Hunger by Knut Hamsun

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Hunger

Author: Knut Hamsun

Type of Book: Literary fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s a book without a plot with an utterly unhinged protagonist. Possibly one of the most upsetting books I have ever read.

Availability: This book was originally published in 1890. My edition is from Farrar, Strauss, Giraux in 2008. You can get a copy here:

(If you have a Kindle, dig around because I saw a Kindle version going for free, though that may be because I have a Prime Membership on Amazon)

Comments: I’ve been putting off discussing this book because I don’t know where to start. Hunger really is a book without a plot – in this novel, the same thing happens every day with mild variations on action. There is no character arc because the protagonist is as vainglorious, horribly depressed, and lunatic at the beginning as he is at the end.  This book frustrated me beyond belief and yet I read it through twice because I just had to do it. And as contradictory as it sounds, I hated this book the first read and loved it the second. This is all the more contradictory because even though I loved it the second time, I never want to read this book again.

This book is the literary equivalent of running your soul over a cheese grater. Over and over again. It’s hard to discuss such a book with any skill, though others have. Initially, I thought Paul Auster’s take on this book, printed in the copy I read, was wrong, but later I realized he was correct – he just interrogated the text from a different perspective. He looked at the book from an intellectual perspective and I looked at it from the perspective of someone who has gone insane and felt something akin to pain reading such lunacy.

So I am faced with a problem: how does one discuss a narrator whose highs and lows make Raskolnikov’s public behavior seem normal? How can I discuss a book wherein nothing really changes and there is virtually no character arc? I don’t know. I think all I can do is discuss the parts of this book that resonated the most with me, and even this is going to be sticky because even as I divide the book into specific elements I want to discuss, there will be significant overlap between these elements. For example, as I discuss how the protagonist cannot act in his own self-interests, lunacy caused by starvation also comes into play. In fact, it is tempting to just write the words, “Starvation in a land of plenty will make you insane” over and over until I hit a decent word count. Just bear that in mind – there is a lot of overlap when discussing the narrator’s mind and actions.

Before I begin, I need to mention that I read the edition translated by Robert Bly, widely considered to be the crappiest translation because he evidently “corrected” verb usage to eliminate mixed tenses. Mixed tenses, according to scholars of the text, were to show the disorganization of the protagonist’s mind. So my edition is actually a bit saner than the actual text. Though I sort of wish I had read a more faithful translation of the text, I suspect it is a good thing I read the less crazy version. As it was, the narrator’s mind was an utter vexation.

Hunger‘s narrator is trying to write in a very Dostoyevskian manner. He may be an excellent writer but his topics, “Crimes of the Future” or “Freedom of the Will” lean toward him being a self-impressed hack. His grand ideas are constrained by his grinding poverty and his mental disorganization.  The novel is divided into four parts and begins with him leaving a boarding house (though he could have stayed had he just approached the problem with logic and patience) and living rough. The second part of the novel concerns his attempts to live in a borrowed shack as he tries to write. In the third part, he meets a woman who slowly realizes he is not what she thought he was and the romance is dashed. The fourth section of the novel takes place mostly in a very low boarding house where the narrator, terrified of the cold and of living rough again, hangs onto a roof over his head in a manner so servile and cringing it almost killed me to read it. He finally goes to enlist as a crew member on a ship, which some take as him finally moving on from his despair, but I read as suicide, an interpretation I will, of course, explain. Until then, I will just divide this discussion up into relevant chunks and hope that at the end I have given the reader a good idea of the protagonist and the struggles he faces as he starves nearly to death in a world that often notices him too well or does not notice him at all.

In the Realms of the Unreal, edited by John G. H. Oakes

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: In the Realms of the Unreal: “Insane Writings”

Editor: John G. H. Oakes

Type of Book: Non-fiction, collection, mental illness, outsider literature

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It studies the writings of people diagnosed with mental illness, including people with schizophrenia and people who spent their lifetime in mental institutions.  It sort of approaches being an “outsider” literature collection.

Availability: Published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 1991, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  It’s no secret that I am a sucker for books about mental illness.  Though many of the books I read are never discussed here, you could get a taste of my mental health reading habits on my dead site, I Read Everything.  As a person who struggles with a relatively mild mental condition (mild in the spectrum – it sucks, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing akin to having schizophrenia or bi-polar), I find reading about the illnesses of others illuminating and instructive.  But this book was important to me because it features work by Henry Darger.  The book takes its name from Darger’s work, and features a long sample of his work.  I’m in a Darger mood lately, collecting books about him, reading about him, watching the documentary about him over and over, so it was great when my sister-in-law sent me this book for Yule.

But along with my tendency to want to read about mental illness is my tendency to gather up lists of books I am interested in without knowing a whole lot about the books.  I couldn’t begin to tell you my decision calculus for obtaining a book, because it’s immediate, mercurial and often very shallow.  I sort of approach books the way a kid approaches candy.  I see some chocolate gum and think, “Hey, I like chocolate and gum, so let’s try it.”  And of course it sucks.   This book is not an utter failure, like chocolate gum.  It’s more like a delicious Belgian chocolate with a bitter licorice center.  This book is very interesting on some levels, but at it’s core, the book fails.  In spite of this, this is going to be a very long discussion because even as the book fails at its premise – an attempt to present the works of insane writers without comment – there are elements that are interesting and good enough that they, temporarily at least, overshadow the failure of the premise.  There are snippets of writing from genuinely mentally ill people that resonated with me deeply or troubled me, and the inclusion of two writers who were not really insane, Henry Darger and Mary MacLane, improved the reading experience.

So let me get to the premise problems that harm this collection.  In the Realms of the Unreal is a collection of various writings from people who, in some loose sense, fit the description of being “insane.” Sort of. The writings range from poems to involved works of fiction to intense biographies to snippets of what can only be called word salad. And when you have such a range of works under the heading of “insane writings,” it can make you wonder what the methodology of this book was. In the Editor’s Preface, it sort of explained things, but at the same time, it makes it clear that there really was no methodology beyond what the editors had access to within their parameters of unusual behavior.

From the editorial preface, an attempt is made to explain that insane means a lot of things and that their primary goal was to include a variety of writings, knowing full well some may not pass the sniff-test for true insanity.

An effort was made to include a wide variety of authors: living and dead, free and institutionalized, foreign and American, contemporary and antique.

But even within that paradigm, the editors give themselves a lot of wiggle room. They exclude the works of more famous “insane people,” like Antonin Artaud, because they made a living from their writing, but include Mary MacLane, whose writings were widely popular when they were initially published.  It’s also odd because MacLane was definitely not insane, period, and the explanation for her inclusion is odd.

…MacLane’s work was never accepted into the literary canon. She had the double strike against her of being a woman and an eccentric during a period when society was particularly unforgiving.

The editors also have to explain their inclusion of Henry Darger:

We were looking for unusual poems and stories, often by people who had been or were currently institutionalized – although someone like Henry Darger (whose epic text lent its title to this volume) to our knowledge was never treated for “mental illness.” The amount of material produced by these unusual thinkers has greatly diminished in the modern era, principally because of the use of psychiatric drugs that often dull creativity, even as they help a patient adjust to life in conventional society.

I don’t know what to think of that statement about drugs dulling creativity because in my experience it is definitely untrue and it is often the mantra that so often prevents people who need help from getting it, but okay, let’s just roll with it for the purposes of this book.   And as we roll with it, let’s just accept that “insanity,” for the purposes of this book, is whatever the editors decided it is.

But there is another problem with this collection.  Again, from the editor’s preface:

No common theme to the book should readily emerge. To again borrow a phrase of Roger Cardinal’s, we are exploring an archipelago of ideas, rather than a continent.
[…]
These writings are not presented as clues to someone’s “illness”: they are published for their intrinsic worth.

This approach is problematic.  Writings of genuinely insane people are chaotic at best.  Without a common theme or at least an attempt to classify these writings, the reader is confronted with a wall of illness-influenced words that become amorphous and meaningless without context.  The only divisions in the book are institutional and chronological, which is sort of helpful because one can almost see how anti-psychotic medications changed how mentally ill people interacted with their disease, but even that is not enough to give this work the sort of focus that prevents these works from becoming an assault on even readers who seek out this sort of literature.

Finally, I find the notion that “they are published for their intrinsic worth” to be utterly specious.  Much of the work in this book is not good, and failure to link the work to the illness that may have fueled its creation, in my opinion, strips the works of their worth.  To say that all of these pieces from the insane have intrinsic worth just because they were written by insane people is akin to saying that all diary entries from teenagers have intrinsic worth because they are from teenagers, or that all poems written by people in wheelchairs have intrinsic value because they were written by people in wheelchairs.  It is disingenuous to compile  a book of writings selected not because they were well-written but because they are the works of the “insane” and then tell the reader that one should not look at these works using a framework of insanity.

What other framework can the reader use to determine value?  Most of this book is not genius borne from madness.  It’s just madness.  With the exception of a handful of writers, including Darger and Mary MacLane, these are not the works of natural writers.   These are the works of people with a specific story to tell – the story of being mentally ill.  There is no way to evaluate these writings without discussing the illness and experience of illness that inspired the writing in the first place.  I think culturally we need to understand that 20 years ago, the liberal idea of colorblindness and being “handicapable” were in full swing.  One was not supposed to see color, race, religion, disability or illness.  One was just supposed to see people (leading to the now derided and utterly ridiculous insistence that black, white, pink, or purple, liberals don’t see color, just people).  It’s easy to understand this approach to egalitarianism but such an approach denies the experiences of specific people as we deliberately refuse to see the things that define another person’s experience in this world.

