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Life is "sofa king" hard that 15-year-old Keek has developed an addiction to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.
In this cynical coming-of-age debut, this summer has to be the hardest. She is stuck at her grandmother's house because she has the chicken pox, her father cheated with a waitress from their family restaurant and her mother has left to support her sister's premature baby. In desperation, Keek turns to her grandmother's typewriter to write poetry and record recent events. She can't help but notice her similarities to Esther Greenwood, The Bell Jar's main protagonist. In her conversational first-person account, which often sounds more mature than most 15-year-olds but always gets the feelings right, Keek expounds upon the breakup of her family and her obsession with her virginity and when to lose it. Those who have read The Bell Jar will appreciate such other Esther-like details as Keek's unsympathetic mother, her nurturing grandmother (who suffered a nervous breakdown and shock treatments in the past), her wrestler boyfriend (who not only doesn't appreciate her poetry but has betrayed her by sleeping with someone else) and seeing his penis for the first time. Also like Esther, Keek blends serious subject matter with sarcastic humor and claims her "I am" mantra to begin the healing process and take charge of her future.
Whether or not they are Plath lovers, readers will delight in Keek's self-discovery. (Fiction. 14 & up)
DATE: July 12
BODY TEMP: 103.5
I once watched a collector kill a monarch butterfly on a nature show by putting it under a glass dome with a piece of cotton soaked in gasoline. The insect’s wings flapped less and less until they were perfectly still.
Suffocation is a cruel way to go.
I can’t breathe under my bell jar either.
I have the chills.
I’m drenched with sweat, smothered beneath a hundred-pound coverlet.
My head hurts. My eyes hurt. My tongue feels heavy so it’s hard to talk. If I stop typing, a vein in my forehead twitches with my pulse.
I close my eyes, leaning my head back on my pillow to rest. For a second it’s as dark as a midnight sky. Then I imagine the shattered pieces of my heart sparkling like mirror shards.
But when I open my eyes, I am still here: in the spare bedroom in my grandma’s house with her ancient green bottle of Muguet des Bois from her own high school years on the dresser. My deceitful and depraved father is still staying in the basement. My mother is still in California visiting her sister’s premature newborn, and my boyfriend, Matt, is still avoiding me.
The best years of my life.
And then the itching resumes with renewed fury.
Because I have the chicken pox. It’s a virus that, contrary to popular belief, you can still catch well into your teens.
I think I am losing my mind a tiny bit at a time. When the chatter in my head gets too loud, I start to type. The noise from the typewriter keys drowns out the noise in my head. Getting what I’m thinking onto paper in smudgy black letters feels good, like stretching or punching a wall. Or crying. Which I’m not doing much of anymore because it doesn’t seem to help.
I’m not the first person to ever be sick, enraged, depressed, delirious, betrayed, and confused all at the same time, or to use a typewriter to examine life in all of its jagged-edge glory. Sylvia Plath did it too, and she is the most inspired, beautiful, and subversive writer of her generation. She’d be almost one hundred years old if she were alive. So even if she didn’t kill herself when she was thirty, she’d be dead by now. At least she left us her poems and The Bell Jar.
The Bell Jar is about a young writer named Esther Greenwood and how she goes a little crazy and then gets better. But the book is really all about how life is unfair. And right now, whose life is more unfair than mine?
It’s also about losing your virginity, and babies being alive and beautiful, or dead and grotesque, and either way ruining your life. But mostly it is about how hard it is to be yourself in a world that wants you to be someone who is easier to deal with. And it’s about writing. Which I also love. And trying to kill yourself, which I’m so not into, even though being alive is sofa king hard for me lately.
For the past four months I’ve been reading my tattered dog-eared copy of the novel over and over again because it seems like the sanest thing to do. The book is challenging and comforting and often hilarious, unlike my own day-to-day, which is none of those things. Sylvia Plath is there for me when actual living people upon whom I have depended my whole life, are not. What I mean to say is, without her words, I’d be exponentially more messed up than I am already.
Do I have a computer? A link to the outside world? No. My cell is even out of commission since the last fight I had with Matt when I flung it against the wall of the walk-in freezer at my parents’ restaurant. The screen’s not cracked or anything, but the # key chipped off and is somewhere in a vat of shredded mozzarella. I didn’t tell my parents, because then they would have asked what the fight was about. (My virginity! Huzzah!) And for all I know, some poor customer is going to swallow a # key and die of a ruptured intestine and sue my parents, and it will all be my fault.
