"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The rise of the acknowledgments page in the world of literature is mirrored by many wider, often unlovely trends elsewhere in the arts. Movies, for instance, once ran their credits upfront, including only the relevant heavy lifters (director, producer, screenwriter), yet we now endure a Talmudically lengthy crawl of names at any film’s end. Multimillionaire benefactors shamelessly demand that museum wings bear their names. Authors now habitually close the curtain on their books with acknowledgments of law-review density, a horror to which historians are particularly prone. Colleagues, researchers, editors, even whole libraries, are lined up against a wall of blank white paper and slathered with the balm of Gilead.
All this acknowledgment — it turns the stomach. The reflexive politesse of the acknowledgments page has, for too long, stifled its potential as an explosive art form of its own. One writer and one writer alone has seen through the transparency of the acknowledgments page and, like Prometheus (or whatever), freed the trapped energy of its possibilities. This is Elizabeth Wurtzel, who in the course of her three works of nonfiction has somehow become indebted to (by rough estimate) 165 people — not including her cat (one Zap), the Simon & Schuster production department (or “the poor, beleaguered people in Simon and Schuster’s production department”) and the “the entire hospitality industry” (you know — them).
But what is really going on? While Wurtzel’s books do not resemble one another overmuch, her acknowledgments pages are marked with clear stylistic footprints, are haunted by recurring characters, and circle the same deathless themes; while her books are often difficult reads, the prose too carbonated for long gulps, her acknowledgments pages explode like geysers. However, with the recent publication of “More, Now, Again,” it is now evident that in these “acknowledgments” Wurtzel is laying down Tarot of dazzling trickery.
Read one after another after another, these pages of ostensible “thanks” quickly accrue a Nabokovian intensity. Here, the putative “author” becomes a Loki of literary dislocation. As satire, Wurtzel’s acknowledgments are a Swiftian rebuke of our fin de siècle times. Stylistically, morally and thematically, they will stand as her most coherent and lasting body of work.
The acknowledgments for “Prozac Nation,” published in 1994, allowed first entry into Wurtzel’s twisting labyrinth. Right off, Wurtzel establishes the tone that her books proper employ as mere prelude. “Without Betsy Lerner,” she writes, “this book quite simply would not have been possible.” It is obvious that “Betsy Lerner” is, in a fascinating reversal, Kinbote to Wurtzel’s living Shade. But wait. “This project ["Prozac Nation"] began, and assumed various other guises, back in 1986; over the years, many have tried and none has succeeded — a couple even lost their jobs in the process — to extract a manuscript from me.”
Notice the cunning with which Wurtzel deviously establishes that 1) she has been a serious writer for a very, very long time, 2) has been editorially pursued for nearly as long, and 3) has personally cost men and women their livelihood. The pool of mysteries deepens.
But we are not yet done with Betsy Lerner. She is, Wurtzel reports, “the best book editor on earth.” But also “a great friend.” But then “the big sister I never had.” She is additionally “Job’s most likely successor in the patience department” and “the coolest thirtysomething I’ve ever met.”
It may disappoint that Wurtzel allows this panegyric to the fictional Lerner to rest on such an anticlimax. Why only the coolest thirtysomething she’s ever met? Why not the coolest thirtysomething in the whole galaxy? But Wurtzel is playing with readerly expectation, drawing us deeper into her atmosphere of invented gratitude.
Wurtzel follows with thanks to her “agent,” the Ariel-like “Lydia Wills,” whose apparent earthbound sainthood is suggested most by her “willingness to take my hysterical phone calls at all hours.” The reader is thus lured away from Wills and toward “Wurtzel,” by now a vital and fully fictionalized self.
Following the Wills interlude is a meteor shower of gorgeously appreciative deceit. “Ken Carpenter” is thanked for being “a marketing genius” and, in an aside that conjures up plenty of kinky loft-based rumpy-pumpy, lauded for being “the only New Yorker I know who has a camouflage-print video camera.” The photographer “Marion Ettlinger” is thanked for making “the girl in the author photo look like someone I’d actually want to be.” (Ettlinger is also crowned “the coolest fortysomething on earth,” which would, if Wurtzel’s “acknowledgments” were real, doubtlessly explain why Ettlinger never photographed Wurtzel again.)
The many, many friends of Wurtzel are thanked because, after all, “if your life is going to be one long emergency, it’s a good idea to have good friends.” (Montaigne? No. Wurtzel.) And what friends! “Jason Bagdade” — “my favorite boy on earth” — has proved (with Wurtzel, of course) that the maxim “that men and women simply can’t just be friends” is just plain untrue — a delirious sendup of the banal commonplaces that too often disfigure straight acknowledgments pages.