So now that you know that this is an unorganized collection of works from people that may be insane or may not be insane, that the works are not necessarily going to be good, and that I plan to completely ignore the exhortation that we overlook the insanity that may have fueled these writings, let’s discuss the individual components that made this book worth reading. 

Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Demons in the Age of Light: A Memoir of Psychosis and Recovery

Author: Whitney Robinson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, mental illness, psychiatry

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: In a way it is not odd because psychiatric memoirs are thick on the ground these days. But in a sense this book is very odd because being given an invitation to look into the mind of a person actively suffering from schizophrenia is in and of itself a strange, unsettling experience.

Availability: Published by Process Media in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Just warning you now, dear reader, that this discussion is going to be one of my trademarked Very Long Discussions with Lots of Quotes from the Book, coupled with a very personal reactions to the text. For those who find a 8000 word or so discussion excessive, here is the tl;dr version: This is a very good book written by a very good writer and you should buy it and read it.

I read a lot of mental health and mental illness memoirs and this was the first one I ever considered odd enough to discuss here. I very nearly missed reading it. I had run into a spate of memoirs that left me cold, and had the online acquaintance who recommended the book to me and then sent me a copy offered it two weeks earlier than she did, I would have declined. But just before she discussed the book with me, I had finished a very good, very honest mental illness memoir, Stacy Pershall’s Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl. The offer to read the book came at the right time after the right book.

It would have been a shame to have turned down this book because of the often sorry shelf-company it is forced to share. And I don’t mean to demean the genre because people gets all kinds of help in all kinds of ways that I may find less than helpful. It’s just that lately some of the books I have read wore very thin for me. It seemed like the authors, mostly women, had romanticized their illness. To paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel, patron saint of fucked up women of a certain age, they had fallen in love with their illness. The devastation the disease wreaked on their bodies, their education, their relationships – it all was a back story to a fabulous disaster narrative.

Also there is a current theme in mental health studies that posits that mental illnesses, or neurodiversity, are a form of genetic selection for arts, letters and speculative science and therefore celebrate the conditions. I can see the logic. Not only is there a long record of acclaimed people who created great art and propelled science, but as a person with mental illness, I like to think that there is a purpose behind my at times terrible brain chemistry. But I am made uneasy by some of it because even though Van Gogh left behind astonishing paintings and Virginia Woolf left behind masterful prose and John Nash was a great boon to speculative physics, would any of us really want to live their lives? It’s all well and good to see the up side of having appalling brain chemistry, but I often fear that people who are suffering will read such examinations and decide that their affliction should not be treated, should not be seen as a disease that needs to be addressed in order for them to live the best life they can live. As much as I adore Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and I have no real way of knowing how much his deep depression truly affected his writing, thinking about the sorry end of his life makes it just a little harder to enjoy the beauty and truth of his words. Art that comes from a truly suffering person will always have a pall cast over it.

This book does not engage in the sort of celebration and art uber alles justifications for mental illness that I have encountered as of late. Whitney Robinson’s memoir gets everything right. She shows the wreckage. She shows how mental illness swooped down into her life and changed everything. A natural writer with a near-intimidating intelligence, Robinson tells the story of her illness, the demon that came into her brain, and how she came back out the other side. It is an erudite, honest, and at times darkly humorous look at what it feels like to have your brain behave in ways you have no control over. Schizophrenia is one of the hardest mental illnesses for people to truly understand, and Robinson writes a fascinating book that is never once a freak show. It is never an attempt to glorify conditions that can ransack a person’s life. This book is never a voyeuristic peephole into the at times salacious subject matter of mental illness.

It is a rare invitation to understand.

Portrait of the Psychopath as a Young Woman by Edward Lee & Elizabeth Steffen

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Portrait of the Psychopath as a Young Woman

Authors: Edward Lee and Elizabeth Steffen

Type of Book: Fiction, extreme horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I tend to consider books with this level of explicit violence to be odd. Mileage may vary but in my world, discussions of extreme horror end up with the odd books.

Availability: Originally published in 1998, the edition I read was published by Necro Publications in 2003. You can get a copy here:

Comments: This is one of those times when I hate discussing books. I feel full of angst because I adore Edward Lee. Even when he’s off his game a bit, I still think he is one of the most unsung horror writers out there (Jack Ketchum and Christopher Fowler are in that same category – my heart never sinks as much as it does when I mention Lee, Ketchum or Fowler and people have no idea who I am talking about). I just like him.

But this book sucks. It is bad. Bad as in there is so little redeemable about it that all I want to do is downshift into snark mode but feel conflicted because I really like Edward Lee. I sense my inner sauciness will have no choice but to burst forth but before I explain in far too much detail why this book was a grave disappointment, I need to say that I hope Edward Lee never collaborates on a book again. Teratologist, another book for which he was the coauthor, was even worse than this one. Lee is a man who needs to write alone, I think.

On the surface, this book seemed like it was gonna be great. The presence of Ed Lee was part of it but the descriptions also made it seem like it was a winner. A journalist is contacted by a serial killing female in order to tell the killer’s story. The journalist enters a new relationship that challenges her emotionally and before long, the woman, her new lover and the killer are on a collision course, and the journalist and the killer find a horrifying link between themselves. Add a mean cop, lots of violence, and pow, you got yourself a decent enough serial killer book. And to be frank, the killer herself was at times an interesting character, and the violence she wreaks might be, for some extreme horror fans, worth the price of admission.

So… Why does this book stink a’plenty? The reasons are myriad and glaring. First, you will never read a more cliched book outside of a romance novel or a western, or maybe a romance set in the Old West, preferably written by my mom. You’ve got your neurotic heroine who is hot and sexy but at weight lighter than Marilyn Fucking Monroe feels she is obese and ugly. Also she’s wacky and likes to run around naked all the time, as body-loathing headcases are wont to do, amirite? We have a murderous whackjob who is a caricature of every abused female killer, with an endless mental dialogue with her abusive daddy. And despite the fact that she’s a mentally deranged killer, she still somehow manages to dress up, lure, stalk and kill her victims and hold a day job with almost nary a hiccup.

But there’s more, oh so much more. We have the cliche of the hard ass cop bullying his unhappy witness. We have a man who is evidently a poet who is acclaimed enough to have made it into The New Yorker who is capable of writing poetry that would make a teenage goth misery case ashamed at the turgid purpleness of it all. Also, he falls in love with the heroine after a night of sex, because that’s what poets do – they fall in love with weird women involved in murder cases. And in a novel about tracking a serial killer, despite the fact that Elizabeth Steffen is a federal crime analyst, we have characters who use the words psychopath and psychotic interchangeably, descriptions of mental states that read like gibberish and a character who appears to be largely psychotic who is yet still able to write out scholarly analyses of her torture techniques.

Part of me wants to say read this for the nasty parts, that’s clearly why it exists, this book. Read it for all the blood and torture and do your best not to pay attention to the shitty plot, poor characterization and outright insult offered in the details. But I can’t. There is no reason you cannot get a fix for gore without abandoning good prose, tight plot, and believable characters and details. And as I always insist when I pan a book, I don’t want you to take my word for it. Let me support myself with examples from the text.

So let’s get started. Kathleen is an advice columnist who lives alone, and because all women in novels written between 1985 and 2001 were sexually abused, so was Kathleen. She has family money to back her up as she writes her column, is evidently quite curvy and pretty and is ten times more neurotic than I was when I was in college, perpetually drunk and before I discovered the magic of anti-anxiety meds. Anyway, Kathleen has had sex with Platt, the Dogpatch Ted Hughes of this novel, and here’s a glimpse into her mind:

Platt, though not a physical specimen, looked trim and enticing. There’s no way he could ever love a Fattie like me. This impression of herself did not depress her at all, it made her feel proudly objective, not weighing, of course, the hypocrisy. When readers wrote in, fearing rejection due to being overweight, Kathleen reassured them that looks meant nothing in a real relationship. Dump them, she’d advise.

As a woman, reading Kathleen felt like I was trapped in the girl’s room at the junior prom. I can only assume men who read this book endured just for the blood. Yay, another heroine who hates her ass. Yay, Bridget Jones is getting stalked by a killer.

Oh, but you never know, maybe Kathleen really is a lardy troll completely undeserving of human love and should be shunned for her grossness. But luckily we have this information the killer digs up from her car registration after she runs the plates on her car:

HEIGHT: 5-6
WEIGHT: 135

Sigh… Look, I know lots of women have negative body image. I’m a fucking American woman, believe me, I know this. But I don’t want to fucking read about a gorgeous woman bitch about being fat in an extreme horror novel. And it’s all the more annoying to read a character moan and groan about how fat her ass is and then find out she’s probably a size six or less.

Kathleen’s pointless body hate permeates the book like the smell of bacon grease in a roadside diner. Driving with her poet boyfriend, she humorously barks at traffic but also continues on with her tiresome internal dialogue.

