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For Fans of Ottessa Moshfegh, a Debut Novel of Female Psychosis


For Fans of Ottessa Moshfegh, a Debut Novel of Female Psychosis

By Juliet Escoria

Adolescent girls operate under at least two pernicious mythologies: first, that the content of their lives is unserious (crushes! cosmetics! curfew!), and second, that there is a related cap on their potential to suffer. Popular culture tells them that they will endure, at most, romantic yearnings for doltish boys, or the double-binding shame of being called either undesirable or a slut. Whatever capacity for darkness these conditions might allow, both the conditions and the capacity exist to be outgrown.

From Plath to Didion to Ottessa Moshfegh, a small yet powerful cadre of women have deployed their literary talent to push back against these myths, dignifying female adolescence with unsparing darkness, and excoriating the gaslighting that leads teenage girls to believe there is something wrong with them if their souls are not half-size.

Juliet Escoria’s autofictive debut novel, “Juliet the Maniac,” is a worthy new entry in that pantheon of deconstruction. Told in a series of fragments spanning the teenage years in which bipolar Juliet’s life unravels, it is a narrative that insists on its own severity.

Juliet’s level of general intensity can make Martin Amis characters read like prudes. There are mushrooms and sex, ketamine and guns, axes and red rock opium, “four lines and two shots.” Good pills, bad pills. Pills that become simply a matter of dosages and intention.

But Juliet is no depravity fetishist. Her external intensity stems from a greater intensity within. Dissociation, mania, hallucinations and voices stalk her around house parties and biology classes. Her trauma, she explains, is herself.

Juliet seeks help with an earnestness that chafes against the myth of mental wellness as a matter of outreach. After writing her parents a letter (“I keep hearing noises that I know aren’t really there. … I keep seeing things that aren’t really there”), Juliet is dispatched to a therapist. “They love you very much,” the therapist says of her parents after reading the letter. “I know,” Juliet replies. “So what’s the problem?” the therapist asks.

Rendered effectively mute on the subject of her own suffering, Juliet slides into an escalating series of self-destructive extracurriculars, culminating in two suicide attempts, after which she is diagnosed as bipolar, heavily medicated and shipped off to a boarding school for troubled teenagers.

Her illness finally acknowledged, Juliet learns how little capacity the world has to deal with it. Reach out to friends, professionals counsel, but many of Juliet’s friends are awful. Try antidepressants. The antidepressants do not anti-depress, and one is later discovered to induce suicidal ideation. Check yourself in somewhere. The hospital confiscates shoelaces that could be turned into nooses, overlooking curtains and towels.

Self as trauma is evident in the novel’s bones. Reading her staccato, impressionistic fragments — with headings like “GIFTED AND TALENTED,” “SEX TAPE,” “VOID” — is like mainlining chaos: Juliet’s life has not been polite enough for chapters. Paratextual evidence — scans of hospital reports, letters to her parents (“I’m sorry”), patient logs — belies a latent expectation of diminution. This was me, the documents insist. It was bad. We already believe her, and as a result, the documents simply ache.

But it turns out that Juliet remembers grace and good will along with the knives and tubes and panic and blood. A teacher’s hand wrapped around her own. A card “full of inside jokes and compliments.” Benevolent trauma bonds. With her first boyfriend — bipolar, alcoholic, bulimic, a cutter — she feels “the magnets locking us in place, simple as science.” Of geriatric men at A.A.: “The generations between us were nothing; there was something in him that also existed in me.”

This collapse of demographic boundaries is one of trauma’s only gifts, and one that becomes increasingly evident as the narrative progresses. Juliet’s “dark thing” never recedes for good. But her balance of attention shifts as she expunges her past, an accelerating collection of light cracks piercing the dark. The resultant beauty is not without its complications, but it is as dazzling as Juliet’s world during one of her better hallucinations — neon spiders, skin made of glitter — and the furthest thing from myth.

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