Apr 17, 2009

Monkey Droppings - Trauma by Patrick McGrath

On today's menu: loss and desire, with a side of psychoanalysis.

by Patrick McGrath
I stood on the sidewalk and stared at it, and it stared back at me, sagging, unsafe, condemned, and the blocked windows were like dead eyes, blank and opaque but pregnant, somehow, with secrets, like a trauma built of wood.
There are two things you can almost always expect when you crack open a Patrick McGrath:
  1. you are going to discover an intricate, highly literate examination of the darker impulses of humankind, and
  2. you are going to get depressed.
I mean 'depressed' in the best sense of the word. McGrath invariably conjures up worlds of such bleakness and despair that the reader inevitably feels the weight of the world crushing down on him. And any humour McGrath see fit to leaven the proceedings is wit of the darkest sort. Witness The Grotesque, his opulently cynical debut novel (seriously, read it and prepare to gasp), with its Mervyn Peake-esque characters such as Fledge the butler and Sir Fleckley Tome the barrister. And with titles such as Dr. Haggard's Disease, Spider, Asylum, and Port Mungo, the british novelist has deservedly earned a reputation as a true gothic stylist who delves into the shadowy worlds of mental illness, illicit affairs, and barely-suppresed sexual urges with flair and decidedly marvelous polish.

Trauma, McGrath's seventh novel, is arguably his most 'mainstream' work to date, being set in 1970's New York and populated by people far more identifiable and easily empathized with than his earlier works. Absent are the gloriously strange names and eerie settings (until the final third, that is). This is not to say that Trauma is a leave of form; still present are the sexual longings, the alienating repression, and the bleak despair that marks his best works. But perhaps as a result of it's more commonplace setting, Trauma feels like lesser McGrath, an examination of people's hidden scars that never reaches the lunatic heights of his best works.

McGrath's protagonist is Charlie Weir, a psychiatrist as inwardly conflicted as the patients he counsels. His marriage broke up years earlier due to a miscalculation on his part, and now he is alone and lonely. A new relationship with a mysterious but fragile woman promises to heal him, but his ongoing infatuation with his ex-wife, and the emotional web that entangles him with his family's past, threaten to overwhelm the tenuous peace he has made with himself.

As in McGrath's best works, Trauma is rife with, well, trauma; Charlie suffers, his brother suffers, his wife agonizes, his father drinks to forget. There is not one character present who is not damaged in some way, which is as it should be, and McGrath makes you feel every pang of remorse.

Yet Trauma feels rote, at least for McGrath. The psychiatrist unable to cure his own ailments is not exactly a new subject for literary dissection, and McGrath brings nothing new to the theme. The strange, unknown agony Charlie suffers from, in its ultimate reveal, feels like a cheat. It's too simple an explanation, one which belies the narrative's central theme of how we can never truly understand anyone else. The ending feels as rushed as Charlie's eventual descent into near-insanity. The final third of the novel finds a stronger footing, as Charlie's exterior settings begin to mirror his withdrawal into himself, but the final few pages are hurried and feel like an afterthought. McGrath travels the avenues of the psyche with aplomb, but Trauma, while hardly a feel-good story of redemption, isn't dark enough to satisfy it's set-up.



NickD said...

Hi, Corey, I've never read this author, but he sounds like the kind of writer I'd enjoy. What one book of his would you recommend by way of introduction to his work?


Corey Redekop said...

I would start with his first, The Grotesque, or maybe Spider (also a fantastically bleak film by David Cronenberg).

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