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One Pill Makes You SmallerReview - One Pill Makes You Smaller
A Novel
by Lisa Dierbeck
Picador, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 19th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 38)

This dark and powerful debut novel tells the story of Alice Duncan, an eleven-year-old girl.  Like Lewis Caroll's famous heroine, Alice has long blond hair, and there are other resemblances between this story and Alice in Wonderland.  But while the nineteenth century work was set in a land of fantasy, One Pill Makes You Smaller is set in 1970s America.  It contains no magical elements, but it does include drug use and sex, and given that Alice is so young, this is shocking.  Yet the tone of the book is strangely light and dispassionate, and the complexities of the plot make the author's intentions difficult to discern. 

There are some parallels between Alice and Dierbeck, since the short biography of the author on the back flyleaf says she was born and raised in Manhattan and that she spent summers in the 1970s on a hundred-acre farm with other young artists, which is what Alice does in her novel.  Alice's mother has abandoned the family and her father, formerly a well-known artist, is now in a mental institution, so she is being raised by her sixteen-year-old wild and irresponsible aunt Esmé.  Esmé wants to spend a month in California so she packs Alice off to North Carolina to a farm camp for artistic children that she herself had been to several years before. 

So Alice's life lacks all adult supervision.  She copes because she is the most mature person in her home, and she is perceptive and resourceful.  She has also entered into puberty very early, and looks several years older than she actually is.  But she has no romantic interest in boys, and she is uncomfortable with the attention that the several males around her pay her.  She is mostly interested in the collages that she constructs.  Alice is a compelling character because she on the one hand naïve and innocent and on the other precociously smart and pragmatic.  On this summer camp, she is completely at the mercy of older children and adults, and she has some terrible experiences. 

There are many ways one might interpret the novel.  For example, one might read it as a feminist condemnation of patriarchy and the desires of men to corrupt young girls.  Alice is defenseless and is used by men for their pleasure.  One might see the book as a painful coming-of-age narrative reflecting girls' ambivalence about their developing bodies.  However, Alice does not have much personal insight and so this aspect of the story is not particularly developed; the strength of the novel lies in other dimensions.

One might also take the work as a condemnation of the 1970s permissive culture.  When she arrives at the farm, Alice meets J.D., who is probably at least twice her age, and she tells him she is sixteen, although it is obvious that she is not.  J.D. deals in drugs and spouts the standard anti-authoritarian platitudes about society trying to take away people's freedom.  It is clear that his goal as soon as he meets Alice is to seduce her, but he insists that he is only doing what she wants.  He makes her tell him that it is what she wants.  However, Alice is just a child, and she finds it difficult to keep J.D. at bay when she has no one else to help her.  His insistence that she wants him makes her doubt herself and when she finally succumbs to him, she blames herself.  It's as if Dierbeck were inspired by Foucault's critique of Enlightenment values and was showing how talk of freedom can be used to control people.  In this novel, hippies who smoke dope and listen to Led Zeppelin might protest the restrictive demands of bourgeois life, but they are no more respectful of others than the conformists they disdain, and they are all the more disgusting because of their hypocrisy.  Her aunt Esmé apparently gets rid of Alice's dog so that she can go on her trip to California.  Even Alice's mother is willing to shrug off her maternal responsibilities and move to Italy. 

However, there are other elements in the novel that complicate it.  Most striking is the role of art and the artworld.  Two of the older children at the camp are eighteen-year-old twin girls, Faith and Hope.  When they meet Alice, they ask if she is the daughter of the Abstract Expressionist artist David Duncan, but they are not impressed.  "AE is hopelessly smug," says Faith.  They are highly competitive and condescending to Alice.  But the main teacher at the camp, a small woman called Odette Noko, gives Alice strong encouragement about her collages, while being critical of the work of the twins.  The camp used to be run by a figure called the Great Man, who has become a reclusive figure.  Eventually, Alice meets the Great Man, who turns out to be confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak.  For some odd reason, Alice assumes that he is God.  Once Alice returns home, almost broken by her experience, she gathers her strength to create a new series of photographs, inspired by a famous series of surrealist photographs of a marionette.  But in her work, the marionette is replaced by one of her aunt's friends, dressed up to look like the Great Man, holding a ransom note.  With this work, Alice plans to win a magazine photo competition.  It's a striking end to the novel, suggesting that she has used her summer experience to build her own mature artistic vision.  At the end of the novel, Alice seems far stronger and more determined.  Her new work shows her anger, not just at men, but the respected figure in art.  The novel's conclusion does not point to any obvious interpretation, yet it does suggest that Dierbeck's target is art. 

One Pill Makes You Smaller is a rich and provocative work, beautifully written.  If it does not open up to easy analysis, it nevertheless invites sustained reflection.  Dierbeck is certainly one of the most interesting young novelists writing today.  Highly recommended. 

 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanties Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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