The uppers and downers of life

PROZAC NATION Elizabeth Wurtzel Quartet pounds 10
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The Independent Culture
Clearly, depression is the new rock 'n' roll, and the words "Get down" have taken on a whole new meaning. Kurt Cobain has found wider fame as a suicide victim than he ever did as a musician. The pill that fashionable Manhattan boasts of popping is not a narcotic or a hallucinogen but the anti- depressant Prozac. And now Elizabeth Wurtzel, former rock critic of the New Yorker, has produced a bestselling memoir of her own wanderings on the wilder shores of hopelessness.

A troubled and depressed adolescent, she eventually became one of the first people to be prescribed those little buff-and-green Prozac capsules whose image, like a showbiz star's, was soon appearing on magazine covers and T-shirts.

Her parents divorced when she was quite small and her father reappeared only very occasionally. Her mother was, is, the genuine Jewish article, devoted all right but smothering and hectoring by turns. Elizabeth says, "I come from a family of screamers. If they are trying to express any idea or emotion beyond pass the salt, it comes in shrieks."

It should be said in Mrs Wurtzel's defence that, as Elizabeth makes very plain, daughters do not come much more difficult than herself. The trouble started when she was first sent away to summer camp. She cut her legs up with razors, overdosed on her hay fever pills, and alienated the other girls by listening to gloomy old Velvet Underground tracks instead of the approved smash hits.

She says, "I always thought of self-destructive behaviour as a red flag to wave at the world, a way of getting the help I needed." It didn't work very well. Her parents put her in therapy but the wrangles over which of them was going to foot the bill just made life worse.

Nothing if not bright, Elizabeth still got into Harvard and did things like winning a student journalism prize from Rolling Stone and landing a vacation job as an arts reporter with the Dallas Morning News. This would be puzzling, given the string of major crack-ups she suffered, the painfully unsuitable boy-friends she always picked, the miscarriage and the semi-deliberate disasters like getting too stoned to meet her grandparents at the airport, except that the cool, dark humour with which she describes it all is evidence of a powerful underlying talent.

She both endears and infuriates, and probably intends to. Desperate to be wanted, she once got mouth sores from giving too many blow jobs, but any male readers who like the sound of that should also note her tendency to call up her man-of-the-moment continually, demanding reassurances of love.

The comedy and the pathos reach a climax on a ghastly trip to London, made during time off from her final college year. Escaping the clutches of a slimy Jag-driving Old Etonian who offered to show her around but didn't show her any further than his naff black leather bed - "I thought you understood" - she parked herself on one of her friends' exes, an Argentine merchant banker with a Knightsbridge pad, who put her in a tiny windowless basement room and ignored her. Soliciting his affection in her usual way didn't pay off, and the Harvard boy who came over to rescue her couldn't handle her moods. He reminded her what Dr Johnson said: tired of London, tired of life. "I think you're finally catching on," she said.

An overdose on her return led to hospitalisation under police guard - suicide's illegal in Massachusetts - and then Prozac. "I became all right, safe in my own skin. It happened just like that." But she knows the drug is overrated, and no cure for the general downness of young America. She is suspicious of "misery-chic" and, as a "real sicko", knows there's nothing chic about misery.

The book goes on too long, and goes round in circles a lot, but depression is like that too, so it may have the virtues of its faults. The mass of cultural references and the chapter epigraphs from sombre pop songs are fairly superfluous, but they do heighten the sophomore atmosphere.

Ironically, according to a recent report, the American edition has sold so well that the tax man has frozen Elizabeth Wurtzel's bank account with a view to recovering her student loan, so she can't now afford to take Prozac. The drug is, I gather, 20% more expensive in the US than in the British private sector, and 20 times more expensive than on the NHS. Elizabeth should bank her British royalties safely over here and give London another try, now she isn't tired of life any more.