Miss Portland: A Novel by David Ebenbach, Orison Books, 2017
David Ebenbach’s first novel, Miss Portland, could serve as a model for short story writers attempting a novel: a single plot, compressed time line, and character-driven action add up to an important and touching depiction of the complexities of selfhood and being with mental illness. Ebenbach has published three award-winning short story collections (The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, Into the Wilderness, and Between Camelots), a poetry collection (We Were the People Who Moved), a poetry chapbook (Autogeography), and a guide to creative practice, (The Artist’s Torah). It’s tempting to think his background in psychology (he has a Ph.D. in the subject) gives him special insight to writing from the point of view of a character with a mental illness. An earlier and very brief story—“Nobody Else Gets to be Crazy When You’re Being Crazy,” published in The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy—is told in second person from the points of view of family and friends of the “you” character, one who struggles mightily with mental illness and whose struggles tend to dominate her relationships. It seems fitting that in Miss Portland the person with the mental illness—Zoe Tussler—gets an entire book from her point of view.
Told in close third person narration, the point of view is so firmly in Zoe’s head that every bit of narrative description and scene is filtered through her consciousness. If Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood remains at a cool intellectual remove in The Bell Jar, having had years to process her breakdown, we experience Zoe’s troubles with her in the moment, as her perceptions become more and more unreliable. Though the narrative springs solely from Zoe’s ramped-up thoughts and feelings, the story never feels oppressive. Her manic episode offers a testament to the power of fantasy and magical thinking. At the start of the novel, she is filled with hope and energy, and it’s impossible to resist her zest for reinvention and rehabilitation. Ebenbach vividly depicts Zoe’s ever-more-manic state, fraught with exhilarating highs and Godlike expansiveness. She sees herself on the rise, regenerating, making progress, “like her ideas were already creating ripples in the universe.” We want her to succeed, we’re cheering for her, even as we know things probably won’t go her way. From the first sentence, a hint of the trouble: “Zoe knew what other people didn’t: she knew that life was perfectible.”
Indeed, much of the complication of the book arises from problems of perception: Zoe’s mistaken belief that life and self are perfectible; her view of herself—sometimes as broken, at other times invincible—versus how others see her and how she would like to be seen. In particular, she would like to abandon her diagnoses: “Regular psychiatrist therapy was basically about telling her that she was stuck being who she was…’I had to leave therapy because I am not described by those labels.'” Later in the book she describes her weariness at being different, a fatigue that descended in college: “She was the wacky friend in their unwacky lives. Which was a fun role to play sometimes. But not forever.”
From Zoe’s point of view, her family especially sees her as troubling, disturbing, a potent force to be contained. Periods of her life have been marked off by episodes—a word Zoe despises, along with “manic” and “cycle.” Her therapist cautions her, “‘This is just part of your cycle, Zoe,’ whenever she had an idea to get her moving forward.” To make matters worse, whenever they fear a new “episode,” they bring up her failed attempts at non-Western, non-traditional therapies. In Zoe’s view, her every attempt to change is met with resistance and skepticism.
At the time we meet her, she is well into her 30s and has learned from her many traumatic experiences—about mindfulness and meditation, most recently. She has met a yoga instructor on a retreat and hatched a plan with him to open a mindfulness center in Maine where he, Gordy, lives in a trailer on his parents’ property. In a fit of exuberant hope, Zoe abruptly quits her job in Philadelphia, leaving her worried family and skeptical friends behind. She skips town without telling her therapist, aware that he’ll challenge her.
In part, Zoe’s character works so well because despite her perceptions, she is actually quite self-aware. No one could be more mindful of her situation, and she ever struggles to make the best of it. After Gordy postpones opening the mindfulness center, she accepts a job as a custodian at the yoga studio where he works, telling herself “at times it did feel sort of meditative.” For all this, though she is a character who inspires empathy, Ebenbach does not hold back when showing the darker side of her personality under the influence of mania. Her perspective on medication is painful, delivering her as it has to a stability in Philadelphia that she found maddeningly mundane. And Zoe herself delivers to us stories from her past in which she recognizes herself as the antagonist—someone who smashes plates and lashes out, someone who needs to be subdued for her own safety and the safety of others.
If Ebenbach excels at making us understand Zoe’s pain, he is no less humane in dealing with the large cast of supporting characters. Though Gordy comes across as a jerk, he may be a well-intentioned jerk, one who mistakenly believes he has answers to Zoe’s problems. It’s possible Gordy is a serial control freak, righteous and over-confident, a kind of humanist zealot prescribing smoothies and mindfulness. In the end, his response to the culmination of Zoe’s “episode” reveals him for what he is.
It’s easy to sympathize with Zoe’s family, who are decent, loving, and worried, while at the same time seeing from Zoe’s point of view how exasperating it is to be the family problem. Gordy’s parents are emotionally distant, but not cruel. A barista Zoe befriends exhibits both kindness and caution in dealing with this friendly stranger. Among Zoe’s intimate circle, there are no villains. Some folks get it right some of the time.
In the past, Zoe has suffered at the hands of people who prey on the vulnerable. These incidents illustrate the extremes of harm to which Zoe’s illness leaves her vulnerable. She also suffers a nearly unbearable sensitivity to the jesting remarks of family and friends, which she pretends to tolerate in order to fit in. Her parents who love her unequivocally wound her with the words of diagnosis. It is stunning how much pain loving, caring people inflict unintentionally. Gordy muses that he can’t tell if he’s hurting her feelings (he is) or establishing reasonable boundaries (he is). What the world deems sick and dysfunctional, Zoe recognizes as self and life.
Ebenbach’s writing about mental illness compares favorably to Denis Johnson’s writing about addiction in Jesus’ Son for its ability to vividly convey an experience that many of us don’t understand or have access to. When Zoe thinks about her period of recovery after leaving the commune, she notes, “Remembering any of that time was like cutting a window in herself. Cutting it with a serrated knife.” Her meditation on her life’s journey, too, is vivid and heartbreaking:
For her part, Zoe knew that the word ‘episode’ was wrong. It wasn’t something episodic— and it wasn’t cyclical, either…she thought of it as something more continuous. In fact, she saw it as the culmination of two decades of having her dials turned wrong for this world and nobody noticing, or at least nobody helping. And she knew other things had gone wrong, too—plenty of things. But that was part of the continuousness too. The problem was that people just didn’t see things in enough dimensions. Because think about it: if you look at something and it looks like a circle, you might just be seeing it in two dimensions, and if you step to the side, to get an angle on it, you’d see that the person isn’t circling but moving along a path that’s more like a spiral, the thread on a screw, or a coiled spring. These things, because each time she came around again, she wasn’t where she started, she was further forward. And maybe the spring was partially submerged, so that she repeatedly ended up back down in the syrup, but she also repeatedly came out of it, and when she did she had made forward progress.
If the success of this novel rests on the development of its protagonist, then that success also rests on Ebenbach’s ability to see Zoe in all her dimensions, not simply as a collection of symptoms, an object of fascination, or a problem to be solved. Ebenbach capitalizes on the hallmarks of the short story in combination with the expansiveness of a novel to give Zoe the space she deserves. The ending, too, succeeds because Ebenbach is a masterful short story writer; he knows what rings true, what’s plausible in the realm of insight. Zoe’s final meditation, gorgeously written, grants her a modest realization, one that is believable and heartening, and yet full of uncertainty. On the way to this moment, Ebenbach delivers an absorbing, suspenseful story of emotional depth and complexity.