OK, Maybe Autofiction Isn’t All Bad
The truth is, I think autofiction is kinda bullshit. I have no problem with unusual textual strategies to tell a story that can’t be told straight, but autofiction feels like it arises from laziness. As if the writer can’t fictionalize but also can’t memorialize, and so settles on a weak bargain between the two. That way, he or she can say “No, that part isn’t true,” but still lean mysteriously on the most harrowing parts of the story as intrigue and interview fodder.
I’m not sure how much of this grouchy opinion applies to Juliet Escoria’s new novel, Juliet the Maniac. It narrates, in first person, a few teenage years in the life of Juliet Escoria, who shares the author’s name, birthday, and other identifying details. It contains harrowing events, and it likely smooths over the boring or unclear parts with fictional shaping and elision. But Escoria uses the zone between memoir and novel to reflect and interpret, incisively and with heart, causing me to wonder whether autofiction has something important going for it after all.
In the mid-1990s, the fourteen-year-old narrator of Juliet the Maniac starts to hallucinate, act out, and withdraw from her surroundings. After multiple dangerous and baffling incidents, her doctors diagnose bipolar disorder. Juliet undergoes institutionalization, changes schools, does a lot of drugs, changes schools again, and falls in love. Meanwhile, her doctors tinker with her medication, largely without success.
The book’s latter half takes place at a very small, somewhat experimental boarding school in a remote part of northern California, where all the students are variously mentally ill. Juliet’s life at this school never fails to fascinate, because it’s so different from a traditional high-school experience. Counselors range in competence and empathy, which gives the kids a pretty unstable experience. Some of the counselors actively do harm. The activities seem to be good for them, but Juliet doesn’t specify whether the therapy is or not.
Ultimately, the story ends with Juliet finding peace and a way forward, though that seems a bit too novelistic—the fiction part of autofiction, perhaps. Her epiphanies about enjoying life without drugs do seem earned: at an AA meeting, she leaves half a page of white space in the ellipsis of “I felt…happy.” That, and the 200 pages of desperation and self-destruction that came before, illustrate just what a big deal it is to cry from happiness.
Escoria writes in fragments that vary from a few sentences to multiple pages, each one titled in a way that pushes the story forward without being cute. Early on, a page-long section called “Gifted and Talented,” explaining a school triumph, precedes a shorter section called “But Then I Started Having Problems Sleeping.” Escoria also uses pictures of her hospital bracelets, notes and letters from and to her teenaged self, doodles, and transcribed therapy notes to assemble the book. This both affirms the story she tells, offering evidence of its existence and impact, and visually breaks up a pretty difficult narrative—relief for the reader. Plus, she’s just a terrific writer, even when she abandons the highly practical and communicative sentences that characterize most of the book:
“We were listening to Metallica loud, all of us singing, and I felt something lifting me like wires hooked in my sternum, pulling me from the van to the sky, and I was no longer human, I was dazzling.”
The flaws in Juliet the Maniac generally resemble any others in the troubled-white-girl-comes-of-age subgenre. It’s a limited, highly subjective story, and it can’t answer the question of why mental illness causes people like young Juliet to behave the way they do, nor can it solve the problem of what to do with them. Juliet shuttles from place to place and pill to pill in an attempt not quite to cure her, but at least to stabilize her, or to keep her alive until frontal-lobe development can end the worst of her impulsive behavior. Escoria reflects on some of the narrator’s bad choices, though not all of them.
But it’s also a speedy, intelligent book written with powerful craft. Juliet’s loneliness in the institution comes through in what she observes, but she cannot fail to add a twist of personality to those observations: “It made me feel like what I was: someone removed from society, who was therefore only able to see a tiny reflection of the outside world. The fireworks were small and far away but they were beautiful, because it turns out society is something that looks best from a distance.”
My objections to autofiction remain. What parts aren’t true? Why not? What must one edit out to remain the heroine of one’s own story? But Escoria shut down those questions at least as long as I was reading. For that, for telling some substantial portion of the truth about an unusual and difficult adolescence, and for doing so in an indelible voice, I commend her. Much to my chagrin, Juliet the Maniac is both an excellent piece of autofiction and an excellent novel.
(Melville House, May 7, 2019)