I’ve been reading a book in which various people write about “the books that changed my life.” Porochista Khakpour, of whom I had not heard, chose Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, a book that I happened to have just downloaded. Unfortunately, the great thing about the novel, in Khakpour’s account, is that it brought on a nervous breakdown. Here is a typical scene:
Our heroine, Sasha (not her real name, but she decided at some point that a new name would make her less depressed) is looking back on a time when she was working at a swank dressmaker’s in Paris. The new owner, who like Sasha is English, has come to scope things out. She is just the receptionist, so the questions are pretty easy. For example, asked about her French, she first denies that she speaks it, then says she speaks it “sometimes,” and finally admits that she has lived in Paris for eight yers. Then the grilling gets really tough:
What was your last job?”
“I worked at the Maison Chose, in the Place Vendome.”
“Oh really, you worked for Chose, did you? You worked for Chose.” His voice is more respectful.
“Were you receptionist there?”
“No,” I say. “I worked as a mannequin.”
“You worked as a mannequin.” Down and up his eyes go, up and down.
“How long ago was this?” he says.
How long ago was it? Now everything is a blank in my head. Years, days, hourrs…everything is a blank in my head. How long ago was it? I don’t know.
We begin to see why she was working as a mannequin.
Well, I think they must end up firing her, because in the book’s present she’s back in Paris with no job, no apparent purpose, living on borrowed money in a hotel she considers excessively dreary and spending her evenings chatting up strangers in a bar and weeping uncontrollably until they sneak off. And if they did fire her, one can hardly blame them.
I suppose that the book is a portrait of mental illness at a time when treatments, for those who sought them, ranged from ineffective quackery to sadistic quackery. But don’t people usually expect art to transform pain in some way, so that reading about a mental illness isn’t the same as contracting it? If I just wanted to experience hours of abject despair, I would watch Fox News.