Flirting With Tiny Mummies: Adventures of a Cocooned Girl

Better Than Sane: Tales From a Dangling Girl , by Alison Rose. Alfred A. Knopf, 226 pages, $23.

There are autobiographies-orderly, reasoned, univocal-and there are memoirs, and this is definitely a memoir in the old laudanum-sniffing, drapes-billowing sense of the word. Fitfully recollected, fuzzy around the edges, it seems to have been dashed off in snatches, longhand, in the 3 a.m. dark night of the soul, rather than pounded out sensibly on a personal computer during business hours.

It’s a New York memoir. It’s a New Yorker memoir (the shelf groans; alumni of the pre–Condé Nast New Yorker seem to have been so collectively busy taking notes under the desk, one wonders how they managed to put out a weekly magazine). It’s a catalog of former lovers. It’s a family history. But at its core, it’s a memoir of mental illness, a pre-Prozac life depicted in a post– Prozac Nation world. (Let’s not forget that Elizabeth Wurtzel was also once a New Yorker staffer-what a jolly place it must be!) Alison Rose is not really “Dorothy Parker meets Holly Golightly,” as her publisher’s promotional material babbles (when, oh when will these poor, over-invoked literary “icons” be allowed to rest in peace?). She’s more The Bell Jar ‘s Esther Greenwood, running past Valley of the Dolls ‘ Anne Welles in a hall, scissors in her clenched fist.

And it’s quite a long hall, spanning from the bougainvillea-bedecked bedroom of her childhood in the 1940′s and 50′s to her present, longtime Quentin Crisp–ish lodgings in a studio apartment-” my room ,” growling emphasis hers-on 68th Street. Only gradually is it made clear that the author must be about 60 years old. Though points go to Ms. Rose for waiting (unlike so many media ingénue darlings) until she had actually lived a good portion her life before writing about it, the air of the ingénue clings confusingly, like faint cologne, to her writing. She’s a big fan of babyish neologisms (things she covets are “wishy”) and pet names. Burt Lancaster’s son, an ex-boyfriend, is “Billy the Fish,” like something out of Dr. Seuss. The actor and writer Gardner McKay, a former childhood idol whom she befriended in later life, is “Antelope.” Then there are her actual pets, whom she often prefers to human companions (a dog, Puppy Jane, and a cat, Toast, whose moniker proves prophetic: The cat expires after one final, lingering French kiss from its owner).

Wilting into a comfortable, bourgeois middle age seems never to have been an option for the fatally attractive Ms. Rose. “It’s exhausting to be in the company of married people, with children or no … ,” she writes in a rare burst of opinion (overall, this is a painfully oblique book). “Their incomprehension and condescending fakeness are thick in the air, no matter how they try to hide it.” Returning “gloriously alone” from such staid company to her “pretty room, where the animals, with their unabashed enthusiasm, are waiting,” she feels “the thrill successful bank robbers must feel.”

She feels the thrill, but baby, we feel the chill.

Ms. Rose’s predisposition to solitude makes sense; as a child living in a household whose members were “wittily mean to each other,” she befriended inanimate objects like mops and pencils along with the occasional little girl (“Squirrel”). Her mother was impeccable but detached, collecting slithery kid gloves and Chinese pajamas and once suggesting her daughter be put to sleep, like a sick animal. Remarks like that leave an impression. Her dashing but irascible psychiatrist father had his own charming pet name for the younger of his two daughters: “Personality Minus.” Young Alison goes on to waft aimlessly, agoraphobically through the 1960′s and 70′s, clad even during the day in expensive nightgowns from Bendel’s, trying halfheartedly to model, worrying about her weight with sympathetic chums (they numbed their existential pangs with frozen Sara Lee cheesecake), visiting beautiful friends at the Barbizon à la Sylvia Plath, having sex in public places and occasionally sleeping in Central Park, like a sprite from A Midsummer Night’s Dream . The major political events of the day left scant impression on her clique. “I weighed a hundred and forty-five when John F. Kennedy was shot,” remembers pal “Baby Bob” when she telephoned looking for memoir material.

Wafting inevitably to Los Angeles, Ms. Rose takes acting lessons, admires the alien-seeming towheads (“blond hair gave a girl a different personality, different thoughts in her head, a fair entitlement,” she writes, unwittingly foreshadowing the postmodern philosopher Jessica Simpson). With the willful incompetence of the true Manhattanite, Ms. Rose refuses to learn how to drive and mopes a lot. (When the actor Bruce Dern drives past her, walking, in L.A. and yells, “Smile, you fuckin’ asshole! Smile!”, the reader can’t help muttering, “Hear, hear.”)

Our heroine pops Valium and Eskatrol, helpfully prescribed by the father who screwed her up in the first place. It’s a violent Wonderland, with acquaintances constantly threatening to put bullets through their heads or otherwise vanish from this earth. Some of them succeed.

Thus, it’s with a sense of great mutual relief that Ms. Rose replants herself, on page 105, at The New Yorker , which she pet-names “School.” She becomes a receptionist (understand that being a receptionist at The New Yorker is somewhat akin to being lady-in-waiting to the queen), getting the job from Brendan Gill, a “friend of a friend” of her mother’s. When she refuses to remove the snug black cloche she’s selected for their first meeting, Gill tells her, “You’re hiding your beauty from me.” This is only the first in a series of flirtations that give her time at the magazine a febrile air. Some escalate into affairs (with married staffers protectively pet-named things like “Mr. Normalcy,” “Europe” and “Personality Plus”); some remain at the mind-meld level, as with the writers Harold Brodkey and George Trow, and these are the more enduringly enriching liaisons. Ms. Rose scribbles down their every bon mot on scraps of paper, all of which she has stored carefully in that room on 68th Street, and in time she realizes that she is a writer herself. And here’s the evidence.

The New Yorker , as she depicts it, seems less like an esteemed literary institution and more like the institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest .

To be “crazy,” her mostly male consorts reassure her, is to be just a few rungs down the ladder from smart-hence her book’s title. (The subtitle is less explicable; indeed, on this reviewer’s copy, someone has already crossed out “girl” and written in “chad.”) Better Than Sane is a very good depiction of a depression so thick and multilayered that eaves of pleasure have been carved in it. Occasionally, though, the reader does want to shake Alison Rose, unfurl her from her woolly cocoon of self-regard (yes, she knits), and see the grown woman she has become-not just that glamour puss posing on the cover.

Alexandra Jacobs is a senior editor at The Observer .