Problem Parent

Michael Wood

  • Memories of Amnesia by Laurence Shainberg
    Collins Harvill, 190 pp, £10.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 00 272024 8
  • We find ourselves in Moontown by Jay Gummerman
    Cape, 174 pp, £11.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 224 02662 3
  • The Russia House by John Le Carré
    Hodder, 344 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 340 50573 7
  • My Secret History by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 468 pp, £13.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 241 12369 0

‘Look within,’ Virginia Woolf said, but she wasn’t thinking of brain surgery. Memories of Amnesia is a black joke about inner landscapes, or more precisely, about a mind turned inside out. Subjectivity, that spreading territory of so much modern writing, becomes a sort of intellectual circus, an arena where hectic and unanswerable arguments cross like missiles in the night.

Isaac Drogin, 44, is a hard-working American surgeon who discovers in himself symptoms of what he thinks is brain damage. He is operating on an epileptic patient at the time. He calls her by the wrong name, hears the voices of his parents arguing in his head, sings a few bars of ‘Oh Susannah’. Later the elevator muzak plays a tune which Drogin is sure is not ‘Silent Night’, and he compulsively but vainly tries to remember what is is. Next day he is paralysed, or imagines he is paralysed, and can’t remember what his wife is called. The battle in his mind now assumes epic political dimensions. The brain, sick or healthy, is cast in the role of authoritarian ruler, while the rest of the self (‘I had begun to realise, through a combination of instinct and insight, that I was not my brain’) agitates like a band of sans-culottes or dissident Sixties students. ‘No ... it’s the normal brain that’s really damaged. Having a brain – that’s real brain damage. What we call brain damage ... that’s freedom! Revolution!’ Drogin’s father knows this can’t be right. ‘What sort of misbegotten horseshit,’ he cries in Drogin’s mind, ‘could make you think that you are separate from your brain? Your brain is your body, Izzy!’ But Drogin’s mother is rooting for the rebellion. ‘Independence from the brain is not something that happens overnight. You don’t just decide to do it – it takes work, Izzy!’

These wild and whirling thoughts, and dozens of others like them, make up the substance of this funny, frightening novel, which often reads as if the Marx brothers had invaded neurology.

Though I did not know where I was, the word ‘tea’ was vividly projected, as if on a screen somewhere inside my brain. A visual rather than a verbal perception, the word had weight and physical dimension, even luminosity. Certainly it was more like TEA than ‘tea’. In addition to this, it lifted my spirits immeasurably. As for its meaning, I can say for sure that it was ‘coffee’.

There isn’t much plot, and Shainberg’s careful accounts of brain operations performed by and on Drogin are not going to appeal to the squeamish – or to anyone who is less than obsessive about clinical detail. Shainberg is also a little too pleased with his ability to pile dizzying conundrum on conundrum. But there is a cool and alert intelligence at work throughout the book, and a disturbing acuteness about the brain’s favourite tricks. Drogin is afraid, for example, of forgetting the tune whose name he is trying to remember. ‘And of course, no sooner did I fear forgetting than I forgot. Is there any game the brain enjoys like the self-fulfilling prophecy?’ The satire directed at Drogin’s wife, a woman given to karate, meditation and self-doubt, who decides his brain damage is probably an extreme spiritual adventure, a heroic journey out onto some transcendental limb, is restrained and tough, and the work catches the thrill and the terror and the daftness of much of what we think about the mind. Shainberg’s epigraph comes appropriately from Lewis Carroll: a certain logical vertigo is perhaps the chief effect we register. ‘Could anyone in his right mind idealise such disorder?’ Drogin asks himself at one point. The answer is no, but he is not in his right mind, and may never get back.

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