Kathleen caught herself examining girls who waited at each crosswalk, and she dismally concluded that almost every single one was better-looking than her. Most were trim Washingtonians in traditional summer yuppie garb. Sandals, shorts, loose, pretty blouses. I’m a dinosaur, she thought. Why can’t I look like those girls?

Yeah, this shit wore thin.

Oh, but wait, Kathleen is also dense and petulant. Her boyfriend, the poet, is napping and is speaking in his sleep:

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” he mumbled.
Barbara, huh? Kathleen faintly smirked. So he’s dreaming of old girlfriends. She couldn’t very well hold that against him, though it irked her just the same. You could at least be polite enough to dream about me, Maxwell. That or keep your mouth closed when you’re off in slumberland.

For the love of all that is not shitty, is Kathleen not the more tiresome heroine outside of a haughty lady-in-waiting in some bodice ripper? Not only is she not familiar with one of the most iconic lines in movie history but upon hearing it becomes annoyed that her new man of under a week is not murmuring her name in his sleep. Kathleen, to put it plainly, sucks. When the hapless Maxwell Platt emerges from his sleep she confronts him about this seductress Barbara and when he explains that he is not lying, that he had fallen asleep to Night of the Living Dead, even after she believes him she lacks the grace to apologize.

And then we have this unlikely scene that sealed the deal for me as far as the heroine is concerned. Kathleen is in the shower, and finds herself getting turned on as she remembers the conversation she had with Spence, the adversarial officer assigned to the case:

She remembered what Spence had said, about… What word had he used? Parity, she remembered. Similarities between herself and the killer. The whole thing had been a set-up, but why? The killer was abused as a child, you were abused as a child. So what? Does she look like me? she wondered. Does she have a body like me? A face? Kathleen smiled to herself. Does she touch herself in the shower?

Okay, this is… so full of squick I almost quit reading. Some sexual abuse survivors process their abuse in a sexual manner, that is not unrealistic. But this scene ends with Kathleen bursting from the shower and masturbating on a couch, not even bothering to dry off. She is not processing abuse. She is pondering the similarities between herself and a woman who is so deranged she sent her a man’s severed penis in the mail. Instead of wondering how the other woman ended up a violent killer and contemplating the harm the killer has done, she’s musing about her body and her naked behavior in the shower and using it for masturbatory fodder. On no level does this ring true, it makes the heroine of this book look like a fucking idiot and an asshole and it was foul in every implication. Yeah, Kathleen sucks as a character and that’s problematic because as the heroine of this book, I need to want her to succeed and not get killed in the process and it’s hard to root for someone who is this dense, this self-absorbed, this whiny and this bizarre.

In addition to creating a heroine in whom I have little vested, the authors also run into some problems defining their killer. The title of the book implies the killer is a psychopath but the descriptions of the killer are all over the map and at times read like utter nonsense. Here’s information a forensic psychiatrist gives the lead investigator on the case:

“Tell them to go back a year,” Simmons corrected. “This is something more evolved than your typical unsystematized reality break. Take my word for it, Jeffrey.”

Good thing it isn’t a typical unsystematized reality break because if you Google “unsystematized reality break” you’ll find out it evidently doesn’t exist outside this book. So thank heavens they dodged that “typical” bullet. Steffen, who is a crime analyst, presumably knows her stuff but if so, she is using terminology so arcane that a layman cannot run it to ground. A phrase as weird and awkward as “typical unsystematized reality break” should show up in a Google but it doesn’t and that is problematic. And given how unusual this term is, would it have been too much to have explained it?

The forensic psychiatrist continues:

“She probably lives in a house, in a secluded community,” Simmons continued. “She was sexually abused, probably quite heinously, and probably by her father or or other prominent family figure, from a very young age. She’s obviously bipolar enough to function in public.”

Okay, that first part seems standard enough, but then that last sentence takes it all down a weird road. It’s sort of hard to understand how “bipolar” plays into this in any manner. Bipolar enough to function in public? Well, bipolar people do function in public but it generally is not one of those conditions that one would think helps anyone to function in public. Generally, it is associated with a difficulty in functioning well. Is Steffen trying to convey that the killer is both bipolar and psychotic, or that within her psychosis she is experiencing a swing in behaviors that is similar to the condition of bipolar? I’m not sure and it isn’t explained.

But then, despite the fact that the killer is being presented as psychopathic, terminology gets mixed up, as Spence talks to Kathleen about the killer:

“Most of the conversation she sounded very clear-headed, coherent. Then she goes into the bit about the pain, taking her mother’s pain away and all that.”

“Psychiatrists call it word salad,” Spence enlightened her. “A fairly common trait in bipolar psychosis. One minute she acts and sounds normal, the next minute she’s complete dissociated, completely submerged in her delusions, to such an extreme extent that only she can understand herself.”

Okay, in the course of this book we will find out the killer is bipolar, a psychotic, a psychopath and several other things and I am not a criminal analyst like Steffen but all of this seems unlikely. If it is possible that the killer is a psychopathic psychotic going through some sort of rapidly cycling bipolar spectrum that pushes her from coherence into word salad in the course of one sentence, instead of throwing all this shit out there and expecting us to swallow it, mayhaps the authors could have explained how all these terms fit together and how they manifest together because by failing to do this, it sounds like someone is just tossing out a whole bunch of stuff that sort of sounds officially crazy and hoping we buy it.

It continues:

Simmons’ eyes, in spite of their accrual of years, shined crisply and bright as an infant’s. “But you can take heart in some rather indisputable statistics. The Totem Phase always burns itself out, leaving in its wake a catastrophic amine-related depression. It’s called the Capture Phase. Very quickly the falsehood of the delusion is unveiled; the bipolar mental state reverses poles, so to speak, locking the killer in an inescapable feeling of capture. The psychopath’s self-image is reduced to total meaningless… Suicide is the most frequent result.

This verged on gibberish for me and it’s a bit disorienting when I try to piece ideas together using the Internet and my own library on psychology and criminal profiling and come up empty handed. Would the average person have any goddamned idea what an “amine-related depression” is? Google ain’t gonna be much help. Totem and Capture Phase are not that arcane but coupled in there with amine-related depression and the bad line about the crispness of a baby’s eyes and you sense that this is a novel that really didn’t weigh out the meaning of the words used.

And it goes on and on:

“The killer has to know we’re on to her. But she’s psychopathic. Lotta times psychopaths get fuzzy on the dividing line between fantasy and reality. And they make mistakes. That’s what we’re counting on. She might come here in a fugue state, or when she’s deep in one of her delusions. Then we’ve got her.”

It feels weird countering the words that presumably came from a criminal analyst but yeah, while psychopaths often suffer from delusions, do psychopaths go into a fugue state? That sounds far more like the behavior of a psychotic and the mental state of the killer in this book points far more to a psychotic, someone who has almost no connection to reality. Psychopaths, in my education, were characterized by a superficial glibness and complete inability to care about other people. The killer in this book is full-bore crazed, having a dialogue in her head with her abuser, living a life almost completely detached from reality. It seems to me that despite the presence of an expert as a writer, this book uses the words psychotic and psychopath interchangeably.

But descriptions of the killer are not the only time you will read questionable psychological approaches in this book. Here’s some advice Kathleen received to help her deal with the atrocious abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle:

“There are times when it’s perfectly healthy to redirect the pain in our lives. To transform it into someone else’s pain.” The method worked very well. Whenever a memory popped up… she simply murdered him in her mind. “Rape-Conclusion Substitution is what we call it.”

Seriously, go Google “Rape-Conclusion Substitution” with one hand and shit in the other and tell me which yields the most search results. Maybe this really is a helpful technique but is used under another name? So why include this at all? This part is not so integral to the plot of the book that the authors needed to create a bullshit label for this therapeutic technique or use a technique so arcane and obscure that it is impossible for a layperson to find out about it.

There are some seriously wacky plot devices in this book as well. At one point, Spence knows that they have a line on the killer and the powers that be, called General Command, see fit to send a helicopter to land on the lawn of Spence’s condo complex to pick him up in the middle of the night so he can be on the scene when they catch the killer. At least the authors have the decency to admit this whole scene is dumb:

The neighbors’ll love me, he thought, and then stepped out into what had to be the most ludicrous scenario of his life… The helicopter–a rebuilt white Bell JetRanger–descended amid the chugging cacophony of its props, and a mad wind siphoned about Spence, which nearly sucked his unbuttoned Christian Dior off his back.

Yeah, no sending a car for Spence. Nope, let’s risk the lives of untold people landing a fucking enormous helicopter on the grounds of a heavily populated area. C’mon, this is a serial killer/police procedural/heavy gore book. We don’t need plots lines from post-Cold War spy novel wet dreams.

Some of the dialogue was miserable. Just miserable. Take this example. Spence the detective has come to Kathleen’s door:

“Hello,” he said when she opened up.
“Damn. I was hoping it was the Fuller Brush Man.”
“The Fuller Brush Man isn’t your ticket to literary acclaim.”
“Oh, but you are?” she said. “A poker-faced cop in a bargain basement suit?”
Spence’s gaze distended. “This suit cost $850. It’s made from some of the finest–”
“Relax Kafka, I was only kidding. Are you here for anything in particular, or just the typical police harassment?”

