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 [2000] 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.

Trauma (US)

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.

Trauma (UK)

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.


  1. I loved ‘Asylum’ when I read it – I’ve had ‘Spider’ on my lists for ages and since find your blog last year and reading your enthusiam for other McGraths I’ve added a few more. Now I just need to get them and read them, and then wait for this one too!

    Did you see the film of ‘Asylum’? I think it was suited to filming, and adapted quite well, although I always still prefer the books to the films.

  2. No jem, I didn’t: it got pretty mixed reviews and I felt it couldn’t really live up to the book (which after all, is more about Peter Cleave’s telling rather than the supposed subject matter). I didn’t think Cronenberg’s Spider was all that great either, though others seemed to like it; and his debut novel The Grotesque was made into a film starring Sting of all people, and over which history has drawn a discreet veil. I think the temptation to film McGrath’s books which so many directors seem to fall prey to, should by and large be resisted.

  3. I quite enjoyed Spider. That was at a time before I’d learned of McGrath, so just took it for what it was. I want to read the novel and will do one day. But I don’t want to see The Grotesque, or, more correctly, I don’t want to see Sting naked.

  4. First, happy blog birthday!!

    Second, this book sounds right up my street. I really loved the story ‘Ground Zero’ from ‘Ghost Town’ — in fact, I *still* think about that story almost a month after having read it — so if it’s anything like that then I definitely need to add ‘Trauma’ to my wish list.

    Actually, if you like ‘Ghost Town’ you might like Salley Vickers ‘The Other Side of You’ — there’s some similarities between both stories.

  5. Thanks for the recommendation kimbofo – Vickers is someone I’ve always passed by in bookshops. McGrath for me is the master. Martin Amis wrote once of Saul Bellow, that he feels himself to be his ‘perfect’