One Pill Makes You Smaller: A Novel

One Pill Makes You Smaller: A Novel

by Lisa Dierbeck

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Eleven-year-old Alice Duncan has a problem: her body is, literally, growing up too fast. Gawky, innocent, and tongue-tied, Alice is taller than her teachers, with long, long legs and a voluptuous chest she refers to it as "The Breasts."

One Pill Makes You Smaller brings to life the surreal experience of being a girl—stuck in a woman's body. Dierbeck shoots down the rabbit hole of 1970s misbehavior, combining her modern tale with the fantastic universe of Alice in Wonderland, set in the black-lit, drug-infested art world of Andy Warhol's Manhattan. When Alice is shipped off to a freethinking art camp in North Carolina, she encounters J.D., a sweet-talking adult man who engages her in a dangerous flirtation. This deliciously pop, self-assured debut is an inspired paean to lost innocence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312422868
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 09/01/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Lisa Dierbeck lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she is a contributor to Barron's and The New York Times Book Review. One Pill Makes You Smaller is her debut novel.

Read an Excerpt

Of Love and Squalor

You're so fucking pretty, Alice," said Rabbit. "Why are you so completely gorgeous? Huh?"


Alice didn't answer him. Silence, she'd found, was the best response. Rabbit was lying on Aunt Esmé's bed with his dim motorcycle boots propped up against the wall. His narrow pointy face was upside down: his head was hanging off the end of the mattress where his feet were supposed to be. His long hair fanned out underneath him, spilling over the bedspread until the ragged ends brushed the shag carpeting on the floor. Rabbit was high, as usual. Alice had seen him take one of the yellow pills that resembled her daily vitamins as soon he'd walked into the Dollhouse. That was what Aunt Esmé's friends called the cramped attic room. It had a sloping ceiling covered with tinfoil, and a glass cabinet filled with antique porcelain dolls that no one -- except for Rabbit -- played with anymore. Rabbit held the small Zeit bisque doll in his arms. Repeatedly, Aunt Esmé's had told him not to take it out of the cabinet, because soon the Duncan estate would be auctioned -- Dean Duncan had gone broke -- and the bisque dolls were worth money. They had soft cotton bodies and hard ceramic heads. Their shoes were made of white kid leather. Their faces had been hand-painted in Switzerland, at the Zeit toy factory, in the 1860s. Rabbit had already chipped one of the doll's pink ears. When told not to do something, he didn't listen.

Rabbit kicked the light switch with his heel, turning on the black light -- a slender tube of glass above the headboard. All the white objects in the room -- the rocking chair, the rug, the bedspread -- were transformed into an electric shade of violet. The whites of Rabbit's eyes and his big buckteeth turned violet, too. The curtains had been drawn against the daylight. Everything in the Dollhouse glowed in the dark. Alice wondered if the color white would vanish, even after Rabbit opened the curtains up and let the sun back in. Maybe whatever had turned to violet would stay that way.

"You destroy me, Alice," said Rabbit. "Do you realize that? You kill me. You ravage me. You really do."

"Shut up, Rabbit," said Alice.

"I just paid homage to your beauty, you fool. Were you raised in a barn? You're supposed to thank me."

"Thank you and shut up," Alice said.

Rabbit sighed. "Women. You're so cruel."

Alice was sitting on the beanbag chair in the corner of Aunt Esmé's room, right near the door. Behind her, low to the ground, was an autographed poster of Crash Omaha. Crash sang once a year with his band, the Idiots, at CBGB's. He'd met Aunt Esmé's at Max's Kansas City when she was a high school freshman.

"For Esmé, with love and squalor," read the autograph in scrawling, jagged handwriting. "Yours eternally, Crash."

