"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Critical Homage to The Princess Diarist

The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When revisiting my earliest brushes with depression, two episodes come to mind. The first involved being persuaded by a loved one that Santa Claus wasn’t real. The second, and much more significant at the time, was discovering that actress Carrie Fisher—portrayer of Star Wars’ Princess Leia—had married. I won’t say I loved Ms. Fisher. I was 8. Infatuated? Yes. Love? Maybe the puppy kind. But discovering she had already wedded wreaked havoc with my fantasy.

As I grew up, my early obsession with Carrie faded. Then, last week I saw her new book, The Princess Diarist, on display at the bookstore. I read one of her irresistible press interviews and knew I had to read the book. Per the press, this book reveals Carrie’s affair with Harrison Ford during filming of the first Star Wars film. If I’m not mistaken, her affair with Mr. Ford was already known, or at least authoritatively rumored. I swear I remember their liaison being asserted in the book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise by Chris Taylor.

To any fans professing shock, and any reporters depicting this discovery as startling, I say, “Duh.” As for me? Not shocked. Not surprised. Not thinking less of Harrison or Carrie. Little jealous maybe … of both. And so are many of you. In any case, I found the book hilarious and poignant in its catharsis, which is to say quintessential Carrie Fisher.

The chief selling point of The Princess Diarist is the inclusion of excerpts from 19-year-old Carrie’s journal written during the affair. These excerpts comprise the middle third of the book. They include both prose and poetry, and you can see the snappy pointed writer emerging. But the more I read Carrie’s journal, the less the book seemed to be about hooking up with Harrison Ford. The deeper Carrie talks about Harrison/Han—both in the journal and in hindsight—the deeper she explores her being Carrie/Leia.

To this day, Carrie thrives on clever writing. Her humor leans into you. She has a lot of fun with prose, delivering gotcha wordplay. She revels in naked ironies and unflattering implications. Yet looking back, Carrie describes herself as clever but not intellectual, well-read but less than scholarly. More than anything I’ve ever read or seen about Carrie, The Princess Diarist reveals head-on how much pain she has coped with as a woman and as an artist.

When I reached the excerpts of Carrie’s journal, I silently accepted that I would be reading this book in a single evening. She reveals a 19-year-old being extremely hard on herself. It foreshadows the emotional and chemical challenges she would come to endure. It’s honest. It’s self-indulgent. It’s full-on late-teens angst.

As I read these passages, a supreme realization hit me deep in the gut, in an emotional place where I sometimes regress to being an 8-year-old boy. Wow, I thought, Carrie Fisher is letting me read her journal.

I didn’t steal her journal. She offered it to me. I read on, equal parts 8-year-old gawker and 41-year-old courtier. As a writer, but more importantly as a ruthless self-critic with his own melodramatic teenage journals stashed away, I felt Carrie had given me a gift. Reading further and further, I felt as close to her as I have ever been or ever may be. Not in a worshipful way. And not in a fanatical or prurient way, I don’t think.

With the journal excerpts complete, Carrie mostly dispenses with discussions of Harrison. She moves directly into the love affair fans have with her, whether she wants them to or not. Here too, the details feel both awkward and inevitable. Carrie says, “My affair with Harrison was a very long one-night stand.” Compare this to her description of signing autographs for paying comic-con fans as a “celebrity lap dance.”

Occasionally the narration feels pulled along taffy-like with overwrought sentences. Yes, it’s a stylistic choice to which far less accomplished writers like me might aspire. Still, where the prose grows effusive it seems to lack the poise of a masterwork (this criticism is not made of the late-teen journal excerpts, which are priceless). Nevertheless, I highly recommend The Princess Diarist. It contains the thoughtful reflections of a talented and troubled writer. We’re all troubled. Carrie stares down the trouble and turns it into fearless prose and candid reflection.

Whatever the merits or downsides of The Princess Diarist’s exposé content, for me it comes down to this. A long time ago, a smitten 8-year-old boy dreamed of getting close to Carrie Fisher. This week his dream came true.

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