Carrie Fisher's latest novel comes with a glowing endorsement from her New Best Friend, Graham Norton. "I'd been looking for a beautifully written, hilarious romp through mental illness," he writes, "and finally Carrie Fisher has come up trumps!" But don't let this put you off. The Best Awful, a follow-up to Fisher's acclaimed 1987 novel, Postcards from the Edge, does discuss mental illness. It's also very funny, in places. But a romp it is not.
The book begins with Suzanne Vale, the loud-mouthed, messed-up actress heroine from Postcards, pondering a problem: "She'd had a child with someone who forgot to tell her he was gay. He forgot to tell her, and she forgot to notice." The Best Awful is more obviously autobiographical than Postcards and, perhaps as a result, not as laugh-out-loud funny. Fisher's parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, might wince at some of the descriptions (Suzanne's father has "had so many facelifts he looks Chinese"), and sleazy, coke-addicted actors ought to be very worried.
But with her intimacy and insight, Fisher manages to bring that essential sense of me-too to a world of Hollywood excess, star-fucking and therapy that none of us is ever likely to experience. Like, you know when you stop taking your anti-bipolar disorder medication, seduce a Hollywood superstar, cut off your hair, get tattooed, convert to Judaism, spend all your money on glitter-spray, neck handfuls of OxyContin and drive to Tijuana with a Neanderthal tattooist who's just served several sentences for manslaughter? Dontcha just hate it when that happens?
It's a fascinating and grotesque insight into fame, from someone who has seen it from most angles. "Famous was a little like opiates to Suzanne," she says. "It always felt like too much or too little - she never got out of it quite what she had been looking for." There's also something surreally post-modern and slightly unhinged about Fisher writing about Suzanne/herself watching herself on celluloid. "Films were her reference," she says. "Even though she herself had acted in some of these depictions and knew how they were altered to serve dramatic requirements, she still looked to them for wisdom and guidance." In a rare, touching moment, Suzanne describes how she uttered her first word - "Hi" - to try to stop her mother leaving. Since then, it seems, she hasn't stopped talking. So when she finds herself in a mental institution with her words missing "and the... well, things, that went with them", it is heartbreaking.
Words are Fisher's ammunition, and she fires them almost indiscriminately. Her stream-of-consciousness Tijuana monologue is truly frightening - not least because her mania seems to speak with the relentlessly punning voice of Kathy Lette. It's as if, having become known as a coruscating wit, Fisher feels she has to keep up the gag rate at any cost. She shouldn't.
Fisher has earned a name as a clever and witty comic novelist with the ability to bring humour and insight to the grimmest of subjects. But she should keep medicating her inner Kathy, for fear her next novel could become a "romp".
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