BY Alexander Barley in Frieze | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

White lines (don't do it)

The pros and cons of writing under the influence

BY Alexander Barley in Frieze | 04 APR 02

Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation (1994) saw her 'prattling on and on about my problems'. Her latest book - More, Now Again (2001) - is about 'my pathetic little life with my luxurious problems that are mostly of my own invention'. More specifically, it's about the years in the late 1990s when she was writing Bitch (1998) while cultivating a taste for snorting Ritalin and cocaine, getting 'high over nothing'.

Perhaps she means by 'nothing' the crystalline negation at the root of cocaine's appeal. The coke addict is continually in pursuit of this unobtainable transcendent absolution. For Vadim Maslennikov, the protagonist of Novel with Cocaine (c. 1934), set in 1916-19 Russia and of unknown authorship - it was first published in France under the name M. Agee, but some have claimed it for Nabokov - the beauty of the drug is this ability to produce a sensation of physical happiness independent of all external events. Cocaine, like Ritalin, at least initially gives an effortless short cut to happiness.

Both Wurtzel and Vadim are uncomfortable at having, at least tentatively, to leave childhood behind and take on the responsibilities of adulthood. Wurtzel shoplifts, gets put in gaol, misses a photo shoot, messes up a book tour, sleeps during interviews, lets down editors and falls into rehab. So extreme is her descent into devil-may-care self-loathing that she tweezes out the downy hairs from her legs, and thinks to tell people they're track marks. Vadim's experience is more intense and solitary. He is beastly to his mother, follows girls along boulevards, passes on venereal diseases, breaks the heart of a married woman, then ruins himself with cocaine.

Novel with Cocaine is characterized by sustained rhetorical brilliance alternating with lucid insight and dark imagistic description. Central is Vadim's belief that opposing desires and emotions are 'like perfume and putrefaction: instead of cancelling out, they enhance each other'. His capacity for kindness and cruelty have the same foundation. In this duality lies the essence of his addiction, his actions and his language. He uses ugly words to describe selfless, generous characters, while his own forays into kindness are, in the retelling, given base motives.

In contrast, Wurtzel's writing is sprawled, lazy and consistently unremarkable. Her book not only lacks insight into addiction but is also short on fully formed characters or even diverting anecdote. As she says, the Ritalin helps her write, but it makes her thoughts scatty and half-developed, and her writing, as she admits, is 'all over the place'. We hear what she thinks about cats, Blockbuster video and capital punishment, and how Friends is 'in my experience pretty accurate'.

We are used to reading biographies as expository documents from those whose achievements elsewhere we admire. But Wurtzel, so keen to invoke her favourite tragic heroes, lacks the focus to make anything of her experience beyond a bloated mess of text. More, Now, Again is a magazine article padded out to 300 pages.

In life, one's mother is one's ultimate judge. Vadim, having stolen his mother's brooch, a gift from his dead father, later finds her 'hanging, hanging and staring at me with an empty face.' Wurtzel's mother, we are told, simply doesn't bother reading her daughter's books.