Eileen Myles's new novel, Cool for You, is much more a writing-out of female madness than a book about it. Framed around the author's search for the medical records of her grandmother, who spent the last years of her life in a state mental institution, Cool for You is about the institutionalized life in general. Though she begins with a description of the sanctioned squalor of the state asylum, really Myles is looking at the big picture: the processing of people into grades and schools and genders, cliques and classes. Like the writing of the late Kathy Acker, Cool for You is a kind of fragmented autobiography. Both Acker and Myles write adventure books in which their lived experience becomes the engine, not the object, of a narrative. Both present an "I" as large as the narrators of Heart of Darkness or Tropic of Cancer, although in female hands, the use of "I" is often misconstrued as memoir. Like Acker, Myles values the most intimate and "shameful" details of her life not for what they tell her about herself but for what they tell us about the culture. In this sense, Cool for You makes the classic Female Madness Tale, from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar through Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, look like a kind of psychic liberalism.
Unlike Plath and Kaysen, and dozens of practitioners in between, Myles has no particular belief in the possibility of a fully integrated female self. She doesn't think her experience will be redeemed. The circumstances of Myles's life–she is the daughter of a Polish secretary and an alcoholic Irish mail carrier in class-riddled Boston–are no more dire than those of millions who daily feel the disparity between their own lives and the surfaces of upper-middle-class life that are projected blandly on TV and intricately probed in most contemporary literary fiction. What's harrowing is the detail in which this disparity is experienced and recorded.
Nellie Reardon Myles entered the Westborough State Hospital at the age of 60. Her complaint: "I don't feel well." She was a refugee of the Irish potato famine who'd cleaned houses all her life in Boston and given birth to seven children. Appetite: normal. Sleep: normal. Speech: normal. Nellie was stricken with grief over the death of her daughter, Helen. The color of her urine is fully documented over the fifteen years she spent before her death at Westborough. Teeth missing: thirty-two. Economic condition upon her entry: marginal. Her mental state: sometimes resentful. What Myles remembers most are the Sunday outings of her family to the asylum: "Dad went inside. My mother stayed out with us and the camera. Nellie is led out with great aplomb. The queen mother. The camera clicks…. It was our Buckingham Palace."
It's fitting that Cool for You begins with a quote from the Modernist hero Antonin Artaud. Just as Artaud's experience as a wartime inmate of the Rodez asylum became a launching pad and paradigm for his rage against the military-corporate forces that were then gathering toward a new postwar order, Myles reads the cursory entries on her grandmother's life at Westborough State Hospital, where she waswarehoused by the State of Massachusetts, as proof of something she already knew: The Poor Don't Matter.
The writing of both Myles and Acker is dependent on a great belief in myth, the conduit through which we may experience the Modernist passion to be larger than oneself. To use a very public "I" to speak, as Myles has put it, "to her time…" But mythification doesn't happen much to female writing. We have great hagiographies through which to read the works of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, but in the case of their contemporary, Diane di Prima, the twenty books she's published must suffice. Criticism also helps create a myth around the lives of certain male contemporary fiction writers. Girls in my writing class refer to the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as "Dave," as if they knew Eggers, and memorize his interview remarks as if they were late-night phone confessions. Female myth, it seems, is something much more self-created.