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.

The characters in Jay Gummerman’s ten delicate and edgy stories don’t look within, and it wouldn’t do them much good if they did. They would see only a glare or mist, a landscape full of blank or broken signposts. But they don’t look outwards much either. They stumble through a dangerous world, alarmingly ignorant of the chancy terms of their improbable survival. One of them looks into a mirror to see what he is feeling, but the mirror doesn’t answer. Another says he doesn’t believe in mirrors. These people are strays, figures who have not so much dropped out of contemporary American society as fallen through its cracks. The setting is the West, and a walk-on character claims to be descended from one of the James brothers: but it is a thoroughly modern West, a litter of drugs, divorce and brand names. Its capitals are Reno, Oakland, Portland; the saloons have become suburbs; the cattle trail is a deserted highway.

The title story, ‘We find ourselves in Moon-town’, hints at two odd tricks of language. It is possible for people who are entirely lost to use phrases like ‘we find ourselves.’ Much of our speech is coherent, even eloquent, but nonsensical in context, so that if Gummerman’s strays are a long way from Shainberg’s misbehaving brain cells, they are not at all far from the bewilderments of Wonderland. A character in another story approaches the Lost and Found section of a department store. ‘What do you do,’ he wonders, ‘what do you do if you’re neither?’ We also discover that ‘Moontown’, a metaphor for a desolate and risky mental region, is effectively entered, by two frightened characters acting tough, on a moonless night in Nevada: ‘Sailorboy turned off the headlights and they sat there in the car in the middle of the road without saying anything. There was no traffic, no crickets, no wind, no moon, no sound except the sound they made themselves.’

This is a first book, and it is full of intelligence and unforced talent. The writing isn’t like anyone’s I can think of, but the names of Raymond Carver and J.D. Salinger may point us roughly in the right direction. The prose is oblique and uninsistent, the stories are seemingly inconsequential: but you find yourself laughing and wanting to go back to see why. The opening story describes a party at a young schoolteacher’s house, the children all dressed up to suggest different States of the Union. Here’s how it begins:

  Josephine as the Beehive State wants to know if it’s possible to stub your nose. She’s looking far away, maybe even Utah, and rubbing her bruised nose with a Honey Bear.

  ‘Nothing’s possible,’ I tell her. I realise that’s probably the wrong thing to say to a little girl, especially since I’m her teacher and her mother is eight months pregnant and five months my girlfriend.

Josephine doesn’t give up, though. ‘But if anything was possible,’ she says. ‘If anything was.’ The teacher relents. ‘I guess if anything was possible that would be it ... How’s your nose?’ ‘I stubbed it on the screen door.’ What is attractive here is the realised scene and the sense of language – the child’s need for language. And what is perhaps most striking about the book as a whole is Gummerman’s ability to shift voices – most of these stories are told in the first person – so that dazed teenagers, ageing bigamists, small-time drug-dealers all resemble each other, because they come from the same failed West, but are also quite different. Here the comparison with Salinger may actually help, since we hear these voices the way we hear Holden Caulfield’s – they seem to be almost authorless. There is pain and despair and damage all over and around these lives, but the general effect is surprisingly cheerful. I’m not sure why, but think the odd innocence of the characters has got something to do with it. They don’t mean any harm, don’t seem even to understand the notion of harm. Charmed lives, we might say, but then the interest of charmed lives, if they are not to be merely fantastic or whimsical, is the constant fear of the charm’s ending. ‘It’s times like these,’ a schoolboy thinks, ‘when I wonder if there’s a career in sadness, if somebody would pay me to just sit behind a desk somewhere and think sad stuff all day long.’

The central character in John Le Carré’s new novel is said to have ‘a whole self-accusing chorus’ within him: ‘He had people inside himself who really drove him mad.’ Not as mad as the people outside himself are trying to drive him, though. This is a book about hearts rather than minds being laid open, far too open, violated: ‘good hearts turned inside out’.

The chorus and the principal good heart belong to Barley Blair, a dilapidated but engaging English publisher caught up in the chill world of what Le Carré calls espiocrats. He gets drunk at a party in Russia, exchanges hopeful words with a distinguished Soviet scientist, and is then sent a package full of secrets. The novel recounts his return to Russia to renew and verify his contact.

‘A secret,’ the scientist tells his mistress, ‘is something that is revealed to one person at a time.’ Almost everyone and everything in the novel is dedicated to the destruction of this romantic idea. The Russian thinks, for example, that he is revealing his precious secrets to the likeable Barley, who will be his mediator to the West. But the likeable Barley, lumbered with the weary guilt amidst innocence Le Carré endows all his heroes with, is wearing a microphone which transmits the Russian’s conversation to British Intelligence, who will immediately play the tapes to the Americans. A secret is what used to be someone’s privacy; it is not something you need but anything you’re not supposed to have. There are two Russias here: Russia itself and the Russia House – British Intelligence’s ‘stubby brick out-station in Victoria’; seedy, troubled Moscow and Leningrad, affectionately evoked, and the endless echo and trace of those scenes as they show up in watching London. The whole interest of the novel lies in this doubling, this secret version of publicity, and in the impossibility of the first Russia – or anywhere, the longer implication goes – being left alone, unbugged, uninfiltrated. ‘Spying is waiting,’ we are told more than once: but it is also just snooping, and decency in this world consists not in not doing it but in knowing how shabby it is.

