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A strange read.
on January 24, 2010
I eagerly purchased "Madness" after its release; "Wasted" was one of the most compelling memoirs I've ever read and Hornbacher is a fascinating and incredibly talented writer. After reading about a third of the book, I found myself struck by the disparity between Marya Hornbacher the writer and Marya Hornbacher the person.
Marya the writer is thoughtful and shockingly insightful; she is hyper self-aware, almost to the point of being self-obsessed, able to write chapter after chapter of intricate prose about her own history, thoughts, and actions.
Marya the person seems to lack any self-awareness. She acts on impulse alone, jumping from one whim to the next, rarely stopping to pause and think about what she's doing. She is sucked into her own emotions and compulsions easily; she easily slips back into patterns drug & alcohol habits, compulsive spending, self-mutilation, sex-addicted behavior.
Both Maryas are interesting, and make for a hardy memoir, but there's something missing in the writing. "Madness" is extremely detached, written as if "Marya" is a fictional character being written about by an impartial observer. It's often hard to believe that Marya the writer actually did the things Marya the person did. There's plenty of pretty prose, plenty of insight, but there's no connectivity. Hornbacher is a great writer, but she is a clinical and analytical one. Sometimes that works in a memoirist's favor (see, "Darkness Visible," "Girl Interrupted") but it's just sort of strange to read someone writing about themselves in a cold, mathematical, detached sort of what when they are trying to relate periods of extreme passion & mental illness. She'll write about an epic mental breakdown or temper tantrum, but there is no fervor in the narrative that pulls you into the writer's mind & into the moment with her. I mean, say what you will about Elizabeth Wurtzel (another person who has published multiple books concerning herself & her struggles with mental illness), but she has a deeply idiosyncratic and conversational writing style that makes it very easy to imagine her acting in the temperamental, selfish, impossible, moody ways she describes. Marya Hornbacher seems like two different people in her books. It worked well in "Wasted," in which she discussed her detachment from her body and her emotions, but it just falls a little flat in "Madness." She is describing CAPSLOCK EMOTIONS, but they don't feel CAPSLOCK to the reader.
"Madness" also could have used some heavy-duty editing; the book's organization is difficult and, well, a little disorganized. And she does have a habit of presenting the same ideas and revelations with different wording over & over again. A lot could have been cut, which would have made "Madness" a more impactful read. I found it hard to get through at times. You know what they say about brevity being the soul of wit? Yeah, it's true.
None of this is to imply that "Madness" is a bad book. Far from. It's just a bit of a difficult and frustrating read at times. When it is good, it is really really good. And even when it's bad, it's not horrid.