Barrelhouse Reviews: The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

Review by M. Leon Stewart


A talented memoirist is able to ride the line between experience and perspective and to relay both effectively. Esmé Weijun Wang’s new book of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, manages to do this not only competently, but in a way that highlights the grace of Wang’s writing against the backdrop of her various lived experiences.

The Collected Schizophrenias, which won both the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and a Whiting Award, pieces together some of the moments of Wang’s long and challenging history with illness (primarily mental but also, especially in the later essays, physical as well). The essays cover a wide array of topics, including a recollection of the initial string of diagnoses that led Wang to “the schizophrenias” (“Diagnosis”), a discussion of Cotard’s delusion (“Perdition Days”), a history of her experiences at Yale (“Yale Will Not Save You”), and an examination of the ways in which people diagnosed with schizophrenia are viewed by society (“High-Functioning”). 

The inherent risk of a collection like this is that the essays must be able to function individually, but also be coherent as a collection. Here, Wang has struck a nearly perfect balance; though the initial diagnostic history is a somewhat slow start, the following pieces are all complete and independent, but contribute well to forming a kind of collage of Wang’s experiences.

Wang’s style is as elegant as can be. Regardless of the subject matter, she never compromises her voice. Consider, for example, the opening paragraph to the essay “Perdition Days”:

I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead. What the writer’s confused state means is not beside the point, because it is the point. I am in here, somewhere: cogito ergo sum.

Each of Wang’s descriptions, whether of herself, others, or the inanimate, is carefully measured. Wang exerts immense control over her prose with an impression of effortlessness. She never wastes time by softening the reality she must face on a regular basis, yet she does not exaggerate, hyperbolize, or oversell.

Part of the collection’s appeal is certainly due to Wang’s varied background. She has been a student at Yale, a researcher at Stanford, a fashion writer, and a novelist, among other roles. She brings each of these distinct aspects of her identity to each situation she covers. The reader’s impression of Wang’s control over her writing mirrors how Wang has come to control her life. In “High-Functioning,” she states:

My makeup routine is minimal and consistent. I can dress and daub when psychotic and when not psychotic. I do it with zeal when manic. If I’m depressed, I skip everything but the lipstick. If I skip the lipstick, that means I haven’t even made it to the bathroom mirror.

Besides the great cadence of the prose here, the reader is exposed to a number of practical elements all at once: one of the author’s daily routines, the challenges that present themselves to that routine, and the accommodations she must make (sometimes manic, sometimes depressed). Even with all the consideration she gives to her appearance, it may still sometimes lie out of her control. This is all accomplished in such a compact space, but there really is no compromise in the honesty, nor in the art.

Wang’s writing provides information and perspective as it is. There is no sense of an impending quiz of specifics; Wang’s writing is concise and technical without leaving the reader behind. The reader may expect that this style would make for dry writing, but this is not at all the case. This passage discusses involuntary hospitalization:

Though the experience of being 5150’d is not the same as being arrested [...], there are inevitable parallels between involuntary hospitalization and incarceration. In both circumstances, a confined person’s ability to control their lives and their bodies is dramatically reduced; they are at the mercy of those who are in control; they must behave in prescribed ways to acquire privileges and eventually, perhaps, to be released. And then there is the wide swath of people for whom mental illness and imprisonment overlap: according to the department of justice, “nearly 1.3 million people with mental illness are incarcerated in state and federal jails and prisons.”

So much information is relayed to the reader here, both statistical and anecdotal. The text remains interesting in style, and neither talks down to the reader nor speaks over the reader’s head. 

The true beauty of Wang’s work is that it accomplishes so much so efficiently and with such a committed aesthetic sensibility. Each sentence reads as crisp and sharp; the descriptions are honest and thorough; the experiences are significant, well-considered, and artfully rendered. The text is enveloping and unrelenting, as Wang investigates the ever-complicating landscape of herself, her mental health, and the society to which she belongs. Each essay stands alone well but also contributes well to the whole book. Though Wang’s focus throughout the project is schizophrenia, she is never simply a patient: she is a fully realized person who brings intelligent analysis to each and every obstacle she faces. This refusal to simplify or reduce any part of her life leads to a great richness in the text. Wang is not afraid of placing herself under the microscope, as she analyzes her relationship to the schizophrenias as well as her feelings about them.

M. Leon Stewart (he/they) is a queer writer and library worker based in south-central Pennsylvania. Previous reviews have appeared in The Triangle, where they are also an assistant editor. Find them on Twitter @mleonstewart.