It will not surprise any regular visitor here to learn I am a big fan of shrink literature.The perspective from the psychotherapist’s chair is one I find particularly fascinating, as it manages to look long and hard at the depths of human suffering and damage, whilst having enough intellectual recoil to make such study curious and illuminating. The warped human mind becomes, if not a thing of beauty, then at least logical and pitiful in its own right, neither an object of shame nor a reason for scorn. Really good shrink-lit will indicate in unsettling ways the very fine dividing line between mental health and illness, will provoke genuine compassion for the struggles of the wounded to heal themselves and might just provide some compelling evidence for all those who would rather deny the power and impact of the darker regions of the mind. Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You was one of the best novels I read in 1997, and Jed Rubenstein’s The Interpretation of Murder was another excellent example, even if it was a lighter version. The French authors Isabelle Hausmann and Camille Laurens also spring to my mind, but might not be well known to others. Now Patrick McGrath is an author I had never read before. I’d seen his name alongside such uncompromising-sounding titles as Asylum and The Grotesque and assumed he was a horror writer. Having read Trauma, I understand that in a way he is; he works within the shrink-lit genre but lacks belief in the possibility of orderly, viable cure. And so the cool, detached workings of the analytic process on the damaged mind reveal only the depths of a horror that refuses to respond to all manner of loving nurture – it’s what we might call evil, or as McGrath puts it better ‘ what does not kill me lies in wait in my subconscious to ambush me when I am at my weakest and most vulnerable.’ Whatever external enemies we may fear lurking in the shadows, they are nothing compared to the patient and terrifyingly efficient enemies who bide their time within.
McGrath’s novel focuses on Charlie Weir, a psychotherapist working exclusively with trauma cases. It was through his work with Vietnam veterans in the 1970s that he met his first wife, Agnes, whose brother was one of the most damaged men in his support group. And it was Charlie’s indirect responsibility that he committed suicide, thus ending that marriage in acrimony and despair. Now, almost a decade later, Charlie has started sleeping with his wife again, despite the fact she has remarried, and despite the fact that he has embarked on an intense relationship with the beautiful but far from stable Nora. If Charlie’s making a mess of his private life, it’s because his family background hasn’t exactly prepared him for love. The son of a depressive mother and an alcoholic, shiftless father who left home when he was eight, Charlie’s family conflicts get played out in his relationship to his older brother, Walt, a successful artist and a fine family man. Charlie needs his brother and he hates him at the same time. Walt was excused his mother’s bad behaviour, sent away from the worst of her depressions and told to wait until she was patched up again. In the depths of her suffering it was Charlie she leaned on and, precisely because she did so, her toxic combination of shame and guilt prevent her from ever appreciating him. ‘Oh anyone can be a psychiatrist,’ she said, in a quote that comes back to haunt Charlie. ‘It takes talent to be an artist.’ When Agnes’s brother commits suicide and Charlie is wracked with creeping guilt that he provoked him, she’s ready to dig the knife in again. ‘Ah Charlie,’ she said. ‘Always trying to help people who don’t want it.’
And so it’s no surprise that, as the novel progresses, we realize it’s Charlie’s damage at stake here, the wounds he has sustained which, as a good unreliable narrator, he has yet to let the reader see. But that’s mostly because he is not sure where the trauma in his own life is to be located. There are signs and indications, like atmospheric disturbances before a total eclipse, but what lies in the darkness will take the length of the narrative to be revealed. This is the premise of the notion of trauma. We all understand trauma to be the experience of an event so shocking, so horrific, that we have no frame of reference by which to understand it. It cannot be assimilated into the mind and so resists mental digestion, lying as a lump of undigested matter, ready to happen to us over and over again in its shocking, blinding reality, without the merciful haziness of the past. But what most people don’t know is that trauma is itself already a repetition. The experience of the Vietnam vets is beautifully handled in the novel and an excellent case in point. What happened to young conscripts out in Vietnam was atrocious and ultimately pointless; it destroyed many a man who hadn’t needed or wanted to be there. But studies subsequently have shown that there was a staggering correlation between the men who returned with posttraumatic stress disorder and those who had had troubled childhoods. Few vets returned unscathed, but the annihilating effects of trauma were almost exclusively to be found in soldiers who had already suffered hysterical mothers, drunken fathers, family violence, dislocation or abuse. It seems we can experience the worst on one occasion, but to have it happen again, to experience an event that recalls the worst in structure or form, is literally intolerable.
I thought this was a cracking book. It is absolutely beautifully written, with such clear, elegant prose that it made other narratives look florid and strained. McGrath doesn’t waste a single word and he moves from past to present with great fluidity and control. The big revelation at the end was perhaps a little bit of an anti-climax, but I mention this only out of a concern for complete accuracy, and not because it bothered me as a reader in any way. The journey getting there, like all therapeutic journeys, was always the point. This is a chilling, unnerving read, possibly not for people who want a happy ending, but a fine thriller for those who fear that it is the power of the mind that really threatens our safety, our wellbeing and our ability to sleep easy at night.