Doing Heads

Adam Phillips

  • Asylum by Patrick McGrath
    Viking, 250 pp, £16.00, August 1996, ISBN 0 670 87001 3

In their Introduction to the Picador Book of the New Gothic, Patrick McGrath and Bradford Morrow proposed a familiar kind of progress myth to help us find our way around the New Gothic; the old, or rather, original Gothic being by definition a genre in which the protagonists lost their way in horror or deranged bewilderment. ‘Gothic fiction,’ they wrote,

in its earliest days, was known by the props and settings it employed, by its furniture. Dark forests and dripping cellars, ruined abbeys riddled with secret passages, clanking chains, skeletons, thunderstorms and moonlight – from such material did the first Gothicists frame their tales. It’s not until the 1830s and 40s, with Edgar Allan Poe, that the Gothic begins to shift the emphasis away from all this gloomy hardware and become increasingly fascinated with the psyche of the Gothic personality ... With Poe the Gothic turns inward, and starts rigorously to explore extreme states of psychological disturbance.

If the terror is all inside us now – if animism is dead, and the psyche is the terrifying modern ghost in the machine – then the ideal setting for the contemporary Gothic would not be a ruined abbey or a dark forest but a mental hospital, or a family. And the ultimate parody, or apotheosis of the novelist – or indeed of the so-called omniscient narrator – must be, as McGrath intimates so artfully in Asylum, the modern psychiatrist. The person who treats the madness as though it was all outside him, raring to be cured (or rigorously explored). The person who gets people to keep the madness inside – inside language, inside themselves, inside mental hospitals. After all, if he doesn’t speak from a position of sanity, from where does he speak? And what exactly makes his tales better than the patients’? Psychiatrists, and their poor relatives, psychoanalysts, have always been Gothic figures trying to escape from the genre in which the characters are always shady, and authority is simply melodrama.

One of the Gothic devices that McGrath has exploited so well in his fiction – and perhaps most successfully in this riveting new novel – is to begin by speaking to the reader, as he does in the Picador Introduction, in an apparently sensible, eminently intelligent voice. This voice of patient, informed explanation – with its knowing lists, its confidence in narrative – makes the reader feel that it’s more than possible to have a grip on things. Then, as the story unfolds, everyone loses their grip, and there is no way of regaining it, because all the available forms of competence and comprehension – from the theological and the medical, down to the police – are either ridiculed by events, or shown to be complicit with the horror (it is their grip that gives them the slip). These are operatic black comedies and what happens in them makes a grotesque mockery of the understanding voice (which puts the reader as critic, as opposed to the reader as spectator, in an awkward position). Gothic stories are darkly exuberant satires of the Grand Narratives, in which explanation is just more genteel respectability: Poe’s Gothic, for example, is an ironic precursor of the Grand Narrative of psychoanalysis. The masterful are as frantic and deluded as anyone else, but better at convincing us – and, of course, themselves – that they are not.

‘The catastrophic love affair,’ Asylum begins, ‘characterised by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on.’ It was of course the novelist, rather than the psychiatrist, who originally had a professional interest in such things. But Asylum is witty about what the novelist can do with the psychiatrist – he can, for example, call him Peter Cleave, as McGrath does here. ‘And so on’ clinches the ludicrousness of the stages. But then McGrath has always been shrewd about the minor complicities that make a world, however mad; about the agreements that keep us sane. Anyone who talks like this, in a novel like this, gets what they deserve – a sexual obsession with a quite different story. It is part of McGrath’s bemusing artfulness in Asylum that he can make the reader suffer the fate of all his characters. Everyone in the novel, that is to say, is deranged by their own, and other people’s, plausibility. When anyone speaks in Asylum – and McGrath has an extraordinary ear for the hollows in conversation, for the lurking soliloquies – we seem to see through them in the full knowledge that they never see through themselves. And yet what we see when we see through them is the spuriousness, the sinister brashness of our own omniscience. In other words, it is of a piece with the plot’s subtle reversals and doublings that we begin to resemble the psychiatrist-narrator, who gives us the gradual creeps. In an uncanny way we perform, in the reading of this book, just what it is showing us. ‘We two being one, are it’ was the epigraph, from Donne, to McGrath’s previous novel, Dr Haggard’s Disease. Asylum, every bit as enthralling as Dr Haggard – and the first of McGrath’s novels not to have an epigraph – is not about the way people turn into each other, but about the way in which they are each other.

