September 30, 2014

by Karissa LaRoque  

When Terry Castle wrote that the work of Sylvia Plath is a “sensation still (sometimes) among bulimic female undergraduates,” her derision could have easily been directed at Trisha Low, whose 2013 conceptual novel The Compleat Purge mixes the high and the low, the personal and the academic, and the cultural and the commercial in what appears to be a confessional text, a form usually associated with young and troubled women. The confessional mode is often seen as a trite and immature expression of excessive emotional overflow, and therefore as inextricably linked to adolescent inexperience. As teenage girls are culturally associated with emotional excess, romantic obsession, and narcissism, these judgements seem specifically gendered towards young female writers. There is also often the added subtext that histories recollected by women are lies, or manipulated truths (Elizabeth Wurtzel and the infamous backlash surrounding her 1994 memoir Prozac Nation may come to mind). Simultaneously employing and questioning these assumptions, Purge prompts us to consider and critique the ways in which the public work of young women is received in both cultural and academic terms.

Purge is a microcosm of a larger mind and world, a collection of material and emotional teenage memorabilia from Low’s past: a cycle of suicide notes; a parodic ladies’ conduct novel; chat-room fantasies featuring members of The Strokes and Dirty Pretty Things; and a closing academic dissertation on the notion of authenticity and the conceptual mode (a style marked by a centralising constraint of form or content, the most straightforward example probably being Christian Bök’s Eunoia, which features five chapters each limited to contain words with just one vowel). Low’s speaker shares her name, and Purge is described in the DISCLAIMER as a “transcription of personal ephemera,” but Low never confirms nor denies that the work is strictly autobiographical. There’s not only Low the author, but also the various instances of Low within the book. Are all of these identities Low in recollection, or Low the protagonist? Are they distinct, or variations of a singular whole? We are encouraged to ask these questions, but I suspect that they are not meant to be answered. In an interview with VICE, Low said “I don’t want to make you understand the book per say, or even necessarily identify a speaker,” and she later said to Bookslut “there’s no good way to know for certain if I’m not lying. Or something.” Low’s reluctance to conform to familiar conventions of autobiography means we can’t, and shouldn’t, read Purge as a confessional memoir: the work, as she says, is “easily dismissed as a mirror image,” but to do so trivialises, stereotypes, and even pathologizes writing by young women.

It’s no secret that work deemed confessional is regarded with contempt, especially in the case of women writers on the periphery of the literary canon (in his 1977 “critical biography” Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, Edward Butscher repeatedly calls Plath a “bitch goddess” and critics haven’t looked back since). From bulimic female undergraduates to bitch goddesses, there’s no shortage of shame and derision for women writers making their private lives public. Autobiographical work by women is almost always seen as inherently narcissistic, excessive, and messy, while male autobiographies (usually billed as memoirs, and rarely as confessional) are reminders of the unified male self, and any sign of instability is a brave expression of vulnerability. Purge’s returning focus on authenticity is partly a response to a culture that incessantly tells women that their experiences and work are not valid, that the cultural content they value is not important, and that their account of what happened is always suspicious. Low states in the disclaimer that “[p]ublishing this text is not intended to lay claim to transgressive art nor does it compromise some liberatory feminist gesture,” but it’s hard to read her self-on-self drag (Low’s term) as anything but a political act that unsettles the stability of selfhood and challenges how confessional writing has historically been read.

When I recently asked a friend’s younger sister what she was reading, she replied that the book (The City of Heavenly Fire, the last in The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare) wasn’t very good: a kind of teen romance novel, though not as bad as Twilight. I remember being ashamed of liking Twilight in middle school, coyly asking my sister’s cool college friends about Plath in order to seem mature and well-read, and to try to veil my cripplingly obvious My Chemical Romance obsession. A year or two later, I was embarrassed about all of those interests, but most interestingly to me now, about the Plath obsession too; it then seemed like such an expected and trite interest for a young woman poet undertaking an English degree. What is the cultural (and even academic) impulse that drives young women to feel shame for liking what they like, even when said interests range from emo pop-music to canonical and important women poets?

My own Plath-anxiety was partially internal, though it was inflamed by cultural judgments that suggest that all young women who like Plath are depressed, narcissistic, and obsessive. This attitude fits in with larger issues in Plath academia, such as the tendency for her poems to be taught as straight-up biographical confession, and the interest in the minutiae of her life (once, in a third-year undergraduate course, the class pondered over whether or not Plath was redheaded like the resurrecting speaker in “Lady Lazarus.” She wasn’t). While Plath’s case is a clear instance of the derision levelled at what young women read and write, there’s also a larger cultural tendency to dismiss feminized art, especially when the audience is young, female, and seemingly over-enthusiastic.

