Virginia Woolf, in Orlando, wrote about a proliferation of selves piloted by a Key Self that works to compress them into agreement, into a unity that can withstand the shock of the present. Perhaps this is the best way to understand Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women.
Selves abound in Scanlon’s debut novel. The back cover identifies them all as “Lizzie,” but don’t be fooled. Promising Young Women is told through a multitude of voices that are young and old, male and female, empathetic and less so. Set mainly in the 1990s, the novel takes temporal leaps into the past, future, and a multiplicity of presents — often signaled through references to popular culture: “This wasn’t like in the movie Heathers, which had come out a few years earlier”; “We went to a theater in Westwood to see Postcards from the Edge. . . . We saw Crimes and Misdemeanors at the same theater. It was my first Woody Allen movie.” Besides Carrie Fisher and Woody Allen, there are references to Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, William Faulkner, Walden, Girl, Interrupted — this is a novel that knows its context.
Lizzie — there is a character named Lizzie, and she is the main focus of the narrative — spends the nineties in and out of various psychiatric institutions after what is revealed early on to be “a failed suicide pact” which Lizzie describes as “all so stupid and boring.” Later, she checks herself into a “highly ranked Ward for Super-Sensitives,” that “specialized in treating pretty young girls,” “a type of usually female difficult patient.” The narrative jumps around, so sometimes it is difficult to tell whether she is between institutions, or after, or before; it is difficult to tell which hospital has passed and which is still to come. The narrator, too, will at times move into the points of view of other characters, telling their stories either from the position of the patients on one of the wards, or from that character’s position.
At one point, the reader is addressed as “you.” You are a young man who dates “girls with problems,” as you put it.
Of all the formal moves Scanlon makes, I found this the most interesting, and the most reflective. Promising Young Women is about the repetition of psychological trauma, not healing — not really. Lizzie does not go through her grief and come out the other side. The narrative continuously circles around the heart of the novel, Lizzie’s attempted suicide (“stupid and boring” as it may be), and her grief over her mother’s death.
I could suggest that the temporal fragmentation of the novel indicates the inability of the self to deal with its modernity, or the lack of resources in the modern world to address the fragmentation of the female subject, one of many traditional analyses of narratives of specifically female trauma. Scanlon, in her constant cultural and critical references, seems to suggest that the reader draw on Freud, de Beauvoir, Thoreau, Sontag, or any number of theorists, psychological and not, to explain Lizzie. Lizzie, however, has already told us that she’s a cipher, “a fragmented mutating subject.”
I find the sudden insertion of the second person so reflective, maybe even transparent, simply because of the tradition of narratives of female neurosis — to me, this is the flipside of the traditionally male mid-life crisis novel. Too often, it is voyeuristic, and the interest it evokes can really only be called prurient. Promising Young Women forecloses that type of interest, through the temporal and subjective fragmentation and especially through the figuration of the second person, the “you.” “You” do not understand, or care to, and thus Scanlon implicates the reader in the same system that has produced these “promising young women,” “career patients” seen by their doctors as projects, fodder for academic papers, or books. This is the brilliance of Suzanne Scanlon’s debut: by casting Lizzie as a self-aware cipher in conflict with the critical reader, Scanlon refuses the same act of diagnosis that her novel critiques.