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Author's debut novel is by necessity schizophrenic 

Wednesday, Oct 7 2009

It used to be called multiple personality disorder, but now the official clinical term is dissociative identity disorder. Is that better? It's less reductive, maybe, but not exactly clarifying. Of course, we still get the idea, but it's sort of like saying "women's fiction" instead of "chick lit."

Helpfully, to this discussion at least, dissociative identity disorder and women's fiction happen to converge in San Francisco writer Shana Mahaffey's debut novel, Sounds Like Crazy. The results, if uneven, seem uncommon in literature. Let's put it this way, within a loose context of other media: Sounds Like Crazy isn't as hopelessly cheesy as that early-'90s TV show Herman's Head, in which some dude's intellect, sensitivity, anxiety, and lust were personified in order to lounge around the rec room of his noggin, occasionally prompting mayhem. Nor is it as chicly bombastic as United States of Tara, the much more recent Showtime series created by Juno scribe Diablo Cody for Toni Collette to play one housewife's four alter egos.

Mahaffey charts a more middle-of-the-road course. Her protagonist, Holly Miller, seems normal enough: Like many of us, Holly is just trying to get by, with an estranged family, a couple of nameless cats, an iffy grad-student boyfriend, a dead-end job, an understanding therapist, and, yes, the five people living inside her mind.

Known to Holly collectively as "the Committee," they are the Boy, whose face she never can make out; the Silent One, an aged mystic who prays a lot and almost never speaks; Sarge, a vaguely parental protector and de facto drill instructor; Ruffles, who sits around eating chips all day and has the hundreds of extra pounds to show for it; and Betty Jane, the alpha, an attention-addicted Southern belle.

Holly herself grew up in the Bay Area, but lives in New York City. "Chatting in front of the Cheerios with myself went unnoticed in a big city," Mahaffey writes. "If I let down my guard like this back in Palo Alto, Nancy from my mother's bridge club would spot me and tell Marjorie and Kate, and the next thing you knew all the families would be sitting poolside at some neighborhood barbecue whispering about me instead of their monthly Botox treatments."

It's no secret that at some point in her young life, Holly suffered a major trauma. It is the prerogative of the book to help her acknowledge and get past it. So Betty Jane landing Holly the lead role in a new animated TV show is not quite the kind of breakthrough she'd been needing.

The transparency of Mahaffey's plot — that sense of oh, let's just guess how this will play out — is magnified by having been processed through all of Holly's identities. Knowing what's coming can, in the weaker moments, be five times as irritating. In the stronger moments, however, the concept matters less than characterization, and what emerges is an accessibly nuanced tale of triumph over elaborately self-imposed limitations.

Sounds Like Crazy, like plenty of other novels, does sometimes feel like a dressed-up journal of personal therapy. Its heroine's disposition progresses from fear and self-loathing through funny deconstruction toward a redemptive conclusion, during which "peace gently knocked on the door of my heart" and "grief finally packed its bags and left through the back door." But at least that's progress.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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