CRAZY FOR YOU
This month’s crop of books looks at sanity – and the lack thereof – and sees novels by authors new and established
By Adam Phillips
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005. Distributed by Penguin Books. ISBN: 0241142091 $29.95
‘If sanity was a game then how would you learn to play it if the authorities could only tell you when you had broken the rules, but not what the rules were?’
In his new book, Going Sane, Adam Phillips highlights a gaping hole in our language.
Madness is lavished with attention from all quarters, but its perceived opposite, sanity, is barely ever mentioned. Famously mad characters abound in literature and the arts while their sane counterparts fade into the background. The word ‘sanity’ appears only once in Shakespeare, whereas ‘madness’ is referred to over two hundred times. Consideration is similarly uneven in dictionary definitions. Whole sciences are devoted to the study of madness, yet until now a study of sanity has been too dull a notion to consider.
Going Sane’s basic premise is that it might be useful to know what true sanity is: ‘It should matter to us, especially now, that sanity is something we can’t get excited about’. (Phillips must be using the royal ‘we’ as he is definitely getting very personally excited.)
Typically, the definition of sane is ‘not mad’. Justifiably unsatisfied with this, Phillips analyses the reasons that sanity is so difficult to define. Traditionally, madness is equated with loss of control, while sanity is law-abiding. To be mad is to be excessive, unpredictable, dangerous; to be sane is to be safe. He contends that the opposition between sanity and madness is not as absolute as has sometimes, rather often, been asserted.
Going Sane begins with the casual attitude that it will all come together in the end (which it does), but the book’s no good to anyone if you can’t get through Part One. Lengthy, muddy notes toward a definition of sanity are enough to send anyone barking. A little bit more of the humour that mitigates his earlier books wouldn’t have gone astray.
Many interesting points are raised but they lose impact in the jungle of information presented. Phillips has a habit of bracketing his insights: the sane, as so often happens, are rarely contemporary. He is clearly brilliant enough to write on these matters, so the unpolished delivery must reflect a conscious decision to keep it loose. Going Sane has no index; it’s not supposed to be that kind of book.
Anthropologists, philosophers, writers and poets are all thrown into the mix. There are quotes from the likes of Freud and Foucault, and many obscure sources too. This amalgam of quotations in Going Sane indicates an obsession with well-written doctrines, regardless of origins. The theories are expansive rather than reductive and to distil them is to deny them their scope.
For almost twenty years, Phillips worked in child psychotherapy. In Going Sane he examines many different schools of thought. There are those that believe children reflect our primitive selves and will thrive with sufficient understanding and those that sanction the taming of this wild side, all the while paradoxically aware that it’s an impossible task. He writes, ‘All modern prescriptive child-rearing literature is about how not to drive someone (the child) mad, and how not to be driven mad (by the child).’ Phillips conducts an open-minded discussion of the contemporary approaches parenting, ever so quietly exploring the folly of our ways. Did I mention he was clever?
The term ‘thought-provoking’ is bandied about like a power tool so perhaps a combination of radical and perceptive is a better way to describe Going Sane. I argued along as I read it, which was not as unpleasant an experience as it might sound. Going Sane crystallised personal beliefs and opinions on subjects that might have otherwise have passed through the censor unchecked.
Often compared to Alain de Botton (author of best-selling Status Anxiety and originally famous for How Proust Can Change your Life), Phillips is also a philosopher of happiness. Both men filter centuries of impenetrable wisdom into a palatable format fit for contemporary taste and have a reputation for laying it straight. Phillips doesn’t match de Botton’s wit and has never been anywhere near as hip. However, it could be argued that de Botton is in the business of rehash while an ambitious Phillips plots out new turf.
Colours magazine recently devoted an issue to the mentally ill featuring vivid portraits of people from all over the world confined in treatment facilities for the ‘mad’. Unnervingly, when interviewed, many of them don’t sound that unhinged. There is a photo of a man living in a small African village who has been chained to a tree stump for roughly seven years. Phillips can expound on the glamourisation of madness all he likes, but there are real people (literally) at stake who might argue otherwise. It is a shame that despite all the best intentions, academic excursions rest somewhat uncomfortably in the context of human suffering.
