Carrie Fisher's 'Awful' -- from manic into depression

February 22, 2004|By Michael Harris | Michael Harris,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The Best Awful, by Carrie Fisher. Simon & Schuster. 272 pages. $24.

Is mental illness funny? Suzanne Vale, the heroine of actress Carrie Fisher's fourth Hollywood novel, says it had better be. Having survived drug abuse and rehab in Fisher's debut, Postcards From the Edge, Suzanne rides the dizzying ups and terrifying downs of bipolar disorder in The Best Awful, emerging to crack jokes at benefits and otherwise comfort the similarly afflicted.

Given her history with controlled substances, it's no surprise that Suzanne brings disaster on herself. Her studio executive husband, Leland, has turned out to be gay and left her for a man, ending what she had thought was a happy marriage. She wants to find someone to replace him. But she is taking medication for her manic-depression and feels dulled and diminished, deprived of her full seductive powers.

Her solution is to ease off the meds and unleash her alter ego, Lucrezia (as in Borgia). "What Suzanne couldn't and wouldn't do, her Lucrezia did for her, functioning ... without morals, qualms, or compunctions, rather with an unbridled glee. ... Especially when it came to men, shopping, traveling, outbursts of sudden generosity, and taking drugs."

Suzanne promises herself to keep Lucrezia under control, so as not to endanger her job as a talk-show hostess or her relationship with her 6-year-old daughter, Honey. At first all goes well. Suzanne couples with a megastar, aging satyr Dean Bradbury, and follows up with a boy toy, an Eastern European hunk she nicknames Thor.

She shines, even sparkles, at dinner parties. So what if Lucrezia soon escapes all restraints? So what if Suzanne goes sleepless for six days and finds herself high on OxyContin, Rush Limbaugh's painkiller of choice, and headed for Tijuana with an ex-con tattoo artist? "Bliss beat at the back of her eyelids with both of its beautiful fists."

The manic phase ends abruptly in a bout of physical and spiritual nausea. Then the depression kicks in. Psychotic episodes follow -- characters in old movies seem to talk to Suzanne -- and she lands in a mental hospital, Shady Lanes ("Shaky Brains" to its inmates). She struggles to regain sanity with the help of her movie star mom, Doris; her best gal pal, Lucy; her male shoulder-to-lean-on, Craig; and even Leland.

Fisher's novels deserve their popularity. Her intelligence and humor -- sometimes wicked, sometimes winningly self-deprecating -- are matched by a no-nonsense quality: We feel that across the divides of fame and wealth, she's leveling with us.

Of course, it's Fisher's status as second-generation Hollywood royalty that makes her writing unusual and interesting. Unlike others who chronicle that milieu -- think of Jackie Collins -- she isn't out to shock or impress. She neither gloats nor apologizes. She simply writes about what she knows.

Now and then we realize that Suzanne -- perhaps like her creator -- doesn't know a whole lot about how the rest of us live. Recuperating at a beach house in Santa Barbara, she listens to passing trains and thinks the main passenger rail route "from Seattle to San Diego" has "unobstructed views of the ocean almost all the way." No, it doesn't, as folks who ride trains could tell her.

This is trivial, but it matters because Suzanne's life is so cushioned that the novel loses some of its potential drama. Her friends are loyal, her insurance is deep-pocketed and tabloid exposure enhances rather than destroys her TV career. For most of the mentally ill, it's likely to be a different story.

Michael Harris, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, regularly reviews books for the Los Angeles Times. He is also a copy editor for Variety in Hollywood. This review, in longer form, was published in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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