from his family and the students he professes not to want to associate with ends abruptly because the basement of the apartment building—in the storage area where he’s hiding—is filled with all the possessions of an old woman who once occupied the apartment his parents eventually moved into.  And barely a day after Lorenzo retreats into this space, Olivia, his half-sister, who is ten years older than he, shows up, looking for some of the family’s abandoned possessions.  Or so Lorenzo believes until Olivia becomes violently ill, informing him that she’s got malaria.

The relationship between the two of them is messy, painful clearly for both of them, and complicated by their domineering father.  But what shortly evolves is Lorenzo’s realization that his older half-sister is a drug addict, trying to break her habit, and undergoing withdrawal.  The power of the novel resides in the altered perceptions that each gains about the other, from their common realization that both are misfits, both in need of contact with others.  Thus, Lorenzo eventually confesses to Olivia that the fantasy of his weekend of skiing was based on the need to be considered normal: “I did want to go.  Because I wanted to ski with them—I’m a good skier.  Because I wanted to show them the secret slopes.  And because I don’t have any friends…  And I wanted to be one of them.”

Zipper Mouth and Me and You are bitter reminders—in case we’ve forgotten—that adolescences and young adults today confront all of the social constraints and temptations of their parents and grandparents of previous generations, that little seems to change in the environment of growing up.

Zipper Mouth
By Laurie Weeks
The Feminist Press, 160 pp., $14.95

Me and You
Niccolò Ammaniti
Translated by Kylee Doust
Black Cat, 160 pp., $14.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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