The novel is narrated by one Palfrey, usually known as Harry, although that, of course, is not his name – long-time legal adviser to British Intelligence. Harry has his problems too, his little list of human failures, a pointless marriage and a mistress who scorns him. But then this very flawed humanity allows him to judge his soulless masters, English and American, and to report sympathetically on their victims. There are quite nice touches of wit here – a ‘senior British diplomat who was not quite the Ambassador’, an American operative who laughs ‘as if laughing were something he’d learned on the course’ – and the main characters have good dialogue and plenty of charm, although of a rather unexamined kind. I could get along without some of the more significant snatches of dialogue, as when Barley Blair says he is the wrong man, and his controller replies: ‘We’re all the wrong men. We’re dealing with wrong things.’

Readers looking for a spy novel may be disappointed. This is a book about a spy-world, a metaphor for the leaky transparent world we have made – Le Carré himself calls it a fable. Lots of atmosphere, of a sleazy, patiently elaborated kind; not too much story. The Russia House is a very good title: people in such places should throw stones.

With My Secret History we are in America, at least at first, but it is a meaner, older place, devoted to the psychology of making it rather than losing it or blowing it away. ‘I was born poor in rich America,’ the novel competitively begins, ‘yet my secret instincts were better than money and were for me a source of power. I had advantages that no one could take away from me – a clear memory and brilliant dreams and a knack of knowing when I was happy.’ This is polished writing, a little metallic, and the happiness is perhaps the most interesting and mysterious thing in the book. Its six sections portray stations in the life of André Parent, a novelist and travel-writer whose resemblance to Theroux is both paraded and half-denied – the trick, I guess, is to leave us baffled about just how confessional the work is, but maybe only Theroux’s friends and family will care all that much. We see André as a 15-year-old altar boy in Catholic Boston, dabbling in sex and love, losing to death a priest who has helped and befriended him, allowed him to feel that life is not all repression and lies; as a 19-year-old student and swimming-pool lifeguard, having his first affair, forking out for an ugly abortion; as a teacher in Africa, finding sexual freedom and gonorrhoea; as a writer living in Africa, travelling a lot, getting married; as a husband crazed by his wife’s infidelity; finally as the perfect (and perfectly horrible) literary success, the man with a house and wife in America and in England, ‘two of everything’, as he gloatingly and then desperately keeps saying.

The implication at the end is that he must, and will, choose one of everything, which is more than many folks have: but this sound moral conclusion is not as persuasive as it might be because a double life, as Parent shrewdly comments, ‘is not an alternating existence of first one then the other, like an actor changing clothes. It is both lives being felt and led simultaneously.’ Felt and led, of course, by the simultaneous performers but also by a third person who is ‘the observer, the witness to all this, like the inspector who had just entered the coach to examine the tickets: not a word, not a murmur, only the nibble and bite of a metal punch’. This is a brilliant image but not consoling, since Parent associates the observer/inspector in his life with the writer, and it is hard to see how this figure will ever be dismissed. ‘This third man was the one who stood aside and made the notes and wrote the books.’ Parent (and with him, I take it, Theroux) can count the cost of standing aside, and there is a harrowing description here of one of Parent’s (note the name) meetings with his 15-year-old son, the long-suffering victim of his father’s absence and erratic love. But counting the cost is not quite the same as closing the account.

His novel is a tour de force: it scarcely puts a foot wrong, evokes people and places with a wonderfully shrewd, unloving eye. Parent doesn’t spare himself, or paint himself as less vain and selfish and enclosed then he is. But then we are left with that feeling which is sometimes generated by the good writing of stern egoists: we admire the chilly honesty, but wonder if it does anyone any good. Parent quite often manages to put his guilt within brackets, although he certainly suffers plenty: but he chiefly has, as he says, a knack of knowing his happiness, can relish it when it comes, and can evoke it without tangles or apologies. These moments occur again and again: on a boat in Boston; with a girl in the local Sandpits; in Africa; in London; on a train in India. The complication and the ambition, the intense self-admiration fall away from Parent then. He becomes pure experience, and later, writing of these occasions, he retains their raw clear feeling, as if they were documents, forms of mere weather, emotions liberated from the self. You realise then why you are still reading him, in spite of the chill, and even if you wouldn’t dream of marrying him.