Private Enemy Number One

Problems BY Jade Sharma. Coffee House Press. 208 pages. $16.

The cover of Problems

Heroin doesn’t sound like heroine by accident. The name for the drug derives from hero, or heroes, as in the late-nineteenth-century soldiers on morphine who fought through their injuries and floated home. The same then-legal morphine was popular among women of the upper classes, who used it to socialize where drinking was considered a man’s game and to survive what they felt to be either their boredom or their subjugation, depending how woke a lady can be while she’s nodding off. Pauline Manford, the rich and inchoate lead in a middling Edith Wharton book, Twilight Sleep, refuses to soldier through pain. Her battle cry is easy: “There ought to be no Pain” in the first place.

There’s very little ease to start in Problems, a debut novel about addiction from the deceptively sober perspective of a bona fide anti-heroine. The author’s name, Jade Sharma, conjures an elegance that her protagonist refuses: Maya could not be further from the legend of the colonial opium eater, broidered with hip-bony decadence, if she embodied the opposite one—to wit, the Nixonian myth that only the down-and-out, the poor and black, the white trash get high and addicted. Maya is middle class, average looking, intelligent, brown, and married to a hot but nice white guy, an underachiever named Peter, who—conveniently for his alcoholism—works in a bar. She works in an independent bookstore and can’t write a word of her master’s thesis. Some days, up to three in a row, she does one or two bags of heroin. If she does any more, she’ll be an addict, but for now she’s in that 1996 song about not being one: “It’s not a habit, it’s cool, I feel alive.” Well, apart from it being cool. It’s chill at best. Her wastrelsy lacks the shimmering aura of delusion, and instead there’s a “blackness underneath everything. Like a Rothko painting, how the blackness bleeds through.”

Maya admits to pain not as cause for addiction but as symptom of (temporary) withdrawal, except when she wonders, sarcastically, about why she won’t quit altogether:

I could use [heroin] until Peter and I had babies, and then slide right back into society, blend into Facebook with baby pictures, my hair in a baseball cap, complaining about how tired I was in my status updates . . . . All the pain went back to my mother. Freud didn’t seem that deep.

Another time, mixing things up, she traces the pain to her father. At least she had a father, says Elizabeth, her hot friend with the benzos. But no:

There are no competitions for pain because no one can be objective. We all have our own private hells. Mine was a father who showed no interest in my existence . . . . When I was a kid, I literally thought his name was “Dad.”

Jadedness is to be expected, since Problems is set in the always-uncool recent past. You’d think it was more illegal to glamorize drugs than to do them, now that we live in an era of refreshed awareness that people who buy throw pillows and anthologies of midcentury poetry also buy dope. See, for instance, the seven thousand articles in the last three years to the effect that an increase in opioid use by white people in mostly white areas is making us rethink our stance on the entire shebang. We are meant to believe that 24/7 work and work-related injuries, and the prescriptions that make each survivable, have replaced all-night partying as the slipperiest slope to said hells. I’ve believed that, too. Today I’m depressive enough to want to believe—and it may be true—that what I really am is idle, and when I’m idle I wonder whether I really have to work as much as I say I do, or as much as any of us do, or whether work is an antidote to life. Drugs kill, but living without drugs makes you want to die.

Marilyn Minter, Black Orchid, 2012, C-print, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Salon 94, New York
Marilyn Minter, Black Orchid, 2012, C-print, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Salon 94, New York

Maya says dope is “for fun or true moments of crisis”—but what fun, exactly? She goes to Peter’s family’s house for a bleak Christmas. She has punishing extramarital sex with an ugly old professor named Ogden, which is her idea of getting what she deserves. To compensate for her indulgences or compete with size-zero Elizabeth, she eats less and less, almost nothing, which is also indulgent. Anorexics like these think an addiction to lightness is the opposite, a serious discipline. As Edward St. Aubyn writes of his alter ego, Patrick Melrose, in Bad News, “How could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought?”

Another explanation is that Maya does drugs so she can spend more time in the bathroom: shaving. Plucking. “Snorting. Puking. Crying. Leaving weepy messages on Ogden’s voicemail.” See, again, Patrick as a junkie:

Once he had locked the bathroom door Patrick felt a familiar sense of security. Inside a bathroom he could give in to the obsession with his own physical and mental state which was so often compromised by the presence of other people or the absence of a well-lit mirror. Most of the “quality time” in his life had been spent in a bathroom.