1) No one under the age of 60 uses the Fuller Brush Man as a reference in actual conversation, even those of us who watch a lot of old television and read potboilers from the ’40s.
2) How the fuck does someone’s gaze distend?
3) Kafka? Kafka? Maybe there was a reference earlier in the book that explains this because if there isn’t (and I don’t think there is) calling Spence Kafka makes no fucking sense.

Then there’s just the bad writing. This may seem picky but if the rest of the book is a clusterfuck, it becomes hard to overlook even little problems. Like this line of dialogue from a scene in the morgue wherein an evidence tech explains things in language we can all understand.

“Three bodies,” he said. “We’ll call them One, Two, and Three.”

Well, thank God that wasn’t… so obvious that it approached pointlessness. Glad we got that cleared up.

Bad writing continues apace. Like this gem a murder victim overheard in a bathroom in a goth club that he entered because, as we all know, goth clubs are the best sort of meat markets for norm guys on the make:

In the bathroom some guys were doing cocaine as they traded jokes. “What’s the difference between Michael Jackson and potato chips? Michael Jackson comes in a can.”

Does anyone even know what this joke means? I mean, aside from the fact that it seems unlikely that such a joke would be common fare, it’s almost as cryptic as the discussion of “amine-related depression.”

While in the goth club, which we know is goth because the future victim thinks one girl looks like Morticia Adams (sic) and because there is Joy Division graffiti written in the bathrooms, we are presented with the victim’s take on the costuming around him:

Brad spotted some class cleavage, a brunette in sequins and earrings that looked like shower curtain rings.

Yeah, goth girls in sequins and enormous hoop earrings were thick on the ground in the late 1990s. Thick, I tell you. You also had to look out for all the feather boas and girls in crinoline looking like Cyndi Lauper. Eh, given that no one noticed they were misspelling the Addams family name, I am probably kicking a poorly dyed horse.

Moving on to weird and heavy-handed descriptives. Take this scene, the quotes taking place within paragraphs of each other:

He wondered what he’d done to her–some obsidian inquisitor in him with no heart.

Followed by:

It all poured out of her–the blackest ichor tapped through the wounds her uncle had lain into her spirit.

Okay, I get that the authors want to imply darkness, a blackness that implies the horrible evil that happened to Kathleen at the hands of her uncle. But why an obsidian inquisitor? A shiny, striated, glossy, brittle inquisitor? Blackest ichor? Blackest blood of the gods? I mean, these words all sound sort of good but mostly these words mean very little in conveying what I assume the authors wanted to make us aware of.

Word misuse does not end there:

Moonlight bathed the room in lucent slants, just like the dream. She lay naked in an ichor of sweat…

An ichor of sweat, eh? What the hell does that even mean? She laid in a blood of the gods of sweat? Or maybe a fluid of inflammation of sweat? And again, Kathleen’s tendency to love being naked in hot rooms feels a wee bit gratuitous.

But we aren’t done with black and blood imagery.

The words seemed to permute the paper until they were no longer words at all, but glyphic scrawlings etched in black blood.

Ignoring the fact that paper cannot be etched, I have no fucking idea what a glyphic scrawling is in this usage since we have no fucking idea what the paper was permuted into. I also wonder about using “permute” because as far as I know, it is a verb used mainly in math, implying order. If the words had been permuted, I could understand that because it would imply the order of the words was being changed. But can a page of paper be permuted? It could be mutated, I guess, but permute was not a good word choice for this sentence. In fact, this sentence can’t stand up to the most basic parsing without verging into gibberish. At several places in this book, it seemed like words were selected for how they might sound rather than what they actually mean.

Continuing on with bad writing choices, there was this bizarre statement:

“Jesus to Pete, Lieutenant. You got yourself a real winner here. This chick knows more about torture than Einstein knew about relativity. Makes Adolf Eichmann look like fuckin’ Dick Van Dyke.”

This sort of hyperbole doesn’t really give definition to the killer by emphasizing how horrific are her actions but rather gives a sense that Eichmann was somehow not all that bad, you know, given that some lady somewhere did really bad stuff to some men. Yes, this serial killer is terrible. She binds men up like mummies so that they cannot move and then does things like blow red pepper up their noses and cuts off their penises. She’s deranged and does vile things. But is she really a rival of one of history’s greatest monsters? Why include a statement like this at all because if one doesn’t immediately laugh, which I guess was the response the authors wanted, the only other thing to do is to look at the statement and realize how bad an idea it is to consider the actions of a serial killer in reference to one of history’s worst genocides. I know this book is over a decade old but even given the round of razzing people receive online when they invoke Nazis in bad arguments, the custom still persists in fiction. It’s annoying and unless one is writing about Nazis, one should not invoke them to make specious comparisons.

There were other issues with the book. A radio shrink telling a caller with sexual issues who was molested by her brother to kill him in with her mind several times a day, a therapy that may be just dandy but seems a terrible thing to be advocating over the radio, an idea that could easily become a murder charge outside of a therapeutic setting. The scene where Kathleen is symbolically confronting her abuser while being molested by a snake was so heavy-handed and dripping in false symbolism that it was a car wreck. Oh, then there was what I have no choice but to call the “butt spit” scene.

Sigh…

The killer walks in on people having furtive sex in the hospital where she works:

She knew the phlebotomy tech was sodomizing her because every few minutes the nurse would whisper, “More spit,” and the phlebotomy tech would stop and his head would tilt and she could hear him expectorate, and then he’d start again.

Somehow that was the foulest scene in the book. Seriously, a head nurse bent over and buttfucked and nowhere in the hospital is there a better lube than some guy’s spit? I mean, the only other place where there would have been more lube options available would have been a lube factory. Just because they spit all over each other in porn does not mean anyone else does it in real life. Use lube appropriate to the sex act. The anal fissures you won’t get later will thank you for it. And if you do so, you might be less inclined to describe anal sex in a manner that sounds like the second take for a shoe string porn script. But if this was meant to be just gross, the authors succeeded well.

Interestingly, in a book where two of the main characters are writers, neither seemed to be able to write worth a damn. Spence, the detective, reads one of Kathleen’s columns and rhetorically asks himself if it is just him or if none of it makes a lick of sense, like it was written in a foreign language. Here’s the column answer he read:

Regarding your former boyfriend, forget him. By saying such spiteful things to you he’s only elucidating his own selfishness and immaturity, not to mention his lack of consideration for your honest feelings. Men like that are best left out with the garbage. And as for your current emotional perplexion, I think you need to reverse your methods of anticipation. …

No, Spence, it’s not just you. I know the authors were trying to make an “Aren’t men and women different” statement, plus a little, “Hey, gay men don’t get women,” sort of riff but it mostly read like nonsense.

And Kathleen isn’t the only shitty writer in this hot mess. Remember her boyfriend, the poet? The one so good he’s in The New Yorker? This is a poem of his Kathleen finds. Also note that he calls every poem he writes “Exit” for reasons I am sure are too deep and poetical for the likes of me:

EXIT by Maxwell Platt
Resplendence is truth, yet it’s escaped me somehow,
And I don’t even remember what you look like now.
But in the trees, in the clouds, in the heavens above
even the angels are burning up with all my love.

Well, it’s not Tennyson. It’s not even Cummings or Plath. It’s barely a Nickelback lyric.

There is another poem, the only one not called “Exit” but is instead called “A Keatsian Inquiry.” Here’s a snippet:

Dare he wake her beauty in the moon?
For what he spied–such love–and in
that precious moment didst nearly swoon.
Yet on she slept a lovely sleep;
here is the image his love doth reap.

Could no one have looked up an actual poem by Keats or a modern love poem and at least tried to ape it a bit? Because asking us to accept this as anything but the work of an overwrought high school freshman is a bit much.

So. What have we in total? We have a spunky but self-loathing hot chick who thinks she’s fat and writes a shitty self-help column that brought her to the attention of a psychotic, psychopathic, bipolar killer who slips into word salad and sends the columnist dicks in the mail. We have a detective who largely does not grate, but we also have a poet who cannot write poetry. We have words that don’t fit together well. We have scenes so utterly dumb they would make a normal person curse their dog when they read them. Bad analogies. A girl killer worse than Eichmann. Butt sex with spit.

We also have some top notch, methodical and yet over the top extreme violence. So weigh things out. Can you take all that I laid out and so much more in order to get to the heinous parts? If not, may I recommend Edward Lee’s Infernal books. Some pretty foul content, extreme horror, and though these books likely have all kinds of issues, the content is lively, engaging, disgusting and funny enough that I didn’t really notice. And with so much extreme horror, that’s the goal, to be so wrapped up in the content that the meta of the reading experience doesn’t intrude. This book didn’t come close to achieving that goal.

Clown Girl by Monica Drake

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Clown Girl: A Novel

Author: Monica Drake

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I initially purchased this thinking it would be a good idea for my other site devoted to odd books. But while this book has an unusual heroine living in an unusual subculture, it skirts the criteria I use to determine an odd book.