Alice thought Crash Omaha would have gotten an F in penmanship, an F in personal hygiene, and an F in organizational skills. Once, he'd come over to their house to see Aunt Esmé. While he was in the kitchen foraging in their refrigerator, he'd asked Alice to tell him her view of life. She'd said she wasn't sure what life was (maybe stones were alive, maybe snow was) and he'd burst into raucous laughter as if Alice were hilarious. His real name wasn't Crash Omaha, but Joey Pots. He didn't look as bad in person. In the poster, his mascara was running and his face was skeletal and haggard. He had red blood dripping down from the corner of his mouth. His stage show, he'd explained to Alice, was billed as "a bacchanalia of self-destruction." He was supposed to chew on broken glass. He'd told Alice that the glass was manufactured specially for the Idiots as a stage prop. It was made out of sugar and water and, if the Idiots were successful, it would be packaged with their photo on it as a "novelty item." He'd taken a piece of the fake glass out of the pocket of his leather jacket and displayed it to her proudly. Rock candy, he'd called it. It had been transparent. He'd offered Alice a bite, but it had been so brittle that when she tried to chew it, she'd nearly cracked a tooth. He'd laughed at that, too. His hands, with their black nail polish, had reminded her of Rabbit's.

Alice had her back turned to the Crash Omaha poster. She was making a collage from pictures that she'd cut out of Aunt Esmé's magazines. She took the eyes out of the rock stars' faces in the photographs from Creem and improved them. She pasted lovely new images inside them -- tiny pastel-colored scenes from travel ads of leafy palm trees and lemon groves, and sandy beaches on serene, solitary islands surrounded by blue seas. She tried to work on her collage without looking up. Whenever Rabbit announced that he was being ravaged and destroyed by Alice, she ignored him. He had a thin black mustache that drooped down his cheeks, past his jawbone, forming two spindly long whiskers. He had beady dark eyes that sought Alice out when he saw her in the hallway, in the kitchen, on the stairs, in the library on the second floor, in the front garden, and in the backyard. She'd known Rabbit since she was in the fourth grade. That was when she'd undergone the first of her alarming rapid-growth spurts, like the Grow-Me Barbie doll whose torso lengthened when Alice pulled her hair in one direction and her legs in the other. Rabbit knew that despite Alice's unusual height, she was eleven. He'd even attended her eleventh-birthday party. Still, he raved on and on about her gorgeous this and her gorgeous that. Every time he did it, Aunt Esmé had to interrupt him.


"May I remind you that Alice is under twelve?" she would say from her usual spot beneath the window.


She didn't say that now. She was down on the floor with Stuart Applebaum, her slender fingers entwined with his. Stuart was taking premed classes over the summer, preparing to study psychology at Columbia University in the fall. His head rested on Aunt Esmé's stomach. She was wearing her midriff peasant blouse. Alice could see the five petals of the daisy that Stuart had drawn, with a ballpoint pen, around her belly button. Her fine straight hair, parted far to one side, flowed all the way down to her hips. Stuart said Aunt Esmé looked like Lauren Bacall, yet she claimed to be obese. She didn't smile often, but she had a pert snub nose and jolly, chubby cheeks.

"Alice, angel face, why don't you come over here and give your Rabbit a nice kiss?" said Rabbit. He waved his hands, beckoning to her. He wore a Mickey Mouse watch and a studded leather wristband.

Persephone raised her head and growled at him. The dog sat by the stairs, where it was cooler, in the hallway. Persephone was suspicious of Rabbit. Whenever he moved, she growled. His motorcycle boots clattered when he walked up and down the stairs. Persephone was disturbed by boots and by loud noises. Alice figured a loud man in boots must have beaten Persephone with a stick when she was a puppy or something. Alice and her mom had found the dog long before Dean and Rain had divorced -- when Alice had been in kindergarten. The fluffy gray mutt had been shivering in an alley behind the school yard, half starving, her rib cage visible. She was a mongrel, part terrier and part Lab.


"Persephone, Persephone," said Rabbit now, as Persephone began to bark. "What did I ever do to you? Why can't we be friends, girl? Why do you dislike me?"

Persephone nestled her chin against her front paws, eyeing Rabbit balefully. She continued to growl, a low rumbling that sounded like approaching thunder.

"You should feed her, Rabbit," Stuart suggested. "That would give her some positive reinforcement. She'd come to associate you with nourishment and food."


