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Tucson Weekly Single, White Mental Case

Ellen Miller's First Novel Is A Sobering Page-Turner.

By Lori McNeill

DECEMBER 7, 1998: 

Like Being Killed, by Ellen Miller (Dutton). Cloth, $23.95.

A WORD OF caution for would-be readers of Ellen Miller's debut novel, Like Being Killed: You'll need a strong stomach to read this book. The journey on which the reader is so deftly taken is a long and difficult one, with a shaky sense of closure. Yet Miller's straight-forward, no-holds-barred narrative pulls the willing reader into the darkness of protagonist Ilyana's world, enticing with the fascination of Ilyana's memory of one beloved friend's loss, and imparting hope that relief from the engulfing desperation might be found through the author's fluid web of words.

The story's unflinchingly graphic nature is at times hard to endure, yet is not gratuitous. It allows the reader to clearly see--if not fully understand--the two worlds in which Ilyana dwells. Miller's writing is courageous and unashamed, taking brave or curious readers on a slow, dark trip that can only lead to the death of innocence.

Miller's language is refreshingly unadorned and gut-wrenchingly honest as she traverses Ilyana's prideless, boundary-less reality: We meet a book-smart, cynical, frightened and self-destructive 25-year-old Jewish New Yorker, burdened by a disturbing childhood and her glutinous drug habit. Miller paints a vivid portrait through her character's wordy, reference book-like thoughts. Lonely and haunted, Ilyana seems to long for what she instinctively fears, each time recoiling at the edge of it:

I wasn't dying and I wasn't living. I was lingering at the precipice, the edge, that nowhere place where I was alive but barely, delaying the agony of being fully alive so that meantime I could live partially...If I could not choose whether to be alive, I would choose how alive I would agree to be.

Ilyana desires and fears both life and death. Through Miller's clear descriptions of her thoughts (at times to the point of redundancy), the reader is pulled into this intimate and even claustrophobic space, as the character struggles through the tentative ups and hellish downs of hope, surviving whether she wants to or not, with the least amount of effort. Ilyana lusts after death while convincing herself that death is never really final, and I found myself drawn to turn page after page wondering what the end would hold for her (something Ilyana herself ponders at the start of the book), while contemplating the truth or deceptions in her arguments. "Attachments never end," Miller writes, "they just refer to themselves by new names. People return--sometimes more than once in a day, sometimes changed--especially when they are dead."

With repetitive language and tangible descriptions, Miller takes the reader fairly smoothly through Ilyana's fear, desire, paranoia, pain, numbness, nightmares, despair, desperation, mental illness, and hope. Her portrait of Ilyana's friend Susie is palpable. We see her artistry in her work, and feel the vast differences between the two women: "Mornings, when she awoke, she smelled like flannel, like warm clean laundry, like the scalp of an infant."

Susie--all peach pies and middle-class innocence, the proverbial "Susie sunshine"--suggests a light at the end of the tunnel. When she moves into Ilyana's Lower East Side apartment, she appears to be the one person who can pull Ilyana out of her downward spiral. But Ilyana is not so easily saved, and Susie suffers for her brazen innocence.

Miller proves herself a skilled navigator as she takes the reader back and forth between Ilyana's past, with Susie as the focus, and her desperate present, as seen through the haze of drugs, casual sex, and despair. If you can stomach the vertigo, this promising first effort is a roller-coaster ride worth the calculated risk.

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