Susanna Kaysen

by | Oct 9, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Creating Characters

A couple of years ago, while substitute-teaching at the school that is so fond of Finding Forrester, I found, in the English office, a copy of Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. Great stuff, but I didn’t get to finish it until two weeks ago. It’s an impressionistic account of the author’s two years in a mental ward (diagnosis: personality disorder) in the late 1960’s.

Really great stuff, actually. Each chapter is an exploration of part of the experience, or a meditation on mental disorder, or a slice of life on the ward. These slices are served up in a deliciously minimalist fashion. I am in awe of how much she is able to get done with a sentence or two.

One thing she gets a lot of mileage out of is translations. To a current or former mental patient, she implies, people say even less of what they really mean than usual. There is, for example, a fixed set of responses they make when they find that you were once an inmate, none of which, according to Kaysen, means quite what it says. When they say, “So, how did you end up in there?” what they are really saying is, “Is it contagious?”

It’s a pretty droll book, and an insightful one, and one thing in particular that I appreciated is that it is about girls. It is fascinating, as a boy, to get a glimpse of that other world, see how those creatures think, and Kaysen doesn’t pull any punches. Hence my dismay to find that, in her fiction, she writes about boys.

Far Afield follows a graduate student in anthropology to the Faroe Islands, where he possibly learns more about himself than he does about the Faroese. Unfortunately, he’s not very interesting. Even more unfortunately, he never really comes to life. Kaysen knows a good deal about men from the outside, but doesn’t manage to create a flesh-and-blood character. There is something theoretical about all the men, and the women hardly put in an appearance at all. They cook and clean, then leave the room so the men can drink and talk.

Asa, As I Knew Him is a disappointment as well. It starts out beautifully, as the protagonist talks about her thoughts and emotions surrounding an impending affair with the Asa of the title. It is written with the same droll insight and deftness of phrase as Girl, Interrupted. But the whole middle section of the book, most of the total pages, is the protagonist’s fictional biography of Asa, a thing she has written as a sort of attempt to understand him. I confess I’m left scratching my head over the idea behind an invented biography of a fictional character, unless Kaysen is trying to say something about the ways in which women try to understand their men.

I wish she’d write more about women, though. They’re really what she knows best, and she’s such a damned good writer.