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Prozac Nation: Elizabeth Wurtzel's Unofficial Guide to Whining


By Erica L. Werner

I was, like, totally depressed. Then I got totally wasted. Then I called this boy, and I was like, "I'm so depressed. Wanna fuck?" Then I hung out in Adams House with the other cool, depressed Lit majors. Then I OD'd and my friends had to take me to Stillman. Then I started taking Prozac and things were OK.

That's Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, A Memoir in a nutshell--a better place for it, in fact, than in the bookstores or on your shelf. Marketed as an object lesson in depression among the young, privileged, and talented, this book by '89 grad Elizabeth Wurtzel is more useful as an object lesson in how much the New York publishing industry sucks. How did this chick get a book contract in the first place? Why was she allowed to write such crap? (For example: "When I was with Abel, I felt like ice cream in a bowl.") Why have the forces of marketing aimed this jeremiad straight at us (the young, privileged, and talented), apparently thinking it's just the tonic we need?

In Prozac Nation's press packet we encounter the following description of the author: "Witty, intelligent, and hip (nose ring, tatoo [sic]), Elizabeth Wurtzel is definitely not a Gen-X slacker." Beyond the silly assertion of nose rings and tattoos as indexes of hipness, this statement reveals what is meant as the book's selling point: that it's not just losers without jobs who are depressed, that the world is such a tough place that it would depress anyone, even a cool Harvard student. Hey, I buy it. I've been depressed too, and with many of the same symptoms as Wurtzel's (though I certainly haven't capitalized on it as effectively as she has). However, that doesn't mean I want to listen to her self-indulgent whining, or that it will help me come to terms with my own life.

Although the title suggests that the book is a sociological study of a culture of depression among America's non-slacker youth, it is simply the tedious and poorly written story of Wurtzel's melodramatic life, warts and all (actually, all warts). At one point she tells us that her mouth has become tired and chapped from giving too many blow jobs; we learn all about her dysfunctional family; and we hear about her Bacchanalian exploits in the Adams House of yore. The book is written as a straight narrative, interspersed with italicized, stream-of-consciousness peeks into Wurtzel's head ("Why hasn't Rafe called he's disappearing he's leaving me like everyone else he promised he wouldn't but he is I know it oh my God I want to die right here right now..."). All of the chapters, with their catchy, rock 'n' roll titles like "Drinking in Dallas" and "Woke up this Morning Afraid I Was Gonna Live," begin with epigraphs from cultural figures from Edie Brickell to Sylvia Plath to Einstein.

That Wurtzel went to a good school and hung out with the artsy crowd, the fact that she's hip to what's up, is everywhere evident. There can be no mistaking her for one of those boring depressed people who sit in their rooms with no friends--she and her roommate were known as the Ecstasy Girls, and she seduced her friends' boyfriends just for the fun of it. Wurtzel exhibited, even played up, her depression and dissolution at get-togethers, classes, and work, and got lots of attention for it. "So here I am, lying nearly naked on the carpet in the common room of his suite, my head pillowed by a puddle of beer," is a typical segue. This girl may be depressed, but she knows how to party.

All this makes depression look pretty good. Sure, the author was a miserable wreck, but she really lived. Throughout the book, Wurtzel mediates uncomfortably between depression as a political statement whose amelioration through pharmaceuticals is ignoble escapism, and depression as a chemical illness which should be treated medically. In an interview included in her book's press packet, she says that when she looks back on her days of depression. "I see myself as more pure, more raw, more instinctive, more in touch with all the evil of the world, more emotional and more attuned." She cites a New Yorker cartoon depicting Marx on Prozac declaring. "Sure! Capitalism can work out its kinks!" This, presumably, is the Prozac nation which the book title promises to reveal: a culture of blithely unconcerned, and thus morally and politically suspect, druggies.

Yet Wurtzel herself has been on Prozac for years: she started taking it in 1990, when it was first being distributed. In her case, she said during a reading and question-and-answer session in the Adams House Senior Common Room last Sunday, it was that or eventual suicide, as she suffers from Atypical Depression, or Dysthymia That Wurtzel's brand of depression has a clinical name confers it a medical validity that complicates what seems to be the point of her book, which is that in this society any aware person should be depressed. During her appearance in Adams, Wurtzel said that she had proposed that the book be called I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, and that her publicist had thought up the actual title (Wurtzel appeared to want to present herself as allied with her audience against the forces of marketing and capitalism). In fact, it's unclear whether Prozac Nation--certainly a misleading title, as Wurtzel admits--would be better titled I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, or I'm Clinically Depressed and I Want to Die, or, as an audience member at Sunday's presentation suggested, I Hate Late Capitalism and I Want to Die.

This confusion is a major flaw of the book. If Prozac Nation is meant to reflect a condition in which many of us privileged college students find ourselves, if it's supposed to provoke the realization that we're not alone in our misery, what about those of us who are really bummed out, but not "Atypically Depressed"? In that case, Wurtzel seems to suggest, it would be wrong to seek relief in anti-depressants, as they would take the edge off our disgust with this cruel world.

Inasmuch as Prozac Nation sets out to make broad or generalizable points about the nature of society, the family, youth culture, politics, or whatever, it fails roundly. As the memoir of Wurtzel's troubled coming of age it might have some sort of appeal, if only a prurient and very limited one, especially to those familiar with the Harvard-specific sites of her antics. But even the interest that inheres in a peer's extravagances is undercut by the fact that Wurtzel is neither a good writer nor an appealing individual. She comes off as an irritating, solipsistic brat. Wurtzel is interested not in depression as a phenomenon, but in her own depression, so her narrative will contain little interest even for depressed Harvard students, who would seem to be the perfect audience. Wurtzel views everything through the prism of her personal hell, so everything ends up being about her, including a lot of things that shouldn't be. For example, she imagines her lover lost somewhere in Uruguay, "a country that lends itself very well to the vagaries and paranoias of fiction because life and death is everywhere in Latin America," which is just silly.

There is also something shocking about this book, though not in a titillating way. The intimate tone in which Wurtzel narrates sordid detail after humiliating incident after debasing sexual encounter is almost obscenely exhibitionistic, even for our culture of confession, especially since it serves no purpose other than alternately to bore us and make us squirm. Perhaps it's meant to be inspirational--Wurtzel did a lot of crazy stuff, but she pulled through and she's not ashamed--but instead it's pathetic. Most of us will have to swallow a lot of Prozac before we're able to swallow this.

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