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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
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
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.