A purported romance novel, Carrie Fisher’s “Surrender the Pink” is both smarter and bleaker than you may expect. As you would expect, the writing is taut and bitterly funny – as you wouldn’t expect the central message is one of love without hope and of giving up on all of your dreams.
As Fisher was a woman, her fiction is always seen and reviewed through an autobiographical lens – “Surrender the Pink” being canonically The One About Being Married To Paul Simon. Quite why anyone would assume that anything a smart, inventive woman writes is somehow only about her (and her in relationship to a man, at that…) can be left perhaps as an exercise for the reader.
And the reader does get a lot of exercise. The writing is manic and “bitty” – in the sense of feeling a little like a compendium of pre-imagined bits, fragments of a (blistering) stand-up routine as the inner lives of Dinah Kaufman, soap-opera treatment writer and inveterate self-analyst. You need to pay attention to the many coded layers – of parody, irony, reference and wordplay – in order to follow what is a fairly slight but powerful tale of love (whatever that may be) lost (whatever that means).
A central conceit neatly upends that “women’s writing as autobiography” cliché – the central relationship of the book is paralleled as the central relationship of the (perfectly awful) daytime TV drama called “Heart’s Desire”. The book ends with Dinah enjoying a no-strings affair with the actor who plays the proxy-of-her-ex-husband character, whilst the assumed knight in shining armour (from a narrative perspective, at least) arrives late, irrelevant and useless. The only possible happy ending is Dinah’s constant worries about relationships becoming a background theme to her life, rather than a dominant melody – dialling her feelings down to a dull roar, as she puts it. Or it could be read as a retreat from messy reality to neat fiction. Or the realisation that everything that she wanted was unimportant. Or unattainable. Or both.
Fisher likes to land highbrow references, and parallels, as a further layer within the circularity of ideas. It makes the point that we play out, in relationships of whatever sort, the tropes and archetypes of fiction – emphasising the supreme power of lived fiction to shape reality. And in the same breath, shows the weakness of fictional devices – highbrow and lowbrow alike – in analysing interpersonal interaction.
Arguing about relationships between men and women from what amounts to a post-feminist position, Fisher’s carefully constructed similes and allusions can be read as arcane knowledge – arcane in the purest sense as of being useless to her protagonist. Dinah is able to contain multitudes (indeed, literally – her moods, Pam and Roy, separated and understood as both being necessary) and contradictions in ways that fictional characters are generally not subject to.
If the book has a weakness, it is the power of Fisher’s writing – her quick, wordy humour overwhelms on occasion the voices of individual characters, making it difficult care too much for anyone but Dinah – and to swallow enough exasperation to care much about Dinah. There’s an anti-Emma-esque quality to her dogged insistence to fail to make sense, in fascinating ways, of the lives and relationships of herself and others.
Post-truth in the truest way, the book speaks of places where truth fears to tread – and of the horror of being someone’s “black swan from hell”. It’s something I have re-read often, for reasons I’m grateful for even if I’m not sure I entirely understand them myself.