One Pill Makes You Smaller
By Lisa Dierbeck
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 312 pp., $24
Toward the end of ''One Pill Makes You Smaller," an 11-year-old girl, unknowingly tripping on acid, is questioned by a man who, unknowingly, has just raped her:
'' 'Did you take stuff from me -- from my bag?'
'' 'Show,' she told him.
'' 'The sugar?' said the moon.
'' 'Shoe,' she agreed.
'' 'Oh. The sugar!' he told her in a voice full of treacle and false cheer. . . . 'It's okay. Just lie down here, baby, and I'll turn some music on. Don't worry about anything.' "
It's not exactly the scene one expects in a realistic coming-of-age story.
Then again, that only begins to describe ''One Pill Makes You Smaller." Lisa Dierbeck's quirky and provocative first novel is, among other things: an imaginative retelling of ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"; a satirical portrait of the psychedelic '70s; a nuanced study in moral ambiguity; and an expansive piece of cultural commentary, related in the voice of a child, whose essential subject is contemporary adult society.
The novel's protagonist, Alice Duncan, is an 11-year-old plagued by ''the premature onset of pubescence": an unassuming child with an interest in collage art and the unwanted body of a pinup girl. As the novel opens, Alice's father, a once-famous painter, has checked himself into a mental institution, leaving Alice to the care of her teenage half sister Esm. The two girls find themselves living alone in the family's New York City townhouse, where Esm experiments with pills and promiscuity, while Alice, when she isn't fending off unwelcome sexual advances, tries to make sense of the decadent milieu. Like any alienated adolescent, Alice is keenly sensitive to adult hypocrisy, and her unmeditated and often unforgiving perspective on sex, celebrity, and the permissive '70s provides one of the novel's most consistently enjoyable aspects.
Wanting to follow a musician to Los Angeles for the summer, Esm eventually ships Alice off to an obscure art institute in Dodgson (as in Charles Lutwidge), N.C. Once a program of some repute, Alice discovers, the institute now more closely resembles a hippie commune, and houses only a handful of eccentric hangers-on: a queenly sculptress ''no taller than four feet"; twin child prodigies with a creepy taste for exploding toy soldiers; a wheelchair-bound junkie famous for his photographs of mangled puppets; and an aging, charismatic drug dealer named J.D., whose gradual seduction of Alice supplies the novel with its primary narrative thrust.
Dierbeck's account of their relationship -- and the subtleties of power that surround it -- is perhaps the strongest element of the book. In Alice, she captures the psychology of the initiate, someone who appears from the outside as utterly under the influence of another, and yet who has clearly (if naively) chosen that influence, and who acts autonomously within it. Dierbeck's portrayal of J.D. likewise avoids stereotypes, amounting to an essentially sympathetic portrait of an archetypal 20th-century drifter, a man forever talking of ideals but pursuing sensations. Aware that his interest in Alice is mostly selfish, he nonetheless genuinely believes that, by helping her throw off the shackles of conventional morality, he is doing her a service. From the outset, it's hard to see the one as predator and the other as victim -- and even harder when it begins to appear that Alice's rape may have been consensual, and that the drugs responsible for her consent were stolen from J.D. without his knowledge. ''What happened between them would never feel, to Alice, like J.D.'s doing," Dierbeck writes. ''It would seem for many years afterward as if she'd raped herself."
Sly references to ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" brightly color Alice's stay in Dodgson. At its core, however, ''One Pill" has little to do with either pedophilia or the universe of Lewis Carroll. It has to do with growing up in a spectacularly surreal world -- one in which conventional morality is either subverted or ignored, in which experimentation has lost its thrill, sexual love has become a meaningless clich, trust has given way to paranoia, and the adults are every bit as angry and confused as the adolescents. The underlying concern seems to be: What does it mean to come of age in a culture that has yet to come of age itself?
If ''One Pill" has a flaw, it's only that it leaves too much of its significance for the reader to work out on his own. Constrained by an 11-year-old's point of view, the novel often feels unable to fully explore the complexity of its own ideas. Still, the America that emerges from its pages is an easy enough place to recognize: a society where consideration of others rates a distant second to the immediate gratification of personal wants; where children play at being adults and adults play at being children; where just about everyone, sooner or later, adopts the stubborn persuasion that nothing is to be learned but what they already know. It's exactly the sort of unsettling vision one expects from such an unsettling and original book -- a vision worth taking seriously.
Jason Sholl is an instructor of English at the University of Arizona.