There has been a recent interest in confronting these views about young women, from Anna Fitzpatrick’s pieces at Hazlitt on Harriet the Spy and teenage girls in horror, to Lorde, who spoke about how the media pits her against other female stars with Rookie’s Tavi Gevinson (who has faced her own share of  criticism since starting the feminist magazine for teenage girls at fifteen). Low herself seems aware of the attention, noting it’s safe to say that the personal has made a literary return” in a piece at Lemon Hound (we can note here that Lemon Hound’s founder, Sina Queyras, an outspoken poet, blogger, editor, and public critic, was infamously called a “citric bitch” by Canadian critic and writer Zachariah Wells). Purge can be read as a carefully considered response to these cultural views of teenage girls, written in the language of high theory and drawing on the historically hegemonic and gendered discourse about women as writers and readers. Although, Low’s response could just as easily be read as whatever, so what.

Low revisits her teenage ephemera throughout Purge, unabashedly engaging in all the excesses of teenage culture, ignoring the cultural discourse that paints teenage pasts as embarrassing, and that sees recollected writing as trite or predicable. While Low catalogues lists of material belongings that range from Jeanette Winterson and Amy Hempel books, to Mean Girls DVDs and Tori Amos CDs, she also tackles the more sinister aspects of cultural attitudes towards young women. In “VOL. II: THE SEXUAL ASSAULT OF TRISHA LOW AS CIRCULATED BY LOVE IN A MAZE, OR, VIRTUE REWARDED” (a shout-out to Eliza Haywood’s subversive “Fantomina; or, Love in a Maze,” published in 1725), Low uses the form of the eighteenth-century conduct book to convey a sexual assault. Low’s use of the genre is pointed—conduct books were meant to instill values and good behaviour, now seen as outdated and oppressive cultural artifacts that were used as finishing tools to hone young women for marriage. Low knows, however, that young women today are repeatedly told they are responsible for the violence done to them; her use of the form is both tongue-in-cheek and a reminder that modern culture is just as accusative.

Low’s excesses—of conceptual form, of material and emotional history, of consumption, of desire and of shame—are levelled by the purges and the suicides. Purge’s opening section is a strange mix of legal, emotional, and material miscellanea: suicide notes to friends and family bookended by documents and wills, starting at the age of six and going up to twenty-four (and yes, Low does have nine times to die, like the cat). The notes to friends and family are emotional, complex, wry, and occasionally funny, but they are also practical: lists of possessions that are purged and divided. Low’s obsession on suicide speaks to a tradition of women writers dead by their own hands. The last moments of writers such as Plath, Sexton, and Woolf are often scrutinised by critics, and their work searched for clues or answers. But women who commit suicide, writers or otherwise, are not reverse-mysteries begging to be solved. They are not a puzzle that can be unraveled by reading every instance of their work as confession: to do so promotes harmful and gendered stigmas around mental health and writing, and seriously discounts the merits of their work. By providing an excess of both material and emotional details in the notes, Low mocks the assumption that these kinds of answers about suicides can be found in the text. Even after rereading Low’s notes more than a couple times with a mind to these notions about women and suicide, I’m still unable to place motivation and intent, and I’m probably not meant to.

Low’s oscillation in Purge from stereotypical teenage vernacular to on-point cultural critique (at one point in her theory throw-down she analyses Steve Zultanski and admits she has a crush on him in the same breath) proves that any illusions about the skill, diversity, and hearts of young women writers (Castle’s bulimic undergrads) are exactly that. And yet, Low circumvents assigning Purge a concrete meaning, and is playfully evasive as a public writer. At the end of it all, what can I say about Purge that Low hasn’t already said better? The significance of Low’s work lies in the writing itself, in troubling assumptions about the emotional excesses of adolescence, and in subverting harmful gendered notions about the work and lives of young women writers. Or, you know, whatever.

Karissa LaRocque recently completed her undergrad at Mount Allison University. She writes and thinks about teenage poetry, confessionality, and the female lyric in public poetics. She has written and edited for 7 Mondays, and has contributed to Joypuke, Zettel, phil, and the upcoming issue of the Dalhousie Review. Lately you can find her in the Outaouais region asking well, how did I get here?



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