"That's not a bad idea," Rabbit said. "But I don't want Persephone to kiss me. The gal I'm after is Alice."

"Quit hassling her," said Aunt Esmé. "Alice, if Rabbit is bugging you, feel free to leave. He's perfectly annoying and disgusting."


"Alice is devoted to me," Rabbit said. "We're great pals. Aren't we, Alice?"


Copyright © 2003 Lisa Dierbeck

Reading Group Guide

For Discussion

1. What links did you find in how One Pill Makes You Smaller addresses the notions of both parenthood and morality—or the lack thereof? What about the links between artistic expression and personal experience?

2. Describe Alice Duncan. In what ways is she a victim? In what ways does she personify empowerment, skill, control, and drive? What makes her different from other coming-of-age protagonists you might have encountered in past readings? What makes her similar to other such protagonists? On finishing this novel, explain how you felt about the way Alice "turned out"—

especially in the book's final two chapters.

3. Youth is a key theme in these pages—its sweetness and innocence, of course, but also its perplexing and fleeting qualities. How, if at all, would you characterize Alice's trustfulness, kindness, charity,

wonder, and creativity as extensions, or by-products, of her youth? And how does the loss of Alice's youth over the course of this novel affect these related traits?

4. When does One Pill Makes You Smaller take place? When it is set? To what extent is it "of its time"—and to what extent is it timeless?

5. Both high and low culture run through the very bloodstream of this novel, in basically equal measure. Which, if either, does the novel side with or favor? Explain. In your view, is this book finally critical or celebratory in its take on art—and artists, and artistry? Again, explain.

6. This novel is set in two very different realms: New York City and rural North Carolina. How accurate, realistic, and/or genuine did each of these settings strike you, as a reader? Given the novel's troubling themes, difficult subjects, and harsh depictions of, for example, sex, adolescence,

friendship, and family life—and given its thorough and deliberate echoing of Lewis Carroll's famous fiction—how successful is author Lisa Dierbeck in her effort to create for this book a world that is at once realistic and fantastic, painful and fanciful, urgent and dream-like? How does Dierbeck achieve this paradoxical setting, or doesn't she? Be specific in answering; refer to passages from the text.

7. Approximately the middle third of this novel depicts the seduction, intoxication, and molestation of

Alice in disturbing if not sickening detail—and with uncanny and engaging psychological insight.

This nightmarish series of events has been fully orchestrated and executed, as we see, by J.D. That being so, explain these concluding remarks of the "Alice Underwater" chapter: "What happened between them would never feel, to Alice, like J.D.'s doing. It would seem for many years afterward as if she'd raped herself."

8. Many famous names appear throughout the novel. List as many as you can recall offhand. Next,

explain how such names function humorously, ironically, or otherwise when applied—as they are in these pages—to ordinary house pets, small towns, etc. In particular, consider Salinger, Balthus,

Dodgson, and Chaplin—how do the private lives and personal affections of these four celebrated artists reflect Dierbeck's novel as a whole?

9. Reviewing Alice's classroom experiences at the Balthus Institute, try to articulate the opinion or commentary this novel makes about art schools, creative writing programs, filmmaking workshops,


10. Nietzsche is referred to more than once in this novel; Wittgenstein is also mentioned. The driver who picks up Alice at the bus stop in Dodgson is working on a degree in linguists; later, at the art camp, Alice's works are criticized by some for being "merely beautiful." Discuss the philosophical dimensions of One Pill Makes You Smaller, the concepts and beliefs that are explored, subverted, or embraced here.

11. As a group, talk about the narrator of this novel. Who is telling us this story? How and where do the narrator's voice, intelligence, perspective, tone, and eye for detail mirror Alice's own? How and where do they differ? How empathetic is this narrator? And how objective?

12. Finally, consider this remark about Dierbeck's novel by writer Pagan Kennedy (author of Black

Livingstone): "[It] exposes the two opposing forces—puritanism and hedonism—that have shaped

American society." Would you agree with this? Explain why or why not. And, in your view, which of these two forces ultimately wins out in One Pill Makes You Smaller—which force triumphs, in

the end? Again, explain.

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