It’s always a little strange for me to return to Francesca Lia Block. When I was in high school she was easily my favorite author, and for good reason: her language is poetically evocative, colorful, vibrant. Her stories are about teenagers growing into adults, undergoing all of the typical changes that entails, but in Block’s hands these simple stories become mythic.
Psyche in a Dress is a perfect example of Block’s transformation of a coming-of-age story into a timeless myth. In her hands, the story of a director’s daughter who stars in his every movie falling in love and losing love is told through the metaphor of Greek mythology. The story is so deeply entwined in that metaphor that we never truly know our protagonist’s name, or the names of any of the people in her life, including predominantly her lovers and mother figures. Her coming of age story is told through the lens Greek myth, so that her first lover is Eros, love itself, and she is Psyche; when her lover is Orpheus she becomes Euridice, and when her lover his Hades she becomes Persephone. Through the course of her coming of age transformation she acts out these myths, evolving, learning, and growing along the way.
This book is written half in verse (when in Psyche’s point of vie) and half in prose (when providing backstory for her lovers). This is quite logical for Block, whose writing is always deeply poetic. Along with always verging on the mythic, her use of language in books always lingers in a strange in-between place well suited to her modern fairy tales: what is rooted in reality and what is metaphor or simile often blends together, so that there is no clear distinction between the reality in her stories and the figurative. The result is that her language is almost kaleidoscopic, something which my younger self was deeply drawn to.
Block’s writing had a profound effect on my own development as a writer. Though I tend toward more grounded styles these days, when I was still exploring and developing my writing skills and trying to find my voice, I often mimicked Block’s style. The style was attractive to me for its sheer vibrant color, the way it always seemed to evoke an almost carnival sensation, brilliant lights illuminating the night to reveal fantastic beings among us. This was hugely formative to me when I was younger, and even leading into my first year or so of college.
That always comes back to me when I revisit Block, that feeling of wonder at the evocative power of language, and yet Block’s stories don’t resonate so deeply with me as they once did. If I recall correctly, Psyche in a Dress was actually the first one of Block’s books that didn’t capture and hold me the way her other books had. This is a particularly strange sensation for this reading, as I’m trying to comb through my truly unwieldy book collection to sift out that which I no longer need or which is no longer relevant. Books are on the few things that I truly invest much nostalgia in, which is why my collection is so out of control. Yet, this is a book which holds little more than nostalgia and memories for me, and something tells me with or without the books I will never forget the impact that Block had on me in my formative years as a writer.