Swallowing the Darkness: Gag Reflex by Elle Nash

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How many of us, I wonder, truly remember our teenage years? By the time we’ve settled into adulthood, this notoriously difficult period of our lives has, for the most part, faded into a hazy patchwork of memories, some of which may occasionally surface in our mind’s eye and bring about a momentary prickle of shame; others, meanwhile, take on the sepia-toned hue of an old photograph and serve as a bittersweet reminder of lost youth. But what about the pain? What about the confusion and disillusionment—the mood swings, the extended periods of introspection, and the seemingly unending quest for a sense of identity and self-acceptance? What about the weird, crazy shit we did? The downright dangerous behaviors in which we indulged and the subsequent mental anguish? What about the minutiae of this existence, and how every decision we made, and every action we took, seemed to carry an almost unbearable significance? Who remembers that?

Elle Nash remembers, because she recorded it all in a LiveJournal, which surely looks positively prehistoric to the TikTokers of today. Nevertheless, for her new novel, the provocatively titled Gag Reflex, Nash has recreated this format in the most faithful style possible, complete with dates, timestamps, comments, typos, and page footers detailing her narrator’s “current music.” It’s a clever and highly effective move, not least because it allows its creator to explore a plethora of issues in a raw, honest, and wholly authentic manner, as well as giving readers unfiltered insight into the earliest days of social networking.

It’s 2005, and Lucy is entering the final weeks of her graduation year at high school. She lives in a trailer with her disaffected mother, having lost her father to cancer the year before. She has a couple of real-life friends—Jenny and Brian—both of whom genuinely seem to care about her, though for Lucy this simply does not compute (“I don’t understand it”). Lucy has a very low opinion of herself—especially about her appearance, describing her lips as “drug-house dry” and having “fat cheeks and nasty british teeth that don’t come clean no matter how hard i brush them.” She also suffers from an eating disorder, which dominates her thoughts and, accordingly, the content of her journal entries. Indeed, she tells us almost immediately that the only two things which exist for her are “my fragile ego and my eating disorder.” The symbiotic relationship between these two entities—her eating disorder and a low sense of self-worth—as well as the struggle to extricate herself from this bind precludes Lucy from forming any sort of meaningful relationship with those to whom she feels closest. She has, instead, turned inward and seeks solace by sharing her thoughts with a community of online friends, all of whom are identified only by their usernames.

Like most teenagers, Lucy is a maelstrom of contradictions. She admits to wanting love but hates the idea of feeling “all these human, girly things.” She struggles to accept kindness but describes moments of intimacy with astonishing tenderness. She wants to be thin but likes the feeling of being desired by men for her curves. The exact source of her dysphoria is not made clear—though the suspects are referenced—nor, however, does it matter all the much. What matters is the skill with which she expresses her rancor, which, at times, is exquisite. In one of her earliest entries, Lucy tells us that “all i want is to wake up and write poetry in silence, to make poetry of my life.” By the end of the very same page, she is doing just that: “i’m soft-skinned but my bones have hardened calcium deposited cartilage, the fat around my heart lithified with the carnage of constrictors around tiny mice ribs, squeezed till it removes the soft mealy insides. sucked out by standards i will never reach. by these industry snakes.”

Gag Reflex succeeds on multiple levels, not least for the way it transports the reader to a bygone era of the internet wherein users were afforded far greater freedom of self-expression. Eating disorders are about trying to assert control—control over our own bodies—in a world where almost everything else seems out of our control, and as crude as it may appear to younger readers, the LiveJournal format offers Lucy both an outlet for her pain and a mode of communication that the slick, codified platforms of today simply do not permit. That’s not to say Gag Reflex feels dated or irrelevant, mind. On the contrary: In terms of the subject matter, it’s more relevant than ever, and the experience of reading Gag Reflex often mirrors the way we toggle between platforms today, jumping from one mode of thinking—or rather, perhaps, one mode of consumption—to another. Spliced into Lucy’s journal entries are the instant messenger chats with other sufferers of eating disorders, comprised largely of foodstuffs on which they each like to gorge. Elsewhere, we find weekly calendars with the number of calories Lucy aims to consume on each day, and many of the other pages contain more white space than they do lines of prose—a goth-black aphorism here, a compassionate comment from one of her fellow sufferers there. My favorite touch, however, is the addition of those footers that detail Lucy’s “current music.” Not only will the mere mention of these tracks—and the bands who recorded them—evoke a wave of nostalgia among fans of turn-of-the-century nu metal, but the song titles reflect Lucy’s state of mind generally and the content of each entry specifically. You don’t need to be an expert in the genre to know what sort of vibe Chimaira’s “Dead Inside” encapsulates.

