After Listening and Talking Back to Prozac, Prozac Nation, Prozac Diary, and of course Beyond Prozac, the world seems to need another Prozac book like a serotonergic hole in the head. But trust me, Prozac Highway is unlike any other Prozac book you will read. Were this novel to fit more neatly into the fold, it might have been told from the perspective of a doctor, amazed by the wondrous effects of the new drug. Or by a different doctor, convinced that Prozac was a multinational conspiracy . Or by a patient, indebted if not entirely cured. But Persimmon Blackbridges cynical, real-time, cybersexed novel does not merely diverge from these narrative forms; she turns them on their head. The result is an intermittently hilarious, troubling, and thought provoking work that promises to make a reader re-think that serotonin rush experienced when reading other works of the Prozac genre.
The novel is narrated by Jam, who (like Blackbridge) is a fortysomething lesbian performance artist/cleaning woman. Jam spends much of her life "too depressed to do much ..."and one could well argue that the book moves at roughly the same pace. Jam is too down to shower or change, or even to dream up lesbian sex stories for her performance act with Roz. Luckily though, Jam is more than able to sit in front of her computer engaging in cyber-group-therapy with a worldwide web of "mental patients" connected via the listserv "ThisIsCrazy." Lucy is a "sixty-eight year-old het who lives by herself on disability in rural Virginia." (characters are identified by their web-names, as if postmodern CB truckdrivers.) Parnell, who could have been a doctor, lives "on the dirty side of Newark, keeping himself out of the psych ward by working as a patients rights advocate." And Fruitbat spends her days in the Baltimore public library, trying to appear un-crazy as she detoxes from neuroleptics.
The amazing thing about this novel is that not much really happens, unless your idea of action is watching messages pop up on your email. The discussions, and indeed the characters, are only known to Jamand by extension, to the readerthrough the simulacra-speak of the internet. Interactions, conversations, and even seductions are flattened out thanks to the mediation of the computer. And "meatworld" (as opposed to "networld") interactions are flattened out even more, thanks to affect, indifference, or the impossibility of human connection. Through the course of the narrative, Jam progressively withdraws from what we might consider "social interaction," if by social interaction we mean intersubjective, physical engagement with another living being. Jam spends more and more of her time in her apartment, avoids her friends and former lovers (although she has plenty of time for her hallucinations), and hardly has the energy to feed herself. She appears, in other words, to be following the DSM IV criteria for a psychotic variety of depression as if reading a cookbook (although, as she explains, "I dont do cookbooks.") And yet, the amazing feat of this novel is that within this nothing, something comes to life. Thanks to Jams unique perspectives, and a gifted act of storytelling, a reader cant help but become imprecated in (or interpolated in?) the seemingly disembodied strains of narrative. Will Jam finish her story? Will she ever connect with Fruitbat, her psychotic seductress? Will Junior regain his freedom? And who, thinking of the superego, is Mie Lin, anyway?
The success of this book is in its act of community formation, within a landscape that works to inhibit real connection. Doctors tragically (and indeed hilariously, when one thinks of Kramers book) misunderstand patients. The mental health system seems to abuse those within its care (the book offers a strong attack upon the notion of involuntary outpatient commitment.) Lovers use and discard each other. Depression and despair lurk around every corner. And yet against these obstacles, the character of Jam, and her cadre of cyber-R.D. Langians bind together to form genuine networks of support. In the process, Prozac Highway offers more than an often humorous, frequently hyper-sexual account of despair. It provides an empathic account of, and sharp critique of, the discourses all too often effaced in the therapeutic discourse that listens and talks back to Prozac without stopping to consider the voices that have been left out of the discussion.