Pandora’s Handbag
Elizabeth Young
London: Serpent’s Tail, 2001.
£14.00, 368 pages, ISBN 1852425261.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Elizabeth Young died in 2001 and she will be missed. Essayist, critic, cultural commentator, book reviewer, she was all that and much more. When she went away to boarding school at the age of eleven, her uncle Archibald gave her three books: Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. “They were very useful; I decided that when I grew up, I would be not just a writer but a beatnik junkie writer.” I thoroughly approve of her uncle’s choice, except I might have given her Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side, rather than The Man With the Golden Arm. Lou Reed vs. Frank Sinatra.

As you happily cruise through Pandora’s Handbag, you realize that in her own way, Young did become a “beatnik junkie writer”; depending on the pieces, you feel she was totally heroin-addicted, at other times you get the impression that she was content with milder stuff. But sadly enough, even if she didn’t become that much of a drug-addict, she didn’t need to inject heroin to catch Hepatitis C. She had tons of fascinating things to write about drugs—notably as regards legalization—and about Hepatitis. Her one addiction, however, terrible and all-consuming, was books. “Many people endure the uniformly horrible experience of being a child by reading maniacally. At least they used to.” I know exactly what she means, don’t you? So she had started devouring literature even before her uncle Archibald gave her books; all she needed was a few directions. Young was born in Nigeria, grew up mostly in Scotland, and was “educated internationally”. At school she had to put up with a sadistic headmistress who “couldn’t tell the difference between a gifted child and a day-old doughnut”. She did not want to go to college because she did not really know what people did there: “I had spent all my life reading novels and they never explain what a university does.” She did go in the end, only to find out that there was no such thing as contemporary American literature in posh British universities… She turned down offers from prestigious colleges to finally be “very happy reading Old and Middle English as well as French and US fiction”. Her happiness was mostly limited to her reading, though, for she was a very troubled young woman indeed, “most certainly mentally ill according to [her] NHS archives”. Her personal life, she writes, “looked like a Jackson Pollock”. Even college brought its share of disillusion, as she had hoped to meet pathologically avid readers like herself. “At university I thought everybody reading Eng Lit would be similarly compulsive but not one single person was. Just one or two of the staff.” Again, I know what she means.

Anyway, she eventually managed to make a living writing about literature. I remembered some of her book reviews in British daily newspapers and was pleased to find them reprinted here. She tries hard to discourage similar callings, often reminding her readers that hers was one of the worst jobs, very badly-paid and quite unglamorous. She was sternly trained, she writes, to avoid the word “I”, and had to work hard to overcome this silly convention. “Even the most sober and detached criticism is really all about its author, so why pretend?” Indeed. Some of us don’t even try. Two of her principal passions were Flannery O’Connor and William Burroughs, who crop up regularly in her prose, along with Hubert Selby, sometimes quite unexpectedly. Young once taught creative writing, but that doesn’t stop her from quoting those splendid lines by O’Connor on the subject: “Everywhere I go I am asked if I think universities stifle writers. I don’t think they stifle enough of them. The kind of writing that can be taught is the kind you have to teach people not to read.”

She is at her best when she tackles “alternative” writers. How else can I describe people like Dennis Cooper or Poppy Z. Brite? “Underground” wouldn’t do, as she points out. What’s so over-the-top that British or American publishers will not handle nowadays? Practically nothing, really. But some writers cannot be so easily taught at university, and Cooper is one of them. His problem—if it is a problem—is that his subject matter is mostly the evisceration of teenage boys. He writes splendidly, of course, but somehow I get the feeling that he will never totally join the mainstream, thank God—or should that be thank Satan? Young is acutely aware of Cooper’s literary heritage: Sade, O’Connor, Genet, Burroughs, Bataille (“a grunge Georges Bataille”)… She also knows that Cooper’s success is very much a succès de scandale; as he himself told her: “I’m much more famous than I’m read. I’m famous for this gay thing, transgressive sex, for being experimental and being wild and being into punk.” Even gay activists have attacked him. One of Young’s pieces on Cooper ends with the dubious but interesting pronouncement: “And, as Charlie Manson said, society gets the children it deserves.” As it happens, Cooper is Poppy Z. Brite’s favourite author. Young interviewed her, and found that she had never read Huysmans, in spite of appearances (“so much for critics”). Although many Brite fans enjoy the gothic horror of her novels, she and Young are convinced that “far stronger than any ‘horror’ in Brite’s work is the highly erotic male homosexual sex”. Well, you cannot say you weren’t warned. Like Madonna or Mae West, Brite says she is a gay man “trapped in a woman’s body”. It is hard to believe her, however, when she claims that she has not “really read” Anne Rice’s work and that she finds the comparisons silly. At least she admits: “We’ve both written homoerotic vampire novels set in New Orleans”. Well, yes. And the comparisons are utterly justified. The differences being that Rice is much more subdued in her excesses, as it were, sometimes almost coy, everything being relative. I suppose you could say that Rice is to Brite what The Rolling Stones are to The Sex Pistols. It is possible to like both. Come to think of it, in many ways Brite has a lot in common with Christopher Rice, the son of the Vampire Chronicles diva. His very gay novels A Density of Souls (2000) and The Snow Garden (2001) interestingly revive the Carson McCullers American Gothic tradition; they intrigue a handful of university professors and delight thousands of barely literate teenagers.

Young is very good indeed on Bret Easton Ellis, though I strongly disagree with her on a few points. She did not like The Informers very much, and indeed it is Ellis’s poorest effort ever (“weakest”, she writes); but she remains somewhat indulgent towards it. Like me she believes that American Psycho is an absolute (postmodern) masterpiece, but she sneers at critics who see it as a work of naturalism. Well, I beg to disagree; I myself once wrote something of the kind, and I don’t see why American Psycho could not be about deconstructing narrative, about dissolving personality, about being obsessed with style, and be a moralistic tongue-in-cheek work of naturalism. Besides, Young does not approve of the comparisons in reviews between Ellis and McInerney, while I find them apt, however commonplace they might be. Just like the comparisons with Tama Janowitz.

This book also provides more or less illuminating thoughts on Robert Mapplethorpe, Jane Bowles, Alice Munro, Irvine Welsh, and many others. And Will Self wrote an introduction. To conclude, a few words from her own introduction: “Anyway, overall I do not recommend being a writer. There are too many already.” At least she had discernment, in every respect. Except that she forgot to plan an index, I regret to say.