London: Serpents Tail, 2001.
£14.00, 368 pages, ISBN 1852425261.
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 Algrens The Man With
the Golden Arm, Jack Kerouacs On the Road, and Allen
Ginsbergs 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 uncles choice, except
I might have given her Algrens Walk on the Wild Side,
rather than The Man With the Golden Arm. Lou Reed vs. Frank
As you happily cruise through Pandoras 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 didnt become that much
of a drug-addict, she didnt need to inject heroin to catch Hepatitis
C. She had tons of fascinating things to write about drugsnotably
as regards legalizationand 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,
dont 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 couldnt 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 dont even try. Two of her principal passions
were Flannery OConnor and William Burroughs, who crop up regularly
in her prose, along with Hubert Selby, sometimes quite unexpectedly.
Young once taught creative writing, but that doesnt stop her
from quoting those splendid lines by OConnor on the subject:
Everywhere I go I am asked if I think universities stifle writers.
I dont 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 wouldnt do, as she points out. Whats
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 problemif
it is a problemis 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
Godor should that be thank Satan? Young is acutely aware of
Coopers literary heritage: Sade, OConnor, Genet, Burroughs,
Bataille (a grunge Georges Bataille)
She also knows
that Coopers success is very much a succès de scandale;
as he himself told her: Im much more famous than Im
read. Im 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 Youngs 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. Brites 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 Brites work
is the highly erotic male homosexual sex. Well, you cannot say
you werent warned. Like Madonna or Mae West, Brite says she
is a gay man trapped in a womans body. It is hard
to believe her, however, when she claims that she has not really
read Anne Rices work and that she finds the comparisons
silly. At least she admits: Weve 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 Elliss 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 dont 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