Availability: Published in 2006 by Hawthorne Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Nita is a clown. She lives in Baloneytown, waiting for her boyfriend, Rex, to return to her. She is a tenant in a house with a pot-selling burnout and his hostile and clever girlfriend, living in a tiny room with her beloved dog and her clown accoutrements. Nita loses items precious to her and longs to get them back, and dreams of a time when she can combine high art, literature and the profession of being a clown. Also, she meets a policeman who is clearly smitten with her though he has no idea what she looks like under her makeup because she lives her life completely as a clown. In Nita’s tale, Drake manages to tell a very familiar story but employs such unusual elements that one does not wholly realize that Nita could just as easily been named Bridget Jones or might easily have come from Marian Keyes’ Shopaholic series. Nita is feckless, self-absorbed, head in the clouds, in love with a cretin and her job is often in jeopardy. She has a bitchy nemesis, there is a strong, kind man waiting for her in the wings, and it takes her entirely too long to pull herself together, though she manages it after tumbling into one unlikely situation after another.

Drake spins a marvelous tale but the real reason I think I loved this book so much is not only that Nita speaks to me in an almost eerie way, but also because Drake inverts the traditional chick-lit story by stating outright what it is that makes these clumsy, clueless, grandiose, insecure women appealing. She makes it clear from the very title what Nita is. She’s a clown. No mincing words. Nita is a clown and Drake shows how hard it is not to be a clown when hiding behind makeup, clothes, images and pie-in-the-sky ideas is all one has ever known. I’m a clown, though less clownish (I hope) as I get older but if you began as a clown, bumbling your way through life, you will find much to like about Nita and her slapstick life. In Nita, using the raucous background of clowns and her inversion of the modern chick-lit novel, Drake creates a character who tells a story we are familiar with but have not wholly heard before.

Though this book is a riff on familiar plots, I don’t want to give an outline of the book because the fantastic disaster as Nita’s life unspools is one of the reasons I think you should read this book. But I will hit on some plot points as I share some of Drake’s writing and parts of the book that truly resonated with me. The novel begins with Nita collapsing, suffering from the effects of a terrible loss – a miscarriage. She is working as a clown at an outdoor event and the heat and likely the effects of her recent miscarriage cause her to pass out. She is taken to the hospital and the thoughts in her head as she navigates being in a frightening place all alone spoke to me and I immediately felt a kinship with Nita. I have no idea if her paranoia would translate to people who have have had excellent experiences with doctors and nurses, but for me, I could have written Nita’s thoughts (and it wasn’t lost on me as I read many of Nita’s thoughts that often the first letter of my own name is seldom pronounced by my fellow Texans, rendering me a de facto “Nita”).

Don’t tell doctors your dreams, ever. Don’t tell them your menstrual cycle. Don’t say you felt anything in your head, or that you might’ve known. If they ask about street drugs, which they will, say no, no matter what. If you say, I feel anxious all the time, you’ll get Valium. Otherwise you’ll get what they call “mood equalizers,” daily doses of who knows what, a gambler’s crapshoot in tinctures of chemicals.

As a clown on the street, I had to keep my wits. I couldn’t take their chemicals.

Don’t tell doctors anything.

This is a cluebat of sorts. Nita suffered a miscarriage before this trip to the ER, but it is also clear she had some frightening experiences with doctors trying to help her correct her brain, a brain that seems very common to me but might seem to others like the kind of skull space that needs tinctures of chemicals. I also relate to this fear of authority’s power more than I care to admit. Also, in this chick-lit inversion, it is refreshing that Nita does not want the drugs that would have just led to another humiliating escapade for a traditional heroine.

Nita takes being a clown very seriously but through the descriptions of the tools Nita uses in her craft, as well as the way Drake describes Nita’s thoughts about the artistic routines Nita wants to perform, we see the utter ridiculousness of Nita’s life. We don’t need Nita sliding down a fireman’s pole showing her panties or putting eyeshadow on in the place of blusher, all visually very clownish actions, to show Nita’s true inner clown. Take this passage about Nita’s approach to balloon animals, bearing in mind that later in the book she wonders about creating The Last Supper in balloon form and feels there is an important message inherent in such an act.

Swollen Sacred Hearts, shrunken wise men, and bloated angels bobbed at my feet, the fruits of my labor. On the shopworn dedication page of Balloon Tying for Christ it said “With appreciation and gratitude for my wife and six lovely children who have borne with me through twelve long years of deprivations while trying to complete this work.” Such martyrs! Balloon Tying for Christ was maybe all of seventeen pages long, with one blank page at the end. The tricks inside, by corporate accounting, were worth hundreds of dollars, Matey, Crack and me, that’s what we earned when high-end work came in. But work didn’t always come. We had to promote and deliver. That book was my cash cow.

It’s hard to think of anything more ridiculous than a 17 page book about making balloon figures for Jesus and how such a book could become the bread and butter to any person, but Drake shows us. She shows us clearly the absolutely insane pieces that make up the whole of Nita.

Nita above may demonstrate how she understands her profession is one of money but she longs to be an artist, a clown interpreting great art and literature (her final blowup with her despicable boyfriend Rex concerns him pirating her Kafka interpretation as told via a clown), but she resents the fact that she is a comedic act or worse, that she should be sexually appealing in her clowning. When one of two female clowns she occasionally works with spells it out for her, it’s not clear that it really sinks in to Nita. Nita simply wants to be a clown artiste and doesn’t like to think of how what she really does applies to what she really wants to do.

“Pssst,” Matey said, in a stage whisper and knocked a hand against her head. “Here’s a clue: Women wear makeup, right? But a man in face paint, people see aahh-rt. You and me, we top out at birthday gigs, and that hurts more than anything I’m doing now. That’s the meat o’ the matter.” She tipped her Chaplin hat. Was it true? Was there a latex ceiling, made-up makeup finish line?

Despite being a clown, and supporting herself, after a fashion, being a clown for parties and even engaging in sexier acts for corporate parties, Nita bitterly resents the way that money destroys what she considers beauty.

Leonardo da Vinci said water was the most destructive force on the planet. Water corrodes metal and eats through rock. But da Vinci forgot about the corrosive power of cash; when money came into a neighborhood, the buildings toppled. Even people disappeared.

Like any stereotypical artiste type, Nita wants purity. She wants pure love, pure work, pure happiness. Just like her grandiose idea of herself interpreting art as a clown, her ideas about what life can really be are just as grandiose and unhappy about settling for anything less. She says:

In a world of clown whores and virgins, I’d cling to the integrity of art.

That doesn’t happen, but even as she is descending into the world of clown prostitution, Nita still has lofty and near-risible goals.

Traditionally, there’s been no delicacy to balloon art. That’s where I’d revolutionize things. Chiaroscuro, sfumato: I’d find a way to translate da Vinco’s painterly tricks into rubber and air.

Maybe I’d pioneer a line of designer balloon colors in da Vinci’s palette. Why stop there? I could have a van Gogh line, a Gauguin line, Toulouse-Lautrec and Tintoretto.

Nita’s delusions carry her to strange places, to strange actions, to stranger results. She wants to be more than a juggling clown at a kid’s party. She wants to be a performance artist, a portrayer of truth. But she is a clown and she proves it over and over again, that her perspective of being a clown will never match up to her dreams of artistic relevance. And like the heroines in chick-lit, she decides to alter her body but instead of dieting or buying clothes she cannot afford, Nita decides to don a sand-filled fat suit to turn herself into a face-painted voluptuary. And what fine slapstick would be complete if she did not, in fact, juggle fire in such a get-up?

I’d be a sassy, busty clown girl juggling fire. Of course–why not? I’d play to crowds high and low. I’d find the fine line between Crack’s clown whore and my own comic interpretation, work both sides and move easily from the comedy of burlesque to striptease, slapstick to sexy. I’d graduate from Clown Girl to Clown Woman.

Then we go from a padded body suit to the sublimely ridiculous.

I’d do a new silent, sexy version of Kafka: Gregor Samsa wakes up, finds he’s metamorphosed into a woman with an hourglass figure–where every second counts!–and his world’s on fire. I’d do a busty Beef-Brisket Dance, on fire. Two Clowns in a Shower on fire. And Who’s Hogging the Water? –that’d mixed genre, soft porn plus fire. Even an ordinary bodacious bod and the pins on fire would be a new show altogether.

But Nita is still deluded. She can’t make it from being a clown girl to a clown woman as long as she is a clown. As long as she clings to her outrageous ideas, she will never be able to find any real truth. Given what a fabulous disaster she is, it ends about how you sensed it would as soon as you read the word “fire.” Nita sets herself and the yard on fire. And oh yeah, she’s fire juggling in the middle of the night. This is also a very good example of the both extreme and subtle humor Drake wields, making Nita a borderline caricature but never stepping completely into a place where the reader cannot respond to Nita’s plight.

“Crapola! Crapola!” I ran in a circle and threw myself down. I rolled on the grass where the grass wasn’t on fire, but the Pendulous Breasts resisted my momentum, and everywhere I rolled sparks flew. The Pendulous Breasts duck-quacked and chirped a cacophony of party sounds. I was guilty and now I was on fire. Who would’ve known hell was so efficient. A few mistakes and hell came to me faster than room service.

Because she is burned and experiencing heart problems, Nita returns to the hospital, where she again tells a terrible tale from her past. Without telling the reader the reasons for Nita’s paranoia, Drake makes it all too clear what happens to some girls who enter the maw of a hospital when they are alone, weird and full of self-delusion.