By Stephanie Bishop
NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2005. ISBN: 1876040548 $26.95
Stephanie Bishop’s first novel, The Singing, does not have any songs in it. The ‘singing’ in this book is atmospheric – it refers to the essence of the work rather than its substance and was probably a good call given that anything along the lines of ‘Decaying Love’ would not have had quite the same ring. While a broken love story about a relationship that folds under the weight of long-term illness may not immediately have punters reaching for their wallets, the quality of Bishop’s writing certainly will.
Triggered by a chance meeting with an ex many years on, The Singing is the story of one woman’s endeavour to understand and contain the past. The relationship begins as they always do, with the sense that this was the start of the rest of their lives. After a time, the woman develops a serious illness that no one can name and quietly watches the world as her health deteriorates. Her partner assumes the role of caretaker. A natural to the task, he has a history of falling in love with fragile women. He has left his children from a previous relationship and he has also abandoned his painting for work that can support them.
The Singing is prefaced with a quote by Virginia Woolf that begins ‘the Public would say that a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot’. No doubt, Bishop is hoping to head them off at the start with this one – however, afraid of Virginia Woolf as I am, I have to say I found the story a little indulgent. Nevertheless, the writing is sublime.
With a poet’s gift for expressing the symbolic in literal terms, Bishop thankfully also has the clarity to avoid any of the funny business that often pairs with this tendency: ‘I saw words fall from him… I did not know what they were but I knew they were there. I heard them hit the ground.’ She apprehends the point in a relationship when there is nothing left to say. The heroine feels ‘like a statue of a woman whose lips are open while her mouth remains filled with stone’.
Like Woolf, Bishop is intrigued by ‘that very ordinary thing of the present depending on the past and the future depending on the present, and visa versa.’ Memory has always been a hot topic. I think both Freud and Aristotle would appreciate Bishop’s take on it: ‘We do not get over anything. It becomes, over time, less acute, but it comes back, it always comes back, hitting me hard in the chest when I least expect it and never quite making it to that tame place that is known to us as memory.’
The Singing is startlingly well-written and there is a lot of hype surrounding Bishop’s debut. Helen Garner is launching the book in Melbourne and has described Bishop as ‘a striking new voice, calm and fresh’. It even has a painting by Tim Storrier on the cover. Bishop, 25, is doing well to have the big guns on side so early in the piece but then again, good novelists almost always start young.
Stephanie Bishop has taken the time it takes to compose something beautiful and the results instil great trust in her abilities as a writer. It’s a promise not quite fulfilled, I feel, but then how many writers hit their stride on the first attempt? Helen Garner pulled it off with Monkey Grip, which was an immediate success. More recently, Gregory David Roberts managed it with Shantaram, but it does not generally work out like this; Charles Dickens is not exactly famous for Sketches by Boz.
Reviewed by Michael Morrissey:
WORKING WITH MONSTERS
By John Clarke
Random House, ISBN: 1740511549 $22.95
They intimidate. They manipulate. They show no remorse. They are superficially charming. And they may be sitting at the desk next to you. That’s the surprising –or unsurprising – message of this book. From movies like Psycho and a thousand sequels we all feel we know what a psychopath is – someone who kills without feeling – except sadistic enjoyment. Psychologist John Clarke has some grim news: the majority of psychopaths are not homicidal maniacs but are instead all around us, in the workplace.
It is a male-dominated field. Clarke estimates between one and three per cent of the adult male population are psychopaths, while only .5 to one per cent of women qualify. Clearly, women have some catching up to do, unless they’re just more subtle about it. As Clarke sees it, psychopaths are highly intelligent, score well on job applications, and often rise quickly up the corporate ladder. Having no conscience, they feel no guilt, and can therefore fly through a lie detector test.
Apart from the well-known criminal variety, Clarke analyses in detail three ‘civilian’ types of psychopath: organisational, corporate criminal and occupational. The difference between the organisational and occupational psychopath seems a bit subtle; the former is on his way up the ladder, while the latter may stay on the same rung for ages. The corporate criminal psychopath, meanwhile, has his eye on fraud.
