APRIL 28, 2015
DISCOVERING SYLVIA PLATH is a rite of passage. Whether perusing an anthology in the local library (and stumbling across “Daddy”: “You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe”), reading The Bell Jar for a ninth-grade English class, or hearing an infinitely cooler acquaintance talk about the poet who stuck her head in an oven, once we encounter Plath, we do not forget her. She is a burning-hot confessional poet. She is also the inspiration behind Belzhar, the new young adult novel from author Meg Wolitzer. At its most basic level, Belzhar is a novel about a teenage girl whose desire has been unrequited. But the novel is also a complex exploration of the dynamics between narrative unreliability and the invention of reality.
The novel’s protagonist, Jam Gallahue, begins attending the Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally-fragile” teenagers, after the loss of her boyfriend, Reeve, who died mysteriously. At the Wooden Barn, she is placed in a highly selective English class, Special Topics in English, taught by Mrs. Quenell. Affectionately referred to as “Mrs. Q,” the teacher chooses Sylvia Plath as the topic for the semester. Jam and her four classmates, all of whom have suffered losses similar to Jam’s, must read Plath’s works, including The Bell Jar, and write in antique red journals given to them by Mrs. Q. In the journals, they can “write whatever best tells the story of [themselves].”
Jam and her classmates discover that the journals are a portal through which they can re-experience their pre-trauma existence. The first of the classmates to discover this is Sierra. Jam awakens one night, just after midnight, to the sounds of “shrieking and crying.” Sierra describes her alternate reality to Jam as an “experience that made no sense” and “surreal.” Jam cannot understand Sierra until she enters this alternate reality herself by writing in her own journal. Writing in the journal feels like being part of a vivid dream. Jam has lucid thoughts but recognizes the fiction of the universe she occupies. When she leaves this alternate reality, “page after page” of her journal is full of her handwriting, telling her story.
In class the next day, Jam and her classmates realize that “something’s happened” to all of them. They compare experiences in a secret emergency meeting after class and determine that they all had “visions” when writing in their journals. Jam and her classmates establish rules for their journal-writing: they will only write in their journals and visit this alternate reality twice a week; they will be consistent with the days of the week that they’ve chosen for writing; they will meet each Sunday night to discuss what has transpired during the week; and, “crucially,” they will never tell “a single outsider about any of this.” They name the alternate reality “Belzhar,” echoing Plath’s Bell Jar. Within Belzhar, Jam and her classmates “can each have what [they] want”; Belzhar is “the only way to get back whatever it is [they] lost” in the traumatizing ordeal that each endured.
Unlike some of her classmates who share stories of their former lives while in Belzhar, Jam does not reveal the details of her ordeal. Beautiful and sensitive Sierra tells the story of her brother’s abduction after their bus ride home together from dance class. Spunky wheelchair-bound Casey describes the night she became paralyzed after her mother drove drunk. Perfectionist Marc shares the story about the night his family fell apart when he accidentally discovered that his father had had an affair, and told his mother. Sulky Griffin remains an alluring mystery to Jam and does not share his story. As the novel progresses, however, Jam and her classmates become close friends.
Like Wolitzer’s work in The Interestings, friendships play an integral role in Jam’s development and emotional journey. Her friendships provide her with an opportunity to demystify a strange experience. The small, intimate setting of the boarding school (not unlike the summer camp in The Interestings) provides a site where Jam and her friends remain in close quarters. Because Jam and her friends are all accessing alternate realities, and because they establish a routine where they meet once a week to discuss their encounters, Jam bonds with her peers. What has previously been an alienating experience for Jam becomes one that she can use to connect with others. Although Jam and her friends each encounter their own memories in Belzhar, the presence of her friends gives her comfort and alleviates her loneliness.
In Belzhar, Jam and her lost boyfriend Reeve are once again together. Jam’s encounters with him are deep, vivid trances, night-swims in her subconscious. She replays her relationship with Reeve on loop, mixing memory with imagination. She examines her attraction to him, her desire for him. Each trip to Belzhar gives Jam the chance to analyze her story with Reeve. Jam describes Belzhar as “bleak,” a “wide-open space, all gray sky and flattened, dry grass,” which is also wonderful because Reeve is there. Belzhar is a restricted dimension, a dystopic utopia.
In Belzhar, Jam can only experience events that have actually happened and she can only remain in Belzhar for a limited period of time. She cannot bring new experiences to Belzhar. Each trip to Belzhar is rooted in an event that occurred before Jam lost Reeve. Jam and Reeve spend most of the time in Belzhar kissing, talking, playing out scenes that have already happened. But when Jam tries to take things further, when she tries to move beyond just kissing, when she tries to speak about her current life in boarding school with Reeve, it is impossible, and Reeve is uninterested. Jam explains that what she can have with Reeve in Belzhar is not “newness” but “only old experiences, revisited.” Jam’s time in Belzhar is also short. At the end of each of her visits to Belzhar, the “sky starts to change color again, and it’s like the intermission during a play, when the houselights blink, and you have to hurry back to your seat.” When the lights dim, Jam leaves Belzhar and awakens from her trance. She cannot remain in Belzhar forever. And while the Belzhar hallucinations are alluring, Jam ultimately gains the emotional energy to move forward.
The conclusion of the novel reveals both Jam’s unreliability as a narrator and her emotional fragility as a character. It turns out that the loss that Jam mourns, the death of Reeve, is metaphorical, not physical. The relationship with Reeve that she describes, and her experiences in Belzhar, veer from the events that actually occurred. The trauma that she endured is different from what she led us to believe throughout the novel. In fact, she has been sent to the Wooden Barn because of her inability to tell her own story accurately and, therefore, because of her unreliability as a narrator in her own life. Jam cannot adequately process what has happened to her and instead lives within her imagination and her own fictions. Jam leads us (and her friends) to believe that Reeve has died, when Reeve’s death is actually a symbolic figment of Jam’s imagination. Her trauma is not the death of a boyfriend but the distortion of her personal story of unrequited love. As readers, we’ve relied on Jam’s account, but Jam has been sent to the Wooden Barn for her inability to understand and tell her own story, her inability to narrate. Her emotional fragility is her narrative unreliability.
In this sense, Jam is an analysand of a Plath poem. Plath’s poetry — a lodestar throughout the novel — subtly speaks to Jam’s condition. Like the narrator in “Daddy,” who declares, “I have had to kill you,” Jam must “kill” Reeve. Jam is like the speaker in Sylvia Plath’s villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” who proclaims, “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. / (I think I made you up inside my head.)” Many of Jam’s experiences — the story she tells about Reeve, her hallucinations in Belzhar — exist entirely from her own invention, are the Mad Girl’s Love Song that she sings.
Jam accesses Belzhar because she is an unreliable narrator, because she is unable to accurately tell her own story. Belzhar — the hallucination, the trance, the dream, the selective memories — mesmerizes Jam because there she can retell, replay, relive her unreliable story again and again and again. Going to Belzhar itself is a deliberate invention of narrative. Wolitzer flips the idea of fiction on its head — within Jam’s unreliable story is a space for the promulgation of this story. Only when Jam realizes that her access to Belzhar is finite — that is, she will no longer be able to have these hallucinations once the semester ends and her journal is complete — does she begin to confront reality.
How much of reality is our own invention? We create, narrate, select, and curate the images and plotlines of our existence. We tell ourselves stories — stories in which the world drops dead, stories in which we have to kill — in order to live. We invent realities to sustain ourselves. Belzhar is ultimately about facing and writing what best tells the story of you.