People who get high say the danger point is getting high alone, which I’d qualify as getting high to be alone. I relate to anyone who, on showing up to a restaurant or house party, immediately needs to know where the bathroom is, making every entrance an emergency. I feel so much of Maya, which is why I sound a little like I hate her. She extends into public space the ugliness of the self in a bathroom, where all the surfaces are cool, the flesh unfortunate, whereas I’m too vain or polite to not spend an hour in the bathroom before showing my face—why should anyone have to see me the way I see myself with the door locked? Maya’s rudeness can be unforgivable, so it’s a good thing she’s unapologetic, not to mention funny.

Suddenly, not surprisingly, Peter leaves her. He doesn’t leave because she’s cheating; he either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to. Men in the straight world think women are always choosing between two different men; they tend not to think of a woman choosing between a man and herself. Peter does. Peter knows Maya will keep on preferring the bathroom to their bedroom. Love is a strain of consumption, even when it’s no longer all-consuming; love requires you to sleep on one side of a bed. Girl drug addicts sleep alone, to quote the Adderall diarist of the early-2010s Internet, Cat Marnell. Drugs at least don’t make you share.

Drugs do “make us ask what it means to consume anything, anything at all,” writes the genius Avital Ronell in Crack Wars, positing addicts not as users but as consumers who don’t shop by the rules.“Whether injecting themselves or smoking cigarettes or merely kissing someone,” she writes, figures like “Hamlet, De Quincey, Emma Bovary, Balzac, Baudelaire, William Burroughs, [and] Artaud . . . rerouted the hunting grounds of the cannibalistic libido” by thinking of “human nourishment” as inextricable from human self-destruction.

Maya, being a grad student, can rationalize her usage with lines of inquiry, but she isn’t such a slave to the discourse as to call her own brand of consumption “radical” when she means that, for a woman, it’s odd. (It’s also quite passive, and I have never been able to solve for “radical passivity,” or “radical boredom,” or in fact to find anything radical that isn’t either action or an act.) She does drift into the margins, taking up sex work to pay for her life, which includes up to six or seven bags a day now. Several histories of heroin cite an anonymous “lady of culture” in 1909 saying, “I am the last woman in the world to make excuses for my acts, but you don’t know what morphine means to some of us, modern women without professions, without beliefs. Morphine makes life possible.” Morphine makes sex with some dicks possible, where it wouldn’t be otherwise. It allows you to float over the hunting grounds.

It’s a law of “addiction lit” that what gets high must come crashing down, and stories like this that begin at a low point find a lower one. The turns are all here: rehab, relapse, recovery. The first two are handled with verve. The third is done in the second person, future tense—a voice I only want to hear on the hypnotist’s couch, and even there I find it ineffective. These final few passages are meant perhaps to subvert the inspirational mode, the message that when it can’t get worse, it gets better, but Sharma sounds bored by her own discovery, which is that wellness is as repetitive as addiction: “A new normal,” she writes. An old idea.

A better idea, in Problems, is the late embrace of pain as a side effect of living. There’s no meaning in living, though you do have to make a habit of it, and it helps to assume that suffering isn’t meaningful, either. (I once saw a T-shirt on the Internet, made anonymously by a young queer brunette, that said, “Don’t believe in meaningful suffering.”) There’s a bit where Maya thinks, selfishly, about Lucy Grealy, the writer whose disfiguring facial cancer and infinite surgeries got her doped to the point of overdose at thirty-nine: “She had made it, in my eyes. Why did she have to be vulnerable to the same emotional suffering as everyone else? Was I mad at her for not providing me with a happy ending?”

Am I mad at Sharma for not providing an ending at all? I know I was mad when I read, in Leslie Jamison’s 2014 opus, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” through the worshipful analysis of how Grealy suffered, how she fertilized her wounds, how she insisted “on the tyranny of the body,” only to be left obsessed with what Jamison didn’t mention: that Lucy Grealy died. She died. I mean it. Sometimes I can’t suffer for shit, and I seek out convenience, often with the result that hurt’s deferred. But I also can’t suffer a world of being a woman where pain is so exalted that it trumps, in our literature, our death. There ought to be pain, with good reason to make it beautiful, and there ought to be some free cures. There has to be a way to make pleasure bigger and interesting, or else why bother to live?

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York and the editor in chief of Adult magazine.