One Pill Makes You Smaller, by Lisa Dierbeck

A trip in the counterculture's not-so-Wonderland
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The Independent Culture

The counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s saturated itself in myth and magic, and the heads' favourite fairy tale was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s saturated itself in myth and magic, and the heads' favourite fairy tale was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice has some dubious associations, but perhaps that helped to make it emblematic for an era in which rules were uncool - even if you were underage. Lisa Dierbeck uses Alice as a subtext for her first novel, which deals with one of the darker clouds in the dawn of the Age of Aquarius.

Alice Duncan is living in the Manhattan of 1976 with her dog Persephone, her hamster Charlie Chaplin and her Aunt Esmé. Esmé is really Alice's half-sister and a precocious 16; Alice is 11 and has a sizeable measure of maturity, which, very likely, she will lose with adolescence. For now she looks on as Esmé occupies herself with boyfriends, blotters and powders. Alice likes hanging out with them, but their drug-taking makes her anxious and she isn't keen on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

Her prosaic concerns also include Dean, who in a mental hospital. Dean is Alice's father, but he is an artist and doesn't like being called Daddy. Alice wonders whether the unfashionableness of Dean's brand of abstract expressionism is a good enough reason to commit himself.

A more immediate problem is the way Esmé's friend Rabbit is coming on to her. Rabbit is not alone. Men have started to stare at Alice's breasts and to behave oddly around her. She has entered puberty so early, she is the subject of medical research. Being a child-woman is fraught in an era when anything goes.

The situation deteriorates when she is sent to the Balthus Institute, a summer camp. Founded by the ageing artist Hans Balthus, it is in decline and almost empty. The real artist Balthus - he favoured the single name - painted pubescent girls in erotic poses; Dierbeck's version makes art from dolls that, in turn, evokes Hans Bellmer, German surrealist and paedophile. Here Alice encounters JD. Lanky, hirsute and amoral, JD is a grinning Cheshire Cat, his mind well and truly blown.

A comparison with Nabokov's Lolita is inevitable. Dierbeck's style has none of Nabokov's luxuriance, but her uncluttered prose faithfully reflects both Alice's naïve confidence and pre-teen apprehension, and her growing awareness of the downsides of adulthood. The narrative structure is overly truncated in parts. But Dierbeck's portrayal of this looking-glass world, and its inverted proprieties, is as entertaining as it is unflinching.

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