Step away from the Princess

carrie-fisher

Am I the only Carrie Fisher fan who’ll remember her, not for her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars – a film I’ve never seen – but for her writing?

Particularly her fiction.

I haven’t read her most recent memoir, The Princess Diarist, which charts her sudden leap into the limelight at the age of 19 as the eponymous princess with the earphones hair-do.

The inspiration for The Princess Diarist was, apparently a stack of forgotten diaries she kept during the filming of Star Wars which she found under the floorboards – doesn’t that sound like a PR wheeze? Fisher may have been a confused, emotionally immature 19-year-old in the diaries, but she had enough self-knowledge to write that she would be “posthumously embarrassed” if anyone read them. But as a 59-year-old she didn’t seem to feel the same way and the diaries are quoted extensively in the new memoir.

The “posthumously embarrassed” line takes on a whole new meaning after Fisher’s untimely demise on December 27 last.

Anyone new to Carrie Fisher’s writing should not start with her memoirs. (Her first memoir, Wishful Drinking, 2008, explores her bipolar diagnosis, Shockaholic, 2011, describes her experiences of electric shock therapy – “There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.” )

My advice is to step away from the princess persona, whether of the Star Wars or celebrity confessional variety. No, if it’s light-handed, acerbic writing you’re looking for, go to her fiction. “I’m nicer to people in fiction than I would be in fact,” Fisher said in a 1994 interview perhaps explaining the difference in her approach to the genres of autobiography and fiction.

postcards

Postcards from the Edge is Fisher’s first autobiographical novel. She also wrote the script for the film of the same name, starring Meryl Streep as “Suzanne Vale” ( a great performance even though Streep was really too old for the part) a 30-year-old actress on the skids, and Shirley McClaine as “Doris Mann”, her aging film star mother. It’s the best of her fiction, full of Fisher’s trademark writing style and witty aphorisms.

Doris: You feel sorry half the time for having a monster of a mother like me. Everything about you says ‘look what you’ve done to me’.

Suzanne: [innocently] I never said you were a monster!

Doris: You don’t say it, but you feel it. Somehow, you lay the entire blame for your drug-taking on me.

Suzanne: [annoyed] I do not! I DO not, mother. I took the drugs, nobody made me.

Doris: [darkly] Go ahead and say it: you think I’m an alcoholic.

Suzanne: Okay…I think you’re an alcoholic.

Doris: Well, maybe I was an alcoholic when you were a teenager. But I had a nervous breakdown when my marriage failed and I lost all my money.

Suzanne: That’s when I started taking drugs.

Doris: Well, I got over it! And now I just drink like an Irish person.

Postcards was one of a trio of autobiographical novels Fisher wrote in the 80s and 90s, which mined her celebrity life and sent it, and herself, up in the process. There was a lot to mine.

She was the daughter of Debbie Reynolds, singing star of various MGM musicals – including, famously, Singing in the Rain – and Eddie Fisher, a crooner, who left Reynolds when Carrie was two, to marry Elizabeth Taylor. Being the child of stars made Fisher a victim of what she called “by-product fame. Fame as the salad to some other, slightly more filling main dish”.

Perhaps Princess Leia was the main dish although she continued to be famous by association with her short-lived marriage to singer-songwriter Paul Simon after a long on again-off again relationship. (Several of Simon’s songs reference this relationship – Hearts and Bones, Graceland, She Moves On. “If you can get Paul Simon to write a song about you, do it,” she wrote generously in her first volume of memoir, Wishful Drinking. “Because he is so brilliant at it.”) She in turn wrote about her marriage to him in Surrender the Pink, the second of her 90s autobiographical novels.

All sorts of strange and unexpected tropes show up in Fisher’s fiction. The paintings of Italian still-life artist Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964) form a recurring imagistic pattern throughout Surrender the Pink to dramatise the main character, screenwriter Dinah Kaufman’s feelings of social isolation. Although she has a successful career, Dinah is a failure in her relationships with men. Then she meets – or thinks she does – the man of her dreams. Okay, so these are First World problems but in between the jokey tone and the clever one-liners, there is an existential debate going on.morandi07

“Sometimes she’d just walk around the city alone. Watch the people, smell the food, the bus exhaust, the smoke coming up through the grating. She’d feel protected somehow, found a sense of belonging in the hectic sprawl. And the next minute she’d feel like the one who couldn’t break the code, hit the right stride, catch the wave. Potholes and traffic and bums, oh my. With all the honking and the hum of movement, the living, breathing blur of noise gently pressing in on her, the great purr of the Metropolitan Cat turning into a dull roar. She’d feel so silent on the inside, her head as quiet as a stretch of sand, a cathedral silently worshipping the life that was all around her, storing it up for later when she needed some ‘too much’ to draw upon.”

Postcards, Pink and Delusions of Grandma, the third of the novels (about Cora Sharpe, a Hollywood screenwriter who is eight-and-a-half months pregnant and  contains letters to the unborn child signed “Your Motel” and “Mom Sequitur”) are confections with ambition. They’re instant gratification fiction. (“Instant gratification takes too long,” Suzanne Vale complains in Postcards from the Edge). The plotting is sometimes wayward – perhaps because they’re drawn from real life which doesn’t always have pleasing narrative arcs – but the writing bounces along, zinging with energy, and provides a social history of the decades the books were written in (the AIDS epidemic, drug addiction), albeit in a narrow social set – the Hollywood rich and famous. The novels are thinking girl’s chick-lit, comedies of manners with some good to painful puns, and a witty way with language.

Whatever galaxy Carrie Fisher now finds herself on, she should have no posthumous embarrassment about her fictional legacy.

(Extract from Postcards from the Edge courtesy of http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100395/quote)

 

 

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