Carrie Fisher’s war on unhappiness
Like most people on the planet, when I first saw Carrie Frances Fisher she was uploading an SOS hologram of herself into a beeping droid: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope,” she repeated in an earnest flickering loop, while casting nervous looks over her shoulder.
From that vulnerable first appearance, Princess Leia goes on to establish herself as warrior, resistance leader, heroine and legend. This was Carrie’s trajectory in life, too. Certainly, I can think of no figure who did more over their lifetime to emerge from the holographic, celluloid or digital shimmer of stardom into solid, authentic reality.
Without ever losing the charisma, mystery and glamour that were both her inheritance and her achievement, Carrie uncovered the livid bruises of her life with a dignity and honesty that connected her with millions. Avoiding the least hint of self-pity or grandiosity, she spoke and wrote on addiction, self-harm and mental health well before such candour was an everyday occurrence on breakfast TV.
On top of the attention she received almost from the moment she was born, in October 1956 to showbiz glamour couple Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie endured that special torture visited on female stars, scrutinised with a remorseless intensity that might be expected to destabilise even the most mentally robust.
She rose above it all. “Angels can fly,” G K Chesterton wrote, “because they can take themselves lightly.” Carrie’s weapon was wit. And the charm and the brilliance of it burst in on the world with the publication, in 1987, of her matchlessly funny, feisty and lovable first novel, Postcards from the Edge, a far from securely locked roman-à-clef whose protagonist, Suzanne Vale, would appear to be a thinly disguised version of Carrie herself.
The novel begins in epistolary mode, offering a succession of postcard-sized communications. There follows a section written as diary entries, then a sparkling chapter of “he said/she said” dialogue, before the book gathers up its skirts and canters to a close in a more conventional third-person mode. The combination of this mastery of form, the blizzard of cocaine, the humour and – caught up in it all – a mordant, ironic, lost soul whose story it is, gave rise at the time of publication to comparisons with the new school of so-called Brat Pack writing that was making a big noise on both coasts of America in the Eighties.
Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York pioneered this sharp new literary style on the East Coast, and Bret Easton Ellis did the same for Los Angeles with Less Than Zero. All three were successively published in the three years leading up to Postcards from the Edge. That the broadsheet reviewers of the day could place Carrie seriously in the same bracket as such thoroughbred and exclusively literary writers as these reveals something of the quality of her talent.
Those other three books were all transferred quickly to the big screen, and Carrie herself wrote the film adaptation of Postcards from the Edge; Mike Nichols directed, Meryl Streep played Suzanne and Shirley MacLaine scintillated as Doris Mann, channelling all the ski-pant charm and musical pizzazz of Carrie’s real life mama. It is a wonderful film that stands up today as one of the best achievements in the careers of all concerned. The original novel, however, is inhabited and informed by the interior thoughts, words and workings of character in a way that no film could hope to match. It is the richer, deeper experience.
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Suzanne should not be interpreted as a reliable self-portrait, however much she might appear to be one. In all the years I knew her, Carrie never exhibited any of the self-pity in which her hero is prone to luxuriate. Rueful, wistful and naive expectations of romance and rescue are playfully explored in the novel, and Suzanne, for all her bravado, is never quite as strong or realistic about life as her creator.
Carrie’s own journey through the hell of addiction and recovery by way of manifold therapies, pharmaceutical and even electroconvulsive (“I love it,” she once told me, “but it does affect your memory. Oh and the other thing is – it affects your memory.”), is recorded in her subsequent books and diaries, but this novel, with its energy, bounce and delivery of a loud laugh on almost every page, stands as a declaration of war on two fronts: on normal and on unhappy.
It was a war that Carrie Fisher fought with honour, honesty, good humour and stunning bravery throughout her short and fabulous life.
Mommie dearest: Meryl Streep, left, and Shirley MacLaine in Mike Nichols’s 1990 film of Postcards from the Edge; and with Fisher at the premiere, below