‘Inversion’ was Gothic’s ‘basic structural principle’, McGrath and Morrow assure us in their lucid Introduction; ‘then’ – in Lewis’s The Monk, which, along with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, is the founding text of the genre – ‘as now the Gothic clearly delighted in moving to the dark term of any opposition it encountered.’ This makes the Gothic sound too glibly predictable; as though it merely confirmed the logic it was defying by reversing it (priests proving to be sinners, and so on). What the genre actually revealed was that the easy reversibility of this logic exposed its fatuousness; that this logic was too unstrange, too tautological to explain anything. Or rather, to explain anything that mattered, like sex or death or corruption, the staples of Gothic fiction. To talk about contradiction, and opposites – and inversion – when faced with the bizarre or the uncanny just shows how silly our ways of talking about such things become when we get really scared. By always keeping his characters just this side of allegory McGrath shows up the absurdity of these apparent inversions. In one of his last interviews with the heroine of the book, Stella, the wife of one of the asylum’s psychiatrists, who has an affair with Edgar Stark, one of the more deranged patients, Peter Cleave, the psychiatrist-narrator, makes a suggestion (after the ‘terrible events’ that the novel recounts, Stella is now herself a patient in the asylum): ‘Before I went away I asked her to think about what it meant, to love. Be rigorous, I said. She said she would.’ Her agreement, of course, is merely compliant, a secret mockery of the all-too-reasonable violence he is doing her with his professional ‘help’. In this brief exchange all the familiar, topical, opposites are in place – male: female; sane: mad; professional: amateur; thinking: feeling; rigour: weakness. But these very terms belong to the official language that everything in the plot undoes. She said she would, but she didn’t. There are the languages we speak, and the languages we act on; the languages we find ourselves living by. In Asylum McGrath stages, with unfailing sureness of tone, the drama that goes on in the gap between the conversations people have – with themselves and others – and the opera of what happens. The road of excess is paved with good intentions.

What happens, with varying degrees of excess and success, in Asylum is that the wife of an aspiring and ambitious young psychiatrist falls in love-lust with one of the patients, who is in the asylum because he decapitated his wife. He is also an artist, a sculptor who ‘does heads’, inspired, taciturn and moody. He escapes to London in her husband’s clothes, she follows him, abandoning husband, child and her normal self. From this, various horrors ensue, none of them entirely unpredictable but all of them shocking, which is as it should be in a novel about the pathos of predictability. The narrator’s faintly camp confidence is set against the horror of events; the asylum, unlike the novel, cannot contain its characters. But then artists and psychiatrists in this novel do terrible things to people’s heads. Both literally and metaphorically they cut them down to bizarre shapes and sizes.

The obvious point, implicit in McGrath’s title, is that there is no asylum, no safe place that isn’t also a punishment: our ways of protecting ourselves from madness or passion are ways of punishing other people. But what makes Asylum so compelling – both gripping and horribly funny – is McGrath’s mordant knowingness about the obvious points. So the psychiatrist’s account, from whose point of view we see everything, is riddled with clichés – ‘Like many artists, Edgar had the soft fearful core of a child’ – and with naff symbolism (snakes, broken glass, ripe fruit) that make his faintly literary ordinary language seem terrifying in its nullity and deviousness. It is McGrath’s acute sense that everyone’s language is the archest rhetoric, a performance bristling with intent, that makes Asylum so tricky and unsettling. What he catches so well is people’s obliviousness to each other – their being obsessed by, but not interested in, other people; a world of frenzy and inattention in which psychiatrists want to ‘rebuild’ their patients’ psyches (‘Insight, I realised, this is what we must work toward, a moment of insight when the inherent absurdities in his thinking undermined the foundations of the delusional structure and brought it crashing down. Only then could we begin to rebuild his psyche’). But also a world in which the crass pantomime psychiatrist bears an ominous or daunting similarity to the ‘passionate’ woman who is the heroine of the book because she does all for love, including, in one of the most extraordinary pieces of writing in the novel, letting her young son drown. If a ‘professional interest’ in the ‘catastrophic love affair’ makes us wryly suspicious at the beginning of the book, by the end the professional psychiatrist and the passionate woman seem perfect images of each other: his asylum is knowledge, hers is passion. And both, as eventually becomes clear, are competing for the mad artist Edgar. That is to say, they both want the same thing – Edgar’s recognition. He is the unholy grail in McGrath’s sly parody of a quest romance.

In McGrath’s new New Gothic the old inversions collapse, and all the terms are dark. It is an absurd darkness though, not a gloomy or cynical one (the only victim in the book is portentousness). The absurdity being that to be a character – an artist, a lover, a professional – is to be trapped in a genre. That character, whatever else it might be, is always a caricature; always a deeply conventional performance artist. The theatricality of Gothic is well suited to explore the tyranny, the imaginative impoverishment, that ideas of authenticity always involve (exaggeration is also a kind of freedom). In Asylum, true to his lights, McGrath has made out of a certain kind of pastiche an exhilarating individual vision.