The corporate criminal type is very similar to a con artist: the guy who plays on the victim’s weakness, extracts money for some get-rich scheme, and when challenged, as Clarke puts it, states that ‘maybe the victim really does not deserve to have the dreams fulfilled as they do not have the courage or the determination to achieve them’. The victim may at this point be asked to inject even more money into the ‘scheme’ to prove their commitment to the psychopath. The psychopath may pretend the extra money is still not enough to win back his `trust’.
Eventually, the victim, as well being financially drained, is emotionally crushed. When the scam is revealed, the victims lose confidence in their own ability to make decisions because the biggest final decision they made ‘proved to be the biggest mistake of their lives’.
It’s hard to come up with a punishment to fit the crime and Clarke doesn’t even try – that’s not his bag. Chillingly, he warns that treating rather than curing psychopaths may make them worse: in group discussions psychopaths ‘may learn more effective methods for committing crime’. Clarke does, however, make a number of practical suggestions to ‘manage’ the organisational type beginning with talking to employees about bullying.
If the pattern of manipulation and bullying sounds like someone in your office, Clarke warns against a quick amateur diagnosis and recommends a professional be called in. A warning sign of psychopathological presence: well above-average rates of resignation. Consider yourself warned.
By Sonya Hartnett
Viking, ISBN: 0670028711 $29.95
Surrender is a passionately wrought tale of adolescent obsession. The narrator, Gabriel, makes a pact with wild-boy Finnigan. To his regret, one might imagine. Or not? Blood oaths, pacts, secret societies, friendships unto death are, it seems, built into the male psyche. At a revolutionary level, let us speculate, it may be the dog-wolf in us – the part of the psyche that says survival depends on close ties with fellow warriors, banded together against the enemy.
There is a fierce poetry to Harnett’s style that sits nicely with the more inward-thinking Gabriel but less well with the near-psychotic Finnigan. Gabriel, who is in hospital reflecting on his short life, says of himself, ‘I weigh perhaps as much as a small suitcase carrying the necessities of a night’ – a lovely encapsulation of self diminishment, an insightful sliver of self doubt. When Finnigan, vicious arsonist, declares, ‘I wanted to break my knuckles on his pathetic rebellion, crack his skull on his poxy immunity’, it comes across as a tad overwritten, not the more urgent demotic voice one might expect. The narrative only allows very short excerpts from Finnigan which to my mind makes the book imbalanced.
A dual first-person narrator has worked well in such noted novels as The Collector, The End of the Affair and A One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding and it works best when the two voices are widely separated in tone and language and each given plenty amounts of space to have their say. Part of the problem I had with Surrender is I don’t relate well to books that have dogs as prominent characters. Then there is Vernon, Gabriel’s idiot brother. So we have two characters who, by necessity, have nothing to say.
The hatchet blows that suddenly strike Gabriel’s mother and father have the same leisurely yet shocking quality of the Southern Gothic novel – of, say, Flannery O’Connor – yet they shock us less. Surrender is full of a dark and vivid poetry that invites us to admire but not quite so successfully to feel.
THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA
By Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape, ISBN: 0224074539 $49.95
A new novel by Philip Roth is always an event worthy of notice – will it win the Pulitzer or the National Book Award? My guess is, not this time. While Roth’s latest book has dazzling passages that show the aging virtuoso can still write like an angel, there are also plenty of dull stretches, making this an uneven work. It lacks the authoritative passion of the recent American Pastoral and The Human Stain.
The Plot Against America is a fictional re-write of American history which has the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh ousting Roosevelt as president in 1940 – a critical time in world history as Hitler’s armies were swarming over Europe. The book belongs to the growing number of novels that portray a world where Hitler won – books like The Sound of His Horn by Sarban, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris.
Like Hitler, Lindbergh offers political solutions in very simple terms: the election is a choice between Lindbergh and war. Choose Lindbergh and America stays out of war, choose Roosevelt and involvement in world war ensues. To the dismay of the Roth family, Lindbergh is given the mandate and America begins a slow, inevitable slide into pro-Nazi anti-Semitic fascism. A lesser writer than Roth might have had it happen at breakneck speed, yet the slowness of its unfolding is its fictional undoing. The gradual extinction of liberal pro-Roosevelt voices like popular columnist Walter Winchell and the detaining of Roosevelt himself takes too long. Worse, when they do occur they are not all that convincing nor dramatic. Dramatically speaking, the novel has a saggy midriff. The intermingling of large public events, narrated in newsreel style, and the personal lives of the Roths doesn’t quite gel.
