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prosaic nation: in praise of elizabeth wurtzel

By now it must be pretty clear that the literary establishment has, very much indeed, noticed Elizabeth Wurtzel. She has, thus far, published only two books. Her most recent, Bitch, a celebration of "difficult women", will do much to establish that Wurtzel is actually a complex, capable and caring new voice in literature. Her debut, the bestselling Prozac Nation, was a very different work. To debut with a dark, naked and energetic autobiography was difficult, dangerous and, in Wurtzel's case, entirely justified. I am not interested in the oft-used criticism of Prozac Nation that it was self indulgent. It was, but so was Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and quite frankly what kind of artist doesn't use their work to channel their indulgences? Because Elizabeth Wurtzel is an artist, not a critic or hack. Prozac Nation works, is so important entirely because the author had to forget all convention in order to say what needed to be said. Indulgent, sure, but generous and wild with it. Wurtzel wrote about her depressive illness in a way that defied critical analysis and spoke directly to the multitudes that share her experience. It takes one to know one, as they say. She writes like punk rock, because there is no more honest way to write this stuff.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is certainly closer to the dark stuff of rock music than to any of her more notable literary peers. She poses for her book covers like they were record sleeves. She writes passionately about the little things as well as the big, and it is the little things that lead her, gloriously, to a point where resolution isn't the point. What Elizabeth Wurtzel does in her prose, better than any woman or man or American or otherwise at the moment, is give. The importance of her giving is that she does it entirely in text. Let's face it: reading is a lot of work compared to putting a record on. At the end of this century, this is a relevant cultural issue. She knows that if we're reading her we're working for her and we need to get paid. And she gives freely and we are paid well. This is not another Camille Paglia minimum wage with high taxation and pension scheme payout writer. This is cash in hand, as much as she can afford to give without leaving herself on the skids. And she probably would give us her safety net if she thought we needed it, but Wurtzel doesnít like to patronise.

Bitch is about women, but it is not just for women. Deep down, we all know the differences between the genders. It's academic. I probably have some opinions, but I am adamant that gender is a lame excuse for any kind of divide. I'd rather be inspired than maligned. Wurtzel just writes whatever she needs to write. She understands that there needs to be a thread of punk, of anarchy, in any situation. Sanitisation is artistic death, the beginning of all emotional decay. Wurtzel knows, I dare say, that people who live in their own chaos, who survive it, become the explosive, passionate voices that need to be heard. These are the voices that remind the free thinking that the world is still alive, that the greatnesses of economies and establishments are not the rhythms of life, not the things that make us burst with love and anger and flair. The cosmic scheme is all the way up there and we're stuck down here with our emotions and human needs and limited lifespans. And we love the cosmic scheme, and sometimes we hate how small and energetic it makes us feel; how, however high we reach, we cannot literally touch the sky. So we endeavour to become larger than ourselves through the things that make us tick, because that's all we can really do. We are perfected only when our dead bodies can wear the smiles of accomplishment, to paraphrase Sylvia Plath. Elizabeth Wurtzel is on this wavelength. The wavelength of the creative, perhaps even the procreative, which does ultimately give us a more female angle. 

Unlike many writers, particularly the likes of Paglia and even Germaine Greer, Elizabeth Wurtzel's logic is wholly external, from the inside but outwards. Her ultimate questions do not throw up cries of "why can't you see?", but rather "you can see, can't you?". Her critics can do nothing more than try to cast her as an upstart. But Wurtzel knows that, hey, that's no bad thing, and, besides, virtually anything that will ever happen to you in your life is far more important than the witless rattlings of someone who just can't see, whose logic is so internal as to render them quite useless at giving. Thus, she transcends such criticism with Bitch every bit as much as she ran defiant rings around it with the universal language of Prozac Nation. I can almost see Camille Paglia frothing at the mouth. Good.

Wurtzel's choice of women says much about her. True, she writes about Princess Diana as only a non-Brit can, not quite understanding the contempt that all the royals, Diana included, show for the people that actually pay for the pageantry and palaces and skiing holidays. She can't really be expected to grasp the absolute apathy that Diana displayed on the rare occasions when the cameras were not present, or that the royals always fail us at home, that their aspirations to be mouthpieces for a non-existent empire, particularly during the Thatcher administration, were just plain insulting. We can forgive this, because just as Elizabeth Wurtzel can't really see this situation from the inside, we cannot see it from the outside. From another point of view, she may well be right. And, whilst we know a little bit about Amy Fisher and the O.J. Simpson affair, and substantially more about the Clinton situation, these examples, insightful and interesting, remain a tad out of reach in Europe. Where we are met halfway are in the characters of Nico, Delilah, and, most importantly of all, Sylvia Plath.