The inclusion of these features signifies both the repetitive and fragmentary quality of Lucy’s life, and the extent to which she strives to be perceived authentically online. For Lucy, how she projects herself in the virtual world is just as important a part of her identity as who she is IRL, but the irony of a quest for self-knowledge via social networking does not escape her. At one point, Lucy informs us that she’s created a new email address. The significance of the address itself—a reference to the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler—is superseded by Lucy’s own doubts about using this email and thus revealing something about herself to those outside her LiveJournal community. This might seem ridiculous, were it not for the fact that Lucy also recognizes it as ridiculous. This is another of the book’s qualities: For all her narcissism and negativity, there is a sense that the narrator is always one step ahead of her audience and any shade they may throw her way.

Despite the darkness of the subject matter, then, there is light, and humor, too. Lucy is smart and self-aware, able to recognize the tragic absurdity of her situation. She shares several moments of startling lucidity regarding both her own condition and the inherent contradictions of her mindset. In one entry, she recounts a rare instance in which her mother tries to reach out to her. Lucy’s response is to write about it in her journal, saying that she won’t talk to her mom because “throwing up my food and starving myself” isn’t the way to tell someone you love them or thank them for being there. Meanwhile, in one of the book’s most beautiful passages, Lucy describes a day frolicking in the snow with Mike—a boy with whom she has fallen deeply and painfully in love—after which she reveals to him, in a moment of frightening intimacy, the physical evidence of her being “angry at the world.” Mike reciprocates this gesture of vulnerability, and Lucy ends by saying “today was amazing. i was me and it was okay.” In the very next entry, however, Lucy pulls the rug from underneath us by declaring “today i woke up angry as i do every day.” And so it goes.

Even for those who have no first-hand experience of eating disorders—or indeed a fondness for nu metal—there is plenty of recognizable pain here. I particularly enjoyed the passages in which Lucy tries to disabuse us of the notion of objective beauty; it doesn’t exist, she claims, because how we feel about ourselves is the only thing that matters. If we perceive ourselves as ugly, it doesn’t matter who else tells us we’re not, or how much they try to convince us otherwise.

Ultimately, though, this is a book about expectations: the expectations we place on ourselves, those that society puts on young people—girls and young women, in particular, in the way they are supposed to see themselves and the aesthetic standards they feel they have to meet—as well as those put upon us by our peers, knowingly or otherwise. This theme looms large throughout Lucy’s diaristic entries, and she laments the futility of trying to match them. “[There is] a violence inside of me which will never go away. i can never be that. that which is ideal. it’s a rejection of it, almost—a statement of what i know i can never have, what i am not allowed to have. a higher state of being… beauty, status, well-dressed fashion sense… good proportions… plastic surgery face. i will always be striving for an ideal i cannot reach.”

At times, the intensity of Lucy’s fragmented prose-poetry can become overwhelming. Nash does not shy away from detailing the horrors of an eating disorder, though any such physical descriptions are eclipsed by the sharp articulations of its psychological impacts and the low self-esteem it engenders. We see that Lucy doesn’t want this, she understands how damaging it is, and yet she can’t stop the cycle of binge and purge, despite how much it fills her with loathing. Slowly but surely, however, Lucy seems to regain some semblance of control over her mind and body. Emerging from these outpourings of rage and self-loathing is a calmer, more focused individual—a tender-hearted person who wants to be part of the world on her own terms and live without shame or regret. As the book enters its final third, there is an increasingly wild cadence to the sentences, and it often feels like we are being stuffed with language, much of it difficult to digest in one sitting. Paradoxically, by this point, Lucy seems to have gained a grip on her eating disorder, as she hits her stride with her chosen mode of self-expression—only to find herself becoming embroiled in the psychosexual drama that forms the basis of Nash’s 2018 debut, Animals Eat Each Other, to which Gag Reflex serves as a sort-of prequel.

Teenagers grow up. Technology moves on. We may never see the likes of LiveJournal again—at least not in the form presented here—but with Gag Reflex, Elle Nash has given us a raw and powerful reminder of what it means to be young and in pain, and a record of its creator’s survival. “i will swallow the darkness,” Lucy vows, about halfway through. “instead of it swallowing me.” In the end, the author’s fulfillment of that vow may be the book’s greatest legacy.

Matthew James Pucci is a schoolteacher and writer from Milton Keynes, England. His work has appeared in Word Riot, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Parable Press, and Document Snowboard magazine, among other places. You can find more of his book reviews and blog posts about teaching on his website, mattpucci.com. More from this author →