But sadness lurks here, too, evoked with a limpid gentleness one rarely finds in Wurtzel’s more conventional work. One can touch her life, it seems, and come away not with roses but a thorn. A gentleman named “Nathan Nichols,” we learn, “deserved more and better” from Wurtzel.
After one has snow-shoed about three-quarters of the way through this blizzard, we find that Wurtzel fears that some people “don’t even know that I feel the gratitude I do because, sadly, I sometimes have a strange way of showing it.” (“I was the shadow of a waxwing slain,” indeed!)
It seems that, in “Prozac Nation,” Wurtzel had only glimpsed the possibilities of the fictional universe she big-banged while “thanking” people. The 1998 publication of acknowledgments pages for “Bitch” saw an imaginative expansion, a Great Leap Forward, not unlike that which Faulkner enjoyed from “Mosquitoes” to “The Sound and the Fury.” Like the annotation in “Pale Fire,” the back-end acknowledgments in “Bitch” explain and elucidate all that comes before.
“When life becomes unstrung,” Wurtzel explains near the beginning, “at a time when you are working on something you care about more than anything else on earth — which is to say, in my case, this book” — but it matters not what follows. The joke’s trap has been loaded, and it awaits its guileless snitch. Anyone who has read “Bitch” cannot possibly imagine Wurtzel cared one bit about the thing while writing it.
The most pressing moral concern of “Prozac Nation” — determining decade-specific exemplars of coolness — resurfaces here (“Aunt Zena” and “Uncle Bill” are knighted “the coolest eightysomethings I know of”), as does the diabolical “Wurtzel” mask: “I ended up befriending my downstairs neighbor … As soon as I discovered that she had both a VCR and a cat to play with, I knew she was worth cultivating.” The verifiably real but here fictionalized photographer “David Vance” is thanked by Wurtzel for taking her photo and, in a trope device similar to the use of “Marion Ettlinger” in “Prozac Nation,” the author’s vain literary doppelgängtrix fears “I will only disappoint anyone who sees your pictures before they meet me.”
Before our eyes, however, a hint of a story grows from the seedlings carefully planted among the rows of acknowledgments in “Bitch,” a saga as soaked in existential menace as “Darkness at Noon.” It seems that Wurtzel has, in the course of writing “Bitch,” become addicted to speed, cocaine and, apparently, sleeping in her publisher’s offices, here called “Doubleday.” One returns to the text of “Bitch” to locate somehow this Casaubonian key to all stupidities, but Wurtzel has roped off that possibility by writing a deliberately unreadable book. A retreat to her acknowledgments gaspingly dawns as one’s lone recourse.
But Wurtzel’s addiction is only touched upon, an evocative capillarity of insinuation: “Thank you especially … for waiting longer than you should have when I was more strung out than I could have explained”; “Thanks for conversation and Chinese food after I’d gone fifty hours without sleep on a Saturday afternoon”; “[He] somehow got used to my addled presence in the office long past the point when it could possibly be justified.” Wurtzel’s gambit here is stunning — and it pays off. This is one of the most wrenching, if glancing, depictions of addiction since Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” or Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.”
Many of Wurtzel’s fabulous friends from “Prozac Nation” have, oddly, disappeared by “Bitch.” Some do return, “Jason Bagdade” among them, though he has — all too understandably — “been out of touch.” Wurtzel’s new “friends” possess a sort of Barthian irreality.
Savoring the virtuosity the real Wurtzel invents for these wraiths feels a bit like reading some compressed mini-novel, or something Lydia Davis would write after being chloroformed. One friend “looks like a Bond girl but writes scholarly papers on missile deployment.” Another “completed the New York City marathon and became a member of the Council of Foreign Relations in the same year.”
A new friend of Wurtzel’s is “Mare Winningham,” possibly the most brazen fabrication Wurtzel has yet attempted. It is a full-stop acknowledgment, a display of Tetragrammatonic awe intended, no doubt, to lacerate our obsession with celebrity. “What a gift it was,” Wurtzel knowingly writes, “to get to know you late at night by telephone, for all those months of girl talk and movie talk and music talk and book talk and just general cross-country gab.” But since Winningham and Wurtzel have left unmolested so many other topics — zoology, the weather in Iceland, Swazi philosophy — Wurtzel writes that she is now “ready for my closeup” — that is, ready to meet “Winningham” in person. One can only imagine the real Winningham’s response. Delight at being satirized? Relief at not actually having to meet Wurtzel? Determination to nevertheless beef up her home-security system?