Plath is Elizabeth Wurtzel's key player. Plath, of course, was an American who did much of her living and working, and all of her dying, in England. Plath was an American with the English touch. It wasn't what made her great, but the combination makes her just a little bit ours, and fuels her adaptability. Sylvia Plath, the greatest poet of the twentieth century by really quite some margin, is the ultimate test of Elizabeth Wurtzel's insight, because in Plath all is laid out for us to see. Sylvia Plath, we know. Wurtzel captures the essence of the Plath dynamic with rare excellence. It is her lucid and brilliant identification with both the plight and the electricity of Plath that makes Bitch such a triumph. Anne Sexton, too, figures big in this equation. Sexton, the fighter, the performer, left in a kind of limbo (that did not extend to her extraordinary work) by the life and death of her greatest contemporary (and rival?) Plath. Plath burned the brighter, the quicker, and was number one because of it. Sexton, a knowingly pale number two, still brilliant, eventually derailed. Sexton, impressive in any light, remained firmly in the shadow of the Plath holocaust. There is undoubtedly a lot of both of these women in Wurtzel herself. Prozac Nation was, after all, the closest anyone has yet come to a rightful successor to The Bell Jar. Bitch is all about love. Wurtzel, in both books, has energetically ridden through the no man's land between true love and true pain. Like Plath and Sexton, but especially Plath, she knows the torrent of darkness that lies just to her side, and she still believes in love. And, whilst western medicine is now far better placed to save a life, or at least buy some time where depression is concerned, than it was in the time of Sylvia Plath, the persuasion and subsequent proof that love is the only real lifeline is still the best weapon we have. That is the reality for Elizabeth Wurtzel. That is why she matters, because this is now. There IS a light that never goes out.


book review

Ian McCulloch By Mick Middles (Independent Press £9.99)

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Iím a fan, you know I am. Oh, yes. My knowledge of the subject is such that the glaring mistakes in Mick Middles unofficial biography of the Bunnymen frontman slapped me in the face rather than just niggled at me. Of these, more later.

Middles has succeeded in telling the story. Fair enough. But he has also succeeded in doing it entirely without wit or passion. The central plot, of course, is also the story of Echo and the Bunnymen, a band universally renowned for their wit and their passion. Middles has a duty to the characters, as well as the story, but has sadly neglected this. In addition, his language is dull, unevocative stuff. Writing about such an array of colourful figures (McCulloch, Will Sergeant, Bill Drummond, Julian Cope, Jayne Casey, Petes De Frietas, Wylie and Burns, etc.), with such drudgery is unforgivable.

Of biggest interest are the anecdotes culled from various previously published articles (particularly those of Will Sergeant, sadly few and far between), and there is a thin attempt at recovering McCullochís solo years. Thin, because how can a biography of the man condense both solo albums into one paragraph? The vast majority of the book covers the Bunnymen from the beginning until the split in 1988, the same period which, apart from the last six months, was covered by Tony Fletcherís 1987 Bunnymen biography Never Stop. Suffice to say that Fletcherís version of the tale is infinitely superior, and Middles has to refer to it on several occasions, before virtually glossing over the last decade

As for the mistakesÖ

For starters, Middles attempts to write about the nature of McCullochís lyrical insights on the second Bunnymen LP, Heaven Up Here. He limits himself to a critique of the opening track, "Show Of Strength", quoting the opening lines in the process. Unfortunately, the lines he quotes are not from "Show Of Strength", but are instead from the title track, which opens side two of the album. One can only conclude that, in deciding to create a critical synopsis of one of his subjectís finest works, he put the record on the wrong way up and didnít realise. Later, when talking about the Bunnymen contributing "Bring On The Dancing Horses" to the Pretty In Pink movie soundtrack, he makes mention of The Smiths contribution, which he reckons was "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side". Smiths fans will know that this track hadnít even been made yet, and that it was in fact "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" that graced the soundtrack. Okay, Iím being a trainspotter, but clearly this wonít do. It becomes ludicrous when he claims that the Bunnymenís live EP, Shine So Hard, featured "only previously available tracks". Released between their debut album, Crocodiles, and Heaven Up Here, it contained two songs from each, meaning it was 50% new material. Worst of all, perhaps, is the discography. Discographies have to be reliable, or why have them? Middles lists "Donít Let It Get You Down" as the first single from last yearís Evergreen album, when the rest of the free world knows it was "Nothing Lasts Forever" that announced the Bunnymenís return. In addition, he gives the release date of "Donít Let It Get You Down" as January 1997, yet correctly lists the B-sides as being recorded live at Glastonbury í97 (July being the usual month for our annual mudfest). Oh, and the Evergreen singles were released on London Records, not Polydor. Itís a small thing in the cosmic scheme, but if youíre going to write a biographyÖ

There is some information here that will be of interest to fellow fans. Mick Middles, however, could not write his way out of a paper bag (he uses the word muse on virtually every other page). This is a lumpen, naff telling of an extraordinarily colourful and entertaining story. Iím still waiting for Tony Fletcher to write Never Stop: Volume Two, and, frankly, there is still a need for it.

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