September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

There are many reasons to distrust Prozac Nation (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95), starting with the cynical, double-barreled opportunism of its title. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s sad, maddening chronicle of her brutal battle against depression is not about Prozac, a capsule-shaped red herring that seems to have helped the 27-year-old author but makes only a brief appearance in her autobiography. Nor, despite the implicit claims of ”nation” and the subtitle Young and Depressed in America, is it representative of any generation (X or otherwise) anywhere on earth, except possibly for the rarefied climes that encompass Manhattan private schools, Harvard Yard, summer camp, and trips to London. Wurtzel’s memoir of what it was like to grow up smart, sensitive, talented, and miserable would be moving in its specificity were it not so prattling and smug. ”Until I really cracked up, at ten or eleven or twelve or whenever it was, you most certainly would have described me as, well, as full of promise,” she writes. But by junior high, she was, well, in trouble, taking razor blades to her legs at school. Thereafter, Wurtzel managed to cope her way to Harvard, but her first years were marked by a catastrophic series of depressions, panics, crack-ups, self-medications, and a day-in, day-out war against a mental illness that she calls ”the loneliest f — -ing thing on earth.” Her victory in eventually fighting her depression to a draw is no less courageous for being pharmaceutically aided, and may instill some guilt in readers who want to throw this book across the room. But Prozac Nation’s suffocatingly facile tone earns every flicker of impatience you may feel. Its truest moment comes near the end, when Wurtzel confesses, ”I was always able to reduce whatever craziness I’d experienced into the ideal cocktail-party monologue.” The incisiveness of that observation displays the author at her no-bull best; it’s also a sweeping indictment of the book that has preceded it. Despite intermittent insights that have the economy of a cracked whip, Prozac Nation is an epic of glib, strenuously blase self-dramatization- depression as $ performance-art piece-all soundtracked to the beat of what Wurtzel herself labels ”misery-chic,” from Billie Holiday to Kurt Cobain. Long passages meant to re-create Wurtzel’s lows spill forth in the affectless, pseudoconversational style with which Bret Easton Ellis has toxified a legion of writers. And oh, the label-dropping. When Wurtzel chops cocaine, it’s on the surface of a Pogues CD; when she drinks, it’s Maker’s Mark and Rolling Rock, thank you very much; when she stumbles into an unhappy grope, it’s with the guitarist from the Butthole Surfers. This may be honest autobiography, but its cool, war-stories tone never feels heartfelt for a second. At its worst Prozac Nation slouches toward the glamorization of despair. It’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden repackaged as a jump-cut MTV special: The Real World Sucks. The disingenuousness of this approach becomes apparent when, after describing a hellish year in Harvard and its surrounding infirmaries and emergency rooms, Wurtzel begins the next chapter by announcing with la-di-da casualness, ”Somewhere down the road I managed to pick up the 1986 Rolling Stone College Journalism Award.” To which you respond, huh? For, through all the horror that Wurtzel has just painted in flyspeck detail, she hasn’t dropped a clue that she was all the while functioning, superachieving, even pursuing her career. Through much of Prozac Nation, Wurtzel seems more enthralled with her disintegration than with her recovery. Finally, she tells us why: For too long, she writes with welcome lucidity, ”I thought depression was the part of my character that made me worthwhile. It gave me a certain what-a-f — -up-I-am shtick to play with.” This revelation is the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, Prozac Nation is the tunnel. C-

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Erik Skjoldbjerg
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