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Carrie Fisher takes reality for a spin

Style & Culture | STYLE

Friends help. So does writing a manic new novel.

January 25, 2004|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

It would be hard to call Carrie Fisher's new novel fiction and maintain a straight face. She characterizes it as "based on a truant's story," since it chronicles the time when she was absent from reality without permission. Please excuse Carrie. Flash floods, seismic disturbances and electrical storms inside her head made it impossible for her to attend life. Thank you.

"It's faction," she says. "I don't want to be coy and say I wrote about someone else's experience in the mental hospital. It was somebody else who was left by a man for a man?" I don't think so, her round brown eyes affirm.

She is curled up on the lodgepole bed in her cozy bedroom, because here, on the plump pillows and soft quilts, is where conversation happens. Her friends plop down here in the way that dogs and children in a happy family gather on their parents' bed. Fisher has appeared in nearly 50 films and is an accomplished writer of scripts and prose, a second-generation famous person who hosts a cable talk show and can hold her own among the boldface names on Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown." Thanks to the "Star Wars" trilogy, she's been immortalized as a Princess Leia doll, shampoo bottle and Pez dispenser. She has even, albeit briefly, been the wife of a celebrity.

She is less widely known for her success in the best-friend business. The bed and the intense, self-aware, 47-year-old woman who entertains on it are actually a social nexus of Hollywood. Deals aren't done on the bed, nor stars discovered. Yet in a community where relationships often flourish as long as professional advantages might be gained, Fisher maintains an extraordinary number of long, genuine friendships that thrive on mutual admiration. Meryl Streep, Meg Ryan, Penny Marshall, Craig Bierko, Tracey Ullman, Griffin Dunne, Dr. Arnold Klein, David Geffen and Ed Begley Jr. are Friends of Carrie. The list includes writers, directors, producers -- Helen Fielding, Salman Rushdie, Michael Tolkin, Bruce Wagner, Ruby Wax, David Mirkin, Bruce Cohen.

"The best-friend business," she repeats in her throaty alto -- a great dame's voice if ever there was one. "Yes, but you know the medical isn't so good."

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Surrendering

In fact, the benefits are excellent. Fisher's many devoted friends were there for her when her heart broke and again, six years ago, when her mind snapped. Her fourth novel, "The Best Awful" (Simon & Schuster), tells a semiautobiographical version of those events. It continues the journey of Suzanne Vale, actress, wit and alter ego, whom Fisher introduced in "Postcards From the Edge," her bestselling 1987 literary debut.

At the beginning of "The Best Awful," Suzanne's problem is explained: "She'd had a child with someone who forgot to tell her he was gay. He forgot to tell her, and she forgot to notice." It's quite possible that she didn't notice because she was too busy talking, talking, talking. Before she goes completely nuts, Suzanne yaks all the way to Tijuana while a dull-normal ex-con tattoo artist who is generous with his supply of OxyContin drives. As they zoom past San Onofre and on to Escondido, her manic monologue roams over her father's face-lifts and late stepfather's retinue of manicurist/hookers to the bad-parent paranoia her daughter's nanny provokes.

The chatter is a riot, by turns glib and pithy. Fisher's writing has been compared to that of Martin Amis and P.G. Wodehouse, and the ghost of Dorothy Parker smiles on it as well. One measure of her talent is how vividly she evokes craziness while no longer being certifiable. Suzanne/Carrie plunges deep into her emotional swamp with the bravado of an Olympian somersaulting off the high board. It isn't a secret that Bryan Lourd, the Creative Artists Agency managing director who is the father of Fisher's 11-year-old daughter, left her for a man or that she was loony enough to occupy a room at the bin during a psychotic breakdown. Since "Postcards," the literature of addiction and recovery has exploded. Behavior that once stigmatized now provides a credential. Nevertheless, Fisher's candor can be startling. How can she be so open? Didn't she worry that some people would find manic depression unappealing?

"I find it unappealing," she says. "But there is a part of this illness that is funny. I don't understand the stigma. I understand funny. It is what I do. Because I have the sense of humor I have, things don't prey on me long. And that's why I have it. If I didn't, I would be ... in pain. If my life weren't funny, it would just be true, and that would be unacceptable."

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