Here’s what I know now: never let a misunderstanding go unclarified in a hospital, same as in a school, jail, or prison. Never carry a diary with you, not even a day planner if you write notes in it. Don’t say, “Yes, that’s mine,” to any old scrap of nothing, to what might have been interesting in the free world.

The hospital, it’s a gateway, The path to incarceration.

Your best bet is don’t even write anything down. Ever. Most of all, don’t go near the hospital unless your problem is obvious as a bullet or a broken leg, and don’t go more than once. Otherwise you’ll learn about a two-doctor hold. Doctor Two-Hold, a seventy-two-hour detainment–and seventy-two hours can be longer if it’s late at night or over a weekend.

A deus ex machina in the typical chick-lit form of a man saves Nita from the probable 72-hour psych lock down that awaits her after coming into the ER burned, wearing an exploding fat suit and in full clown regalia.

…Jerrod had seen me inside and out, burned and in the psych ward. And still here he was, beside me. But the blood and the burns were all circumstantial, a string of bad luck, the anomaly. I didn’t want to think that was me–a wreck, a mess, a mortal.

But she is a wreck and a mess. You want to despair of Nita but you can’t, not quite. She periodically shows glimmers of insight that peek out when she is daydreaming about her despicable boyfriend and making an art show out of balloons tied to resemble Renaissance paintings. This scene, for example: Nita has lost her rubber chicken, whom she calls “Plucky” and put up reward posters all over her low-income and crime-infested neighborhood, resulting in dozens of people coming by with various rubber chickens trying to collect the reward.

“Maybe your Plucky jus’ fell in with the wrong crowd, maybe she was looking for love and thought she’d found it…but you can’t trust nobody round here, that’s what Plucky knows now. Uh huh.” The woman’s eyes were flat and dull. She’s quit looking at me. “Plucky maybe learned a few things, and you say, ‘No way, no second chances,’ and jus’ like that, man, turn her ass back out on the street.”

I said, “Who are we talking about here?”

And who were they talking about? The worn down woman at the door or Nita herself? It’s hard to tell here, but later revelations show Nita is far more in tune with herself than even she would like to admit.

I was good at pool. Physics, I understood. I knew all about vectors. That was my original goal in clowning–to create the illusion of defying physics with muscular comedy. I wanted to be able to stand when it looked like I should fall, to spring up when gravity would pull down, and to balance at impossible angles. I wanted to win, or at least stay on my feet, when it looked like I was losing.

Losing is a thing Nita understands so it stands to reason she wants to be able to look good doing it. But she also knows that she is not ever going to be able to make it in a more rarefied world.

One lone lobster beat a claw against the glass wall of a small tank. The lobster’s narrow, empty world was perched over a frozen sea; blue Styrofoam tray after tray of Dungeness crab, leggy purple squid, and bundled smelt rested on chopped ice below. Tick, tick. The lobster knocked, as though to flag down help. Across the aisle what had once been a herd of grass-fed cattle now lay silent in bloody pools of iced New York strip steak, flank steak, ribs, tongues, and burger. Edible flowers bloomed on a small green stand, a miniature field ready for harvest. Tap tap. Tap. Tap tap. A lobster S O S. Get me out of this dead heaven. I knew the feeling.

Yeah, and this inversion of the chick-lit rang the truest to me because unlike her counterparts, Nita can’t just pick the right guy, clean herself up, lose a few pounds, get her credit card debt under control and she’ll suddenly find herself living the good life when the author rewards her feminine will to change with the perfect rich man to pave her way. Nita would feel even more like a clown in a monied world of privilege.

My heart, ready to burst, spoke in the fast Morse code of biology: you’ll die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy... I had seconds to live. My heart was too big for my chest, my head hummed. I couldn’t move fast enough, had to get out of there.

As Nita shows how her damaged heart is telling her what to do, I could not help but think of Sylvia Plath’s Esther, whose heart beat, “I am, I am.” Nita’s heart tells her she has two options, both horrible, and given the hints of diagnosed craziness in her past, this passage was terrible because despite the loony ideas Nita had concerning her work and her art, at the core of her, the heart, so to speak, in times of grave stress her only options seemed to be to go crazy or die.

I like to think Nita’s heart went to such dark places not because she was indeed depressed (though she is definitely desperate) but rather because she knew on a very basic level that her dreams of clown artistry were hogwash, an attempt to cloak herself in dreams so she would not have to look at the real problems in her life. Nita has no family, she lost her baby, and she has no allies.

Emancipated minor? I’d been one for years–emancipated but no longer a minor, and I was ready to have a team, a side, a family. Somebody to back me up. A person shouldn’t be emancipated so long.

Sadly, the person she pins her hopes on, Rex, is not worth her care, even as a clown girl. Here’s a quote from Rex:

Rex laughed then, a mean, sharp snort. “Impossible? You want to talk impossible? This is all bullshit, babe. Youw ant to think you’re not a hooker, just a clown on a private date. Think you’re an artist, working a new car lot? I’ll tell you something–that’s not art. It’s just a story you’re making up. Maybe the same story you’d tell our baby, if we still had a baby. Mommy’s not a hooker, she’s a corporate party girl. No wonder the kid bailed. Christ, maybe the thing’s lucky you dumped it.”

As horrible as this was, as horrible as him rubbing her face in her miscarriage could ever be, he has a point. Nita’s no artist. She tells herself stories to get herself through and had created a fantasy about being a family with Rex as she had about her work. It hits her hard.

A deus ex machina reunited Nita with her rubber chicken and her lost dog, and once she has the dog back, she has to do something to save her dog’s life. Her roommates like to feed the dog pot and to keep the dog from becoming deathly ill, she needs peroxide to induce vomiting. However, she shows up at the convenience store wearing the ragged remains of the fat suit, her clown makeup smeared, and she cannot get anyone to take her seriously. Because she is a clown, she cannot impart upon anyone that she is in the middle of an emergency and she finally begins to see how she is hindering herself by imbuing her odd ideas with a patina artistic endeavor.

There was my face in the aluminum rim of the hot-foods incubator, around jo-jos and chicken, I was reflected in the glass of the Coke cooler and the grease-smeared deli case, all powdery makeup, black liner and big red lips, the face of a clown hooker right out of an old-time jail-time act. My one Caboosey boob hung free.
[…]
The only show was my life and it was a bomb. The only routine was the daily one. I’d been in clown costume so long, I wasn’t an artist. I was a freak.

She takes a good look at herself, where she lives and the people she knows and she realizes it’s time to change.

They, my friends, were hucksters, drug dealers, and bullies. But in that world of defeatism, I was the jester, the fall guy, the rubber chicken. I was the one who put on face paint and shades, limping in one big shoe.

And if this was a regular chick-lit novel, there would be another deus ex machina that would help Nita wipe off the clown makeup, would help her find two regular shoes so she could walk tall and proud, a job would magically fall into her lap and the new man who was lurking at her side unnoticed would sweep her off her feet and Nita would realize she could stand on her own two feet again, though she wouldn’t have to since the new guy would be rich and ready to marry her. That doesn’t happen in this chick-lit inversion but the ending is satisfying in its own way.

This book surprised me. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I think it managed to walk down the path of mainstream chick-lit novels to satisfy my occasional need for glurge, but it also did truly invert the real goal of such novels and their well-worn paths by giving us a heroine whose hidden past remained hidden, whose life really was ridiculous, whose world resembled places I am familiar with and whose transformation showed herself she could not remain a clown and achieve any of the goals she wanted in her life as a person. I highly recommend this book and hope Drake is writing new novel. I very much would like to see what she says next.

A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father

Author: Augusten Burroughs

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir

Why Did I Read This Book: Because I quite like Augusten Burroughs. Full stop.

Availability: Published by Picador, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I put off reading this book because there was a mild, teeny-tiny literary kerfuffle when A Wolf at the Table was released. Some critics took exception to a scene in the book wherein there is a violent outburst between Burroughs’ father and his older brother. Burroughs remembers bringing his brother a gun and begging him to kill their father. Some people felt this scene was created from whole cloth, and brought up some evidence to back their belief. Evidently, Burroughs exaggerated some scenes from his book Dry. He admits to making up a terminally ill woman who was doing her best to die sober. It raised all the usual thorny subjects about memoirs, the name James Frey was invoked and it was disheartening.

Then Augusten Burrough’s older brother, who wrote his own book about his life with Asperger’s, explained it for everyone. You see, the fight did happen. The conflict was real. And little Augusten did come to him with a gun – a pellet or bb gun, and begged him to shoot their father. In the eyes of a child, it was a life or death conflict and Augusten was telling truth as he understood it as the child who experienced the trauma. Other issues of veracity came up with the book, but all of them are issues I understand and can explain myself, so I am unsure why critics didn’t clue in. Maybe they all had really good childhoods.

I think that the debacles many avid readers experienced with J.T. Leroy and James Frey have caused a lot of people to reject the idea of a subjective truth. We want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth without remembering that a robotic recitation of objective truth can at some times be impossible and that the subjective truth is often all that matters when you are reading about a person’s life. I hope this desire to force all memoirs to come from a place of universal knowledge and total recall ends soon. Regardless, the brouhaha, even though it was resolved, made me put off reading this book longer than I should have. I guess I feared that there might be some tiny part of the book that would not seem subjectively true to me and I love Augusten Burroughs. I felt it risky to read this book lest I find some egregious fault with him.