As with most Roth novels, the best parts lie in family divisiveness – the bitter arguments between turncoat son Sandy and his father Herman, the stubborn heroism of cousin Alvin. The frighteningly bland Rabbi Bengelsdorf, connected to the Roth family by marriage, who espouses his repugnant views during an uneasy dinner party, shows Roth’s passion for ideological debate at its most lively. Alvin gets the novel’s finest line when he says that Bengelsdorf is ‘koshering Lindbergh for the goyim’. Disappointingly, Lindbergh is a remote grey presence never dynamically present and his ‘kidnapping’ by Nazis is a weird and unconvincing echo of the real-life kidnapping of his son.
In case any readers might literally believe in the gloomy events outlined in the novel, Roth includes a lengthy postscript giving potted biographies of major historical personages such as Lindbergh (the meeting with Goering and the swastika-crowned medal all true!), Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Winchell – and the full text of Lindbergh’s 1941 speech wherein he claims that Jews have a dangerously large ownership of motion pictures, press, radio and government and are using that influence to get America involved in the war.
Despite its winning touches and always-assured (though suitably doctored) historical and clever social detail, The Plot Against America lacks the grim dramatic darkness of 1984 – which was after all another ‘what if?’ novel – a black view of a world completely run by communist totalitarianism. While 1984 always seemed gloomily possible, The Plot doesn’t quite convince – and the postscript, while a fail-safe document for those who have either forgotten history (or never knew it), has the ultimate effect of sabotaging the premise on which the novel is based.
By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, ISBN: 0375435328 $49.95
Booker Prize-short listed Atonement was arguably one of the best novels of the last ten years and Saturday, McEwan’s tenth novel, is also a finely written and powerful work – though of a lesser stature.
The main character of Saturday is a highly respected neurosurgeon, loyal husband, a man of principle who, when all is said and done, is that rare thing in fiction: a good man (though some my find him stuffy). Being good is not always good enough to deal with life’s bitter twists. And goodness unassailed by wrong, evil or harm would be fictional suicide. Henry Perowne surveys all human beings through a merciless medical gaze and when he is threatened by a petty psychopath whose car he has pranged, he can’t help noticing that Baxter’s ‘poor self-control, emotional lability, explosive temper’ is ‘suggestive of reduced levels of GABA among the appropriate binding sites on stratal neurons. This in turn is bound to imply the diminished presence in the striatum and lateral pallidum – glutamic acid and decaboxylase and choline acetyltranferase’.
In short, Baxter has Huntington’s Chorea.
It’s a swag of medical minutia to flood your brain just before you are about to be thumped, but the exhaustive and meticulous detail that McEwan has lovingly researched – much in the manner we have come to expect from American rather than English novelists – serves McEwan’s dramatic purposes very well. In the end, we start to see as Henry Perowne sees. However, it’s much more than medical insight; it’s the true stuff of novelist’s irony when Perowne, who has every reason to hate Baxter for his thuggery towards his family, is called upon to operate on the fellow’s brain after he has been of necessity nearly de-brained by his son.
The passages of threatening, then escalating violence, are superbly done in thriller-like mode. These contrast with the – by comparison – almost duller passages of family background in which McEwan can sometimes sound like that other well known document-maker of twentieth century life, Iris Murdoch. Satisfying as Saturday is, it is thinly plotted compared to a Murdoch novel – it sometimes feels like a novella roller-pinned out to a novel.
The attempted political dimension to the novel – numerous encroachments into Perowne’s eyes and ears of contemporary events in Iraq, considerations of Bush – are rather less successful than the expertly detailed medical-cum-violence drama that is the book’s inner heart beat. Nevertheless, the argument between son and father brings out a more conservative side than the good surgeon expected – and makes the perceptive psychological point that different people provoke in different ways. This seems but a minor flaw in Perowne’s stable upper middle class moral strengths, which border on the priggish. The trouble with a happy marriage (choke) – and a happy family (gag) – is that it is not the stuff of arresting fiction, though McEwan makes a fair fist of it. He even gets away with the happy ending – and I’m not sure if I’m happy about that.