February 4, 2008
Patrick McGrath: Trauma
To say this is my most long-awaited book of the year would be an exaggeration – that’ll be Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow, 15 years in the coming – but it’s certainly my most eagerly awaited. I’ve been reading and relishing Patrick McGrath’s novels since 1993’s Dr Haggard’s Disease, and each new book since then has been a source of untrammelled delight (the disappointing Martha Peake  being the exception that etc). So it was inevitable that I wouldn’t wait for publication (April in the US, July in the UK) if I could possibly help it.
Admirers of McGrath’s work know what to expect from Trauma: an unreliable first person narrative with aspects of mental illness and sexual obsession. In this he delivers, and indeed some elements of the book are so familiar – the art world from Port Mungo (2004), psychiatrists from Asylum (1996) and the story ‘Ground Zero’ from Ghost Town (2005) – that on a reading of the blurb it might seem that McGrath is simply going through his hoops; or at least mopping up unused research. Also there is an inherent danger in having a trademark style where there is, if not a twist or revelation near the end, then a reversal in understanding by the reader: when this is anticipated, how does the author stay one step ahead?
McGrath has no hesitation in doling out juicy titbits literally from the beginning. Trauma begins:
My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault.
This is the voice of Charlie Weir, psychiatrist based in New York City. (McGrath’s first four novels were set in England; with his next two he combined Britain with his adopted home of the USA; with Trauma he has crossed the Atlantic completely.) McGrath knows the attuned reader will be awaiting ‘clues’ to the truth of Charlie’s world, and offers them up freely:
In those days we lived in shabby discomfort in a large apartment on West Eighty-Seventh Street, where my brother lives with his family today. I never contested Walt’s right to have it after Mom died, and have come to terms with the fact that she left me nothing. Indeed, it amuses me that she would throw this one last insult in my face from beyond the grave. It was more appropriate that Walt should have the apartment, given the size of his family, and me living alone, although Walt didn’t actually need the apartment. Walt was a wealthy man – Walter Weir, the painter? But I don’t resent this, although having said that, or rather, had I heard one of my patients say it, I would at once detect the anger behind the words. With consummate skill I would then extricate the truth, bring it up to the surface where we could both face it square: You hated your mother! You hate her still!
But Charlie loves his mother, he assures us, and looks after her when she’s alone (“Ah, Charlie. Always trying to help people who don’t want it”); it’s his father he can’t stand (referring to him as ‘Fred’ while mom remains ‘Mom’). Fred walked out on the family, Mom became a depressive, a drinker, and worst of all a novelist.
I was comforted by the sound of the typewriter. If she was typing then she wasn’t crying, although later she was able to do both at once.
This is a book of contradictions. We feel we know what Charlie thinks – he thinks he knows what he feels – yet we can’t resist hunting down meaning in every aside (“Mine is a profession that might appear on the surface to suit the passive personality. But don’t be too quick to assume we’re uninterested in power”). It has a complex time scheme and multiple well-detailed characters, but has the unity and force of a short story.
The subject matter is families, and McGrath concentrates on “irregular” relationships within the home and how they reach out into our lives to create a spiderweb of dysfunction. Charlie broke up with his wife, Agnes, after her brother died; they got back together when his mother died. Like many of McGrath’s protagonists, he has an unhealthy interest in detailing the rise and fall of his, well, you know (“With stiffening penis I rose to greet her…”). All the decisions that Charlie makes, even when they’re hardly decisions at all, seem to make perfect sense, showing how well McGrath weaves us into his doubtful reasoning. All through there are suggestions that we might not be seeing the whole truth:
This falsification of memory – the adjustment, abbreviation, invention, even omission of experience – is common to us all, it is the business of psychic life, and I was never seriously upset about it. I know how very fickle the human mind is, and how malleable, when it has to accommodate belief, or deny the intolerable.
The story does lead to a dramatic conclusion – perhaps more obviously (dare one say cinematically?) dramatic than any of McGrath’s earlier novels – which at first seems too clear cut and suddenly obvious. On further reflection, the reader realises that there are layers to unpeel yet – does the book have more in common with Port Mungo than just the painterly details? – and an early revisit to this expertly told tale will not go amiss. So that’s why they’re publishing it at two different times.