That certainly was not the case, as it turned out. This book was utterly true to me even down to the smallest details. Like the rotting deck. The sick animals that never got treatment. The alienation and loneliness punctuated by violent and psychotic melodrama. All of this is true to me because even now, as an adult, I know that things that seemed like a threat when I was a child were probably no more than tense minutes, but the child who perceived it all is still in me and resents the everloving hell out of anyone who dares suggest that it wasn’t that bad or that I am misremembering. I should have read this book and responded to it much sooner.

Because I often respond very personally to the books I discuss here, it probably won’t be a surprise to regular readers if I do it again. I feel very comfortable talking about the time when I went psychotic and had to go to inpatient lockdown. I openly discuss my prescription pill addiction that almost destroyed my marriage and could have cost me my life had I not been very lucky. I talk about my life as an adult with a candor that I worry will hamstring me terribly should I ever again need a day job. But I find it very difficult to speak in detail about my childhood.

Mostly, I have a hard time discussing it because nothing ever changed much and it is a topic that can get boring – human misery is a jail and not much happens in day-to-day life in jail. I also tended to block a lot of things, living in my mind and I can’t recall what it felt like to be a child alone and without recourse the way many writers can. I also think much of my childhood is still humiliating to me so I prefer not to recall it in lots of detail. But mostly, I don’t talk about it because I have some half-brothers out there somewhere. We know we all exist but beyond that we know nothing much about each other, and if they ever Google me and find my book reviews, I don’t want the first things they find out about me to be the graphic details of the depths of my loathing for our late father.

But unless I simply say, “Hey read this book because I say so!” I don’t know if I can discuss this book unless the memory of my own father is invoked because while the details are different, the emotions and reactions Burroughs revealed in this book were dangerously close to some of my own.

Augusten Burroughs’ father John was a college professor who seemed well-liked by his peers. However, his family knew a far different man. He terrorized his wife. He terrorized his son. He treated family pets with a psychopathic disregard for their pain. He didn’t like his son even talking in his presence. He turned his son’s life into a living hell, likely exacerbated the mental illness his wife suffered from, and generally behaved in a predictably unpredictable manner. The only thing one could expect when reading this book was that John would continually do things that seem unthinkable and sickeningly bizarre to people who are unfamiliar with abusive sociopaths.

My father wore the same mask that Augusten Burroughs’ father wore. I recall reading critics who felt that Burroughs was stretching the truth about the description of his father. John had severe psoriasis that caused his skin to be red and flaky, making him bleed through his clothes. He had a mouth full of rotting teeth. His overall appearance to Augusten was repellent and fearsome, but some wondered how it was a man who looked so terrible could hold a job in academia, as if academia doesn’t harbor some very strange physical specimens. I can recall too the extremity of my own father’s appearance and that never once cost him a job or hindered his work life.

Indeed, it seems impossible to anyone who has never known a sociopath that they could be so dreadful in action or even appearance yet thrive and paint a picture of themselves that utterly defies what those close to them understand about them. Burroughs explains this mask very well.

I thought of the few times we’d gone to the university together and how he’d taken me around and introduced me to his colleagues. He’d seemed like such a dad that I’d wondered what was wrong with me to always feel so suspicious of him. I remembered thinking how, in the light of day out in the world, my father was just like anybody’s father. But as soon as I was alone with him again, Dad was gone and dead was there in his place.

Even if Burroughs recalls some of the details of his life with his father through the lenses of a child or an unreliable narrator, this bafflement of a child who wonders why the clerk at the supermarket gets a charming, polite dad but the kid gets a nasty, bitter, cruel dad reads utterly true to me.

Burroughs also conveys very well the shrill, brittle tendency that children emotionally abandoned by parents experience, that horrific need for kindness and concern that, if left unchecked, can result in us becoming pests to those who give us crumbs of kindness.

I was just not accustomed to large, grown people asking me if I wanted to share in what they were doing. The moment had been thrilling. I had to run away, because there existed the very real danger that I would run to him, leap right up into his arms, and smother him with kisses, like some icky girl. Fleeing had been an act of self-preservation, not shyness in this case.

I think, in some ways, this passage explains why I am a hermit. Because even as an adult with a happy marriage, I feel a strange chasm in me that I know will never be filled. I often think I keep people at an arm’s length because I fear I will show too much need or will reveal too much about myself via thoughtless enthusiasm. You can recover from a terrible childhood, but no matter how much therapy you receive, no matter how much you genuinely change, there is a fine web of emotional distress that covers you from head to toe and which shows itself at odd and sometimes embarrassing moments.

This entire book is filled with quotes that were statements full of “aha!” for me because they had kernels of truth to them about my own condition and the contents of my mind.

…I never smiled when I was alone. Why would I?

Very few unhappy children smile much unless they have a parent whom such smiles placated. Nothing annoyed my father worse than the sight of me smiling and I grew into an adult who never smiled much until I began to shake off the emotional detritus my father left behind.

People believe in God because they can’t face being alone. It didn’t scare me to think of being alone in the world. It scared me that I wasn’t.

It was a comfort to read this particular bit. I always wondered why, in a family of believers, I ended up an atheist. I suspect this may be as good an explanation as any. I like being alone, my husband’s company being the main exception. Aloneness suits me. I used to feel sick when my father came home from work as his presence meant walking on eggshells, it meant being unable to make noise, it meant not being able even to chew in a manner that he found acceptable. I spent all my time in my room when I was a child, reading, staying out of the way. It became a habit, all the reading and all the quiet. Now I can be alone with no worries of my mental peace being interrupted. I think God or god or deity of any kind would disturb my hard won solitude.

The prospect of a family vacation created extreme anxiety in Augusten, an anxiety that rings all too familiar to me.

I developed a rank, metallic taste in my mouth, always the precursor to illness. My throat felt raw, like I’d been howling. And my joints ached, skin tender to the touch.

Sickness was how my body responded to anxiety.

Oh god, do I ever know what this means. I came to understand that I am not a hypochondriac, which is what I thought I was for many years. I finally now understand that the crushing anxiety that plagued me as a little girl and which still plagues me now knows more than I do. It knows when I can handle situations and when I cannot. So when I cannot cope, my anxiety thoughtfully makes me sick. Severe headaches, stomach cramps, body aches, general malaise. Anxiety shuts me down. It happens less and less as I get older but as Mr. Everything can attest, it still happens. The force of anxiety cannot be ignored. It can give you fevers. It can make your throat so sore you feel like you have strep. It protects you, in an abusive, sick way. I think once I no longer get sick when I feel upset, I will know the claws of the past no longer are running themselves down my skin.

There is an anger so powerful that the fist must go through the wall. It is not humanly possible to contain or manage this kind of anger.

Yet there is a kind of anger that goes beyond even this. Where you are lifted so high by your fury that for an instant you hover, suspended; the fist does not go through the wall. You hold your breath and wait, you hang, you float. This is where I found myself and I laughed.

And I continued to laugh.

And again, anyone who has seen me collapse laughing when things have gotten as bad as they can get may now know why. Because you get to the point to where not even the catharsis of violence will save you. All you can do is laugh the howling laugh of the damned. That Augusten Burroughs knows this, I think, leaves me with little doubt that he experienced everything in this book, filtered through the eyes of a frightened child, the haze of an alcoholic adult, and the gaze of a man who has hopefully transcended the past.

I think this is a fine book but I have no idea if you should read it or not. If you don’t know what I know, maybe it won’t be worth it to you. Because I think, at its heart, this is less a memoir for me than a book of kinship, a description of what it is like to be small and terrified, held in thrall to a mentally ill and at times despicable parent, to never feel peace, to watch creatures you love die (or in my case disappear entirely without a trace) and have nothing you can do about any of it. I felt a great connection with Burroughs, as if finally there might be a person on this planet who could hear the story of my own life and nod and not pepper me with questions as they tried to understand how a man can be a monster to his family and a kind, a polite family man to strangers.

The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

Authors: Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, history, photography, psychiatry

Availability: Published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book was an unexpected comfort for me. I walked an interesting road in psychiatric medicine (I can call it interesting now with some distance – at the time it was an unrelenting nightmare from which I feared I would never wake) and the stories of the patients in this book, the psychiatric fads that doomed many of them to inappropriate care, showed me that in many ways the more things change, the more they stay the same, which may sound horrible in a sense, but really it put my own experience into perspective. And despite some similarities between my own care and the care of one of the patients in the book, I feel incredibly lucky to live in the present age, current deficiencies in mental health care notwithstanding.

This book discusses the lives of 10 people whose suitcases were left behind at Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York. Painstakingly researched, the identities of the people whose belongings were found in the hospital attic long after their deaths are explored not only in terms of their lives in the hospital, but also in terms of who they were before they ended up at Willard. Though we in our modern ways may see old psychiatric homes as barbaric – and they were in some respects – they were society’s attempt to deal with people who may have had profound problems, most of whom had no where else to go. Many who were considered “incurably mad” found themselves in poor houses, where their behaviors made them subject to terrible abuses. In 1869, Willard took in patients who had been deemed unsuitable for poorhouses and workhouses (and a pox on every person who thinks a return to either is a good idea).

