Alt lit is dead.
That was the consensus in some corners of the internet a few years ago, when a series of sexual misconduct allegations led to the exile of multiple prominent male figures of the online literary movement. Whatever alt lit would look like in the future, it wouldn’t be the same…fortunately.
As a style that peaked in the first years of this decade, alt lit was distinguished by prose and poetry that was linear and plainly written, given dimension by the constantly-shifting contours of its native online platforms. Typically focusing on the everyday dramas (or lack thereof) of its young writers, their dry affects working alternately to comic and tragic effect, alt lit captured both the ennui of a constantly networked 21st century existence and the liberation of posting your drafts.
Juliet Escoria was a familiar name in alt lit circles. Among other writers who published in anthologies such as 40 Likely to Die Before 40, the West-Virginia-via-California-via-Australia author found kindred spirits among those whose multimedia work — moving back and forth across the line between fictional and autobiographical — didn’t comfortably fit into the standard models of literary expression.
Her latest, Juliet the Maniac, fits comfortably between two covers and functions as the novel it comes billed as, but it bears clear hallmarks of what used to be called alt lit. It unfolds in a series of short vignettes about a teenage girl whose life shares key biographical details with the author’s — including her name, Juliet Escoria. Interspersed “notes from the future” refer to this Juliet as the “fictionalized version of myself.”
A more conventional narrative might frame this as the story of someone who lost and then found herself again, but Escoria isn’t after anything so tidy. We gather there’s a reason the book begins where it does (with a 14-year-old Juliet becoming aware of a “foreign thing” growing inside her mind) and ends where it does (a 16-year-old Juliet writes a letter urging her future self to stay sober and happy), but neither the author or any of her characters tell us exactly what it all means. The implication, of course, is that she’s still figuring that out.
As befits a genre tailored for the internet, alt lit was built not on analysis but on simple attention. You learn about a person by discovering what they pay attention to…and what they do when they notice it, but even that may be relatively unimportant, especially in the case of a character like Juliet the Maniac.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Juliet struggles to stabilize her sense of self. Drugs can help, but they can also kill. Self-harm becomes a way to cope, and Juliet lands in deeply flawed institutions where she’s subjected to seemingly absurd regimens of therapy and medication. Finally, a pastoral program seems to give her some breathing room…until the maniac returns.
You won’t soon forget scenes like Juliet and her friend doping up at residential construction sites, lounging in the unfinished houses and making bad decisions. The institutional scenes have a Cuckoo’s Nest flavor, but in place of electroshock therapy there’s a bizarrely misguided “treatment” involving an adult who comes in and studies the teen patients for the purpose of insulting them back to health.
Throughout, Juliet struggles to put her mental state into words. “The molecules around my head buzzed” as she’s surrounded by birds and freaks out. “The diseased feeling was erupting again, spilling filthy out of my chest” as she falls apart near the end of her freshman year. She has an “odd palpitation of power” when she and another girl astonish a peer by illicitly rubbing his crotch.
The cumulative effect is kaleidoscopic, a tumble through this troubled teenage life. You may recognize yourself, or you may feel a newfound empathy for kids like Juliet who spend adolescence steeped in a chemical stew as they try to figure out who (and why) they are.
In retrospect, it’s sadly unsurprising that alt lit — a literary scene that often amplified girls’ voices — also saw some vulnerable young women exploited by male gatekeepers. Breaking the rules of writing proved easier than breaking the grip of patriarchy.
A few years on, though, it’s women’s voices from that scene that continue to shine. Megan Boyle has a big new book. There are must-see poetry readings by women who rose to fame in the alt lit era. Writers like Melissa Broder are finding literary fame with elements of the alt lit style. There will be more, and more, and more.
If Juliet the Maniac is what the future looks like, long live alt lit.