Without real entertainment, I will try anything to amuse myself. Not unlike the polar bears at the Brookfield Zoo, I need complex toys to keep me from going insane in my ten-by-ten cage. When Gram lugged this electric typewriter up from the basement this morning so I could practice my “typing skills,” I was actually excited. She gave me a lesson on shifting and carriage return before she left to drop off shirts for my dad at the dry cleaner’s.
It’s a gray-green IBM, and weighs about a thousand pounds, but actually it is pretty amazing. Fast. When I hit the keys, they clickity-clack. As the ink presses onto the paper, it’s like I’m actually making something. Like art.
Maybe it’s the pox, or my frying brain, but all I really want to do is type. I’m sick of being a hunt-and-pecker, typing like an intelligent duck. I was halfheartedly taking an online keyboarding class, and would have still been at it if I hadn’t gotten stricken in my prime. But I am trapped in this little bedroom, which used to be my great-grandma’s before she died. I’m alone with this antique typing device. My brain. And a fever. How much more Plathian can I be?
Computers are quiet and clean and totally distracting because the Internet is there, lying in wait for a moment of weakness to pounce on your creativity and progress. Sylvia didn’t have to deal with Facebook. Blogs. Etsy. Twitter, for Christ’s sake.
Gram just has basic cable, so TV is rather limited, but doable. The woman makes perfect boiled eggs, though, and buys the really good orange juice, the Sabor Latino with guava kind that my mom says smells like feet. Weird, the things that are making me miss my mom. She’s in Los Angeles, but she might as well be in Siberia.
My head is throbbing and I am scratching so much that the sheets are leopard printed with spots of light pink blood. Not that my father would even notice. Dad is either working alone at the restaurant or driving the Dine & Dash delivery van around the streets of his youth, wondering where the hell it all went wrong and thinking not at all about his abandoned, ailing, and itchy only child—me.
High on the exam table,
You watch me from the doorway.
While the doctor twists my arm
My heart plays dress-up.
Disguised as a little girl,
I am asleep on a merry-go-round.
Itching and aching,
Mouth dry as toast.
What to do?
Daddy, Daddy, you traitor, I’m through. 6
© 2011 Arlaina Tibensky
Posted September 13, 2011
And Then Things Fall Apart is so far from what I thought it was going to be, but fantastic all the same. As depressing as it may sound for Keek to be stranded at her Gram's house, with chicken pox -
like the flu, but with infectious and hideous wounds that itch like fire-breathing ants all over your body and could scar you for life if treated improperly. ~ pg. 8
- alone with her thoughts, her Gram's old typewriter, and her cheating father living in the basement, it's not. Keek's life is in the process of a very fast disintegration and all she can do is watch, write, and relate to Sylvia Plath's, The Bell Jar, but somehow, And Then Things Fall Apart is anything but depressing.
Keek 's brain is befuddled with fever, she's angry at her parents, at her truth-withholding, now ignoring her boyfriend, but has enough wits about her to be hilariously cynical. She relates almost everything back to Plath and The Bell Jar and depression, but does so with a flair of humor. She's lonely and disregarded and itchy and everything a 15 year old, only child of soon-to-be divorced parents should be.
But then she's so much more. Keek is one of most well-developed and intelligent teen characters I've ever read. Not only is she all the things I said before, but she's reasonable even when no one would expect her to be. Keek's life isn't easy, at least not at the moment, but she works through it. Can she be a bit melodramatic? Absolutely. But she knows that. She sees her own flaws and is upset about them, but doesn't allow it to hold her down. She doesn't even allow the broken trust and the broken family she now has to put her into a depression.
In typing her chicken pox filled summer days away, Keek deals with her issues. And the reader will get to meet a realistic, albeit very snarky and sassy, girl with actual issues that are easy to relate to. She loves her parents, loves her Gran, loves her boyfriend, loves her best friend, but also loves herself. Arlaina Tibensky infuses Keek with personality and makes her, not only her own, but the readers as well. We meet and know her family, experience her anger, her losses, her betrayals, and her joys almost firsthand.
And Then Things Fall Apart is a touching and comedic debut. Tibensky's writing has a certain quirk to it that makes it compulsively readable and impossible to put down. The blunt humor had me reeling with laughter, while Keek's internal turmoil and emotional conflicts add heart. Being in Keek's mind is an unrestrained combination of parental shame, lusty thoughts, bouts of depression, and a whirlwind of every other emotion. Tibensky has instantly become an author to watch for and I'll be picking up anything and everything she puts out there.
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Posted December 25, 2011