… Willard received only patients from across the state who had already exhausted the public resources of their counties. Even paupers did not want to witness people kept in tiny cells and iron locks, being fed through openings in their doors, never let out until their limbs were crippled. Women were regularly abused by all comers, and the whole business had turned into a matter of public disgrace.

But even as the mentally ill were shipped to the countryside, it bears mentioning that the hospital’s goal was to be self-sustaining, meaning that the patients were required to work in fields or in workshops in order to fund Willard. Moreover, the institution had the perspective that they needed to provide a “morally” correct place for the mentally ill, giving them certain stigma while attempting to help them. Masturbation was cause for alarm and at times confirmation that the patient was in fact quite mentally ill. A sex life was completely off limits to the mentally ill at Willard.

Because of the psychiatric fads of the time, most of the people in this book and likely many at Willard were diagnosed with schizophrenia or various forms of hallucinatory dementia when the fact is few actually had the condition. In a similar parallel to a lack of early understanding of how some psychiatric drugs affect blood sugar and cause diabetes, many patients were put on drugs that caused them permanent neurological damage. Some neuroleptic drugs caused tardive dyskinesia and some doctors did not understand the causation between the drugs they prescribed and the uncontrollable fidgeting they saw in patients.

The psychiatrists who first introduced neuroleptics noticed rather quickly that the drugs caused symptoms not unlike Parkinson’s disease, but saw this as evidence that the medication was working effectively, rather than as an indication that it caused neurological damage… Nevertheless, decades later, when the full extent of the problem had become quite obvious, psychiatrists continued to prescribe these drugs for most patients in institutions, despite their limited effectiveness and the disfiguring and disabling side effects.

If this sounds primitive, we needn’t pat ourselves on the backs too soon for our improved medications.

Second generation neuroleptics, also called “atypicals,” were considered more effective and less likely to cause side effects than the older drugs, which are significantly less expensive. The NIMH study showed that these highly praised medications were no more effective than the cheaper drugs they replaced, while causing a new slew of side effects, including diabetes and heart disease. A 2006 British study had similar results…

People who know well those who are mentally ill, especially those with bipolar disease, often remark that they just don’t understand why sufferers don’t take their medications. Well, you see, the meds often don’t work as well as one would hope, they make you gain untold amounts of weight, can give you permanent neurological problems, diabetes, as well as creating addiction to the drug that makes withdrawal a dicey prospect. The behavioral problems these drugs are supposed to address often are dwarved by the health and further mental problems they cause. Some benefit from atypical antipsychotics, to be sure, but many walk into taking such drugs without a full picture of what the drugs may do in the long run.

Of the ten stories, several were heartbreaking. For example, the Russian emigre who escaped from a WWII internment camp with his wife to New York, where he began creating an excellent life, only for his wife to suffer and die from a catastrophic miscarriage. He broke down and became psychotic after her death, and ended up at Willard, where he spent the bulk of the rest of his life. A folk artist of no small talent, he painted scenes from his native Ukraine. In his suitcase, he kept the flowers his wife had carried during their wedding ceremony in Austria in 1945.

But the person in this book whose story most affected me was that of Margaret Dunleavy, an orphan who left Scotland and was an accomplished nurse in the United States until the intrusion and a complete lack of understanding in the medical and psychiatric world left her confined to Willard for the rest of her life. Margaret had contracted tuberculosis and worked in a tuberculosis hospital, but she suffered several setbacks in her life, setbacks that cost her the job and the lodging that came with it. She was placed at Willard for what was supposed to be a temporary stay that became permanent. She entered Willard with 18 trunks, the contents of which she was seldom allowed access to, her car was repossessed, she was seldom able to see her companion and perhaps boyfriend of many years, and all the accomplishments in her life were dragged from her as her life became that of an institutionalized patient. She described being sent to Willard as being “like a fly in a spider’s web” and she was right. She was ensnared in psychiatric faddery and a tendency by some doctors to dismiss a patient’s pain and to diminish the addictive properties of the drugs they prescribe.

Her trunks were filled with her life’s possessions – linens, carefully wrapped china, diplomas, many pictures of the road trips she took with friends. Her immigration papers, her medical certifications and letters from friends and her male friend, embroidery, patterns, and most importantly, pictures of her with her car. An independent woman, Margaret never married and rare for the time, she owned her own car, traveling on vacations with female friends, her mobility giving her freedom. And unlike many at Willard, she had friends who stuck by her until the end. The depth of her friendships, the loyal bonds that those who are extremely mentally ill enough to be institutionalized for life often have a hard time forming, should have been a clue she was not schizophrenic, but the dogma of the time said she had the disease and she was treated for it until she was a shell of a person.

Margaret, who had tuberculosis and was diagnosed with gastric problems, had a doctor she preferred, driving far out of her way to see him. She was given belladonna and codeine, both of which were addictive to some extent and made any psychological problems the chronically ill woman had even worse. Her worsening health, the worsening health of her male companion, combined with worry about her family in Scotland at the outbreak of WWII, caused her to show signs of fray. Her employers at the tuberculosis hospital intervened in a way that now seems outrageous – they terminated her care, her personal relationship with her doctor and forced her to see a more local doctor. Losing contact with her trusted physician, combined with an abrupt termination of her drug regimen, caused Margaret to break down, landing her forcibly institutionalized for life on the following, extremely insubstantial grounds:

“Annoys people. Accuses people of persecuting her and talking about her. Says switchboard operator listens in on her conversations and that people on other floors can be heard talking about her.”

Once at Willard, her physical ailments were often dismissed as hypochondria, she was diagnosed in the face of all known reason with dementia praecox (an archaic term for schizophrenia) of long-standing, and was prescribed medication that ensured her frail health degenerated more and that if she was not mentally ill before entering Willard, she was certainly mentally unwell when she died there.

Her story is so resonant with me because in the summer of 2008, my mother almost died, I lost two beloved cats within weeks of each other, and I knew I was losing my job. I was in distress, sought help, and in the face of all that I know about myself, accepted a bipolar diagnosis and began to take atypical antipsychotics. What began as an emotionally difficult time morphed into physical misery that I hope I never face again. I was placed on Geodon, within days was shaking, felt snakes under my skin, stopped eating and started hallucinating. I asked the psychiatrist for help and he prescribed me enough Xanax to ensure a terrible addiction. It all culminated in a stay at a psych ward after the voices in my head told me to kill myself. The four day stay in the locked down ward did stabilize me until the voices stopped, but I also left the place on Prozac, Wellbutrin, Xanax, Valium, Trazedone and Ambien. I developed an addiction that almost cost me my marriage because the drugs made me so crazy I wanted to leave my spouse of 15 years. I have shared my experience and while it is certainly not the norm, too many have shared similar experiences of being shoe-horned into inappropriate diagnoses (most often bipolar, the 21st century answer to schizophrenia and dementia praecox), crippling addictions, and doctors who pile medication on top of medication with seemingly callous disregard as to what such drugs may do as they fine tune their patients’ brains.

(And though it goes without saying, I must say anyway that meds help a lot of people. I would never tell anyone not to take meds if they had a realistic diagnosis, understood all the ramifications of taking psychotropics and made an informed decision. My descent into hell had none of those elements involved, and that was the problem. My experience is not a testimony against psychological pharmacology, but rather an encouragement to approach one’s mental health care with information and caution.)

In the course of reading Margaret’s chapter, I was introduced to the idea of the chaos narrative, which helped me make sense of what happened to Margaret as well as what happened to me in the bowels of the psychiatric system.

The chaos narrative is essentially an anti-narrative, because the self in the midst of chaos has no time for reflection or the ordering of narrative in a way that makes meaning. As Frank [Arthur Frank, the creator of the idea of a chaos narrative] puts it, “A person who has recently started to experience pain speaks of ‘it’ hurting ‘me’ and can dissociate from ‘it.’. The chaos narrative is lived when ‘it’ has hammered ‘me’ out of self-recognition.” Chaos stories are hard to hear, both literally, because, in their lack of sequence and causality, they may not be apparent as stories to the listener, and figuratively, because they are anxiety-producing, even threatening, to the listener, a reminder that anyone of us may find herself in this painful state.

In this age when doctors barely have time to get your basic history, it is unlikely many know a chaos narrative for what it is. They hear a rambling patient, who may be fidgeting with nervousness and tension, who cannot sleep, who is plagued by a sense of doom and may be acting out, and the narrative seems indicative of the psychiatric disorder du jour. In the midst of most of these stories, chaos narratives were at play – illnesses, life upheavals, and misfortune – and doctors did not hear the stories they were told.

Modern psychiatric life is different now, to be certain. A heavier emphasis is placed on pharmacology than long-term therapeutic care and those whose mental illness is severe will not have their possessions discovered in disused attics because many are homeless now due to the drastic termination of funding mental facilities experienced in the Reagan administration. It is hard to say which is worse – being in an institution your entire life when you don’t need such care, or being on the streets, unable to get such care if you do need it.

I suspect most people will read this book and feel a kinship with one of the people described through the possessions they left in their trunks, possessions they were denied while they were at Willard because the people in this book, all quirks and bad behavior aside, are so very ordinary, very prosaic. Each trunk represents a life truly interrupted, and in their cases, generally never to be resumed again. Truly a heartbreaking work. I highly recommend it.