“Lerner” and “Wills,” hitherto spectral, Hamlet’s father kind of looming presences, finally appear in the denouement of the acknowledgments for “Bitch,” Wurtzel actually thanking them for their “blood, sweat, and tears” — perfectly réchauffé, especially for a writer who would, in her next book, undergo a one-woman coronation and proclaim herself quite possibly the greatest nonfiction writer of her generation. Who would argue it? Possibly only “Wurtzel,” that chillingly wrought self-saboteur.
Nevertheless! How, the heads spun, could Wurtzel do it again, acknowledgmentedly speaking, in “More, Now, Again”? She had taken the form so far, further than anyone else had taken it. Perhaps, some feared, the game was over, and the explanation (“It was all, like, a joke”) would stand as naked as an orangutan. But Wurtzel — to say nothing of the sinister “Wurtzel” — is far too clever a beast for that.
“The acknowledgments of my previous books were so elaborate,” she writes in the acknowledgments of “More, Now, Again,” “that I now feel like I am competing with myself to come up with increasingly grand words of praise. Instead, I am going to keep it simple.” Or, as Kinbote says in the foreword to “Pale Fire,” “To this poem we now must turn.”
“Prozac Nation” is the book Wurtzel wrote to describe her escape from emotional torpor and “Bitch” is the book she wrote while suffering emotional torpor; “More, Now, Again” is the book she wrote to describe her escape from emotional torpor while suffering emotional torpor. The acknowledgment shocks come instantly. “Betsy Lerner” has now displaced “Lydia Wills” as Wurtzel’s agent-cum-Ariel, a staggering turn of events. The improbably named “Marysue Rucci” (not to be confused with “Christina Ricci,” also thanked by Wurtzel) is now Wurtzel’s editor (“I cannot imagine that any editor has been this central and crucial to a book”) — as though “More, Now, Again” (or any of Wurtzel’s books, for that matter) were edited!
Again, we are enticed into Wurtzel’s world, like flies into a flame. Or a roughly proximate simile. Wurtzel is sparer here, more restrained. Her “Ulysses” behind her, she has not made the mistake of attempting a “Finnegans Wake” but has returned to a calm perfection much like that of “The Dead.”
Thus, “Erin Hosier,” although established by Wurtzel as “the secret weapon” at Wurtzel’s literary agency, is not one of the Kyrgyzstan-visiting, purse-designing, all-around supercool creations “Bitch” has prepared us for. Even so, Wurtzel blesses “the day that I found [Hosier] in the Ms. Magazine intern pool.”
But what we have lost in exceptionality we regain in troweled-on odes: Hosier is a “great first reader, a great friend, and just plain old great.” In addition: “And thank you for keeping me up on what the kids are up to.” On top of that: “I think the good people of the state of Ohio broke the mold after you were born.” Know, too: “The world needs more than one of you.” Lastly: “All I can ask is that you remember my name once you have conquered the world.” Apparently, Hosier is intended to connote a figure of demonic, triple-six power.
Soon a new, increasingly gnomic Wurtzel takes command. The by now familiar Photographer Figure, here named “Frank Veronsky,” is thanked, a little predictably, for making Wurtzel “look just like me but better.” The rich theme of surfaces — and, it seems, film developing — are clearly to Wurtzel what connection was to Forster, the self was to Whitman and buggering lads was to Burroughs.
But an impenetrable menace soon steals into nearly every proceeding instance of “thanks,” lifting her trilogy’s final acknowledgments to an aria of Beckettian inscrutability. “It is ridiculous to thank Jim Crimmins,” she writes, for instance, “and ridiculous not to, so there you go.” While this is not exactly “Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams,” it achieves its intended Delphic mystery.
“Thank you, Chris,” Wurtzel writes — not, strangely, for digging her out of a ditch on the New Jersey Turnpike or saving her from the psychic piranha of a bad trip or simply standing beside her as she found the perfect pair of sunglasses at 3 in the morning a few blocks from the Wailing Wall, but rather “for so many reasons.” “Wurtzel” is losing power, the stars and planets dim, and her acknowledgments fade with them. Her “friends,” by now so familiar, so human, are thanked with a similar, tombstonelike simplicity: “This book was written for them, with all my love.”
The final, chilling message of these acknowledgments — this wrecking ball to our collective vanity, this hidden epic, both of and ahead of its time — sees no coked-up italicization from Wurtzel. Nor does it need it. For we all, Elizabeth Wurtzel included, know what we always wind up doing to the ones we love.
Tom Bissell spent five months living in Vietnam in 2004. "The Father of All Things," an account of his first journey to Vietnam with his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, will be published by Pantheon early next year. A portion of the book recently appeared in "Best American Travel Writing 2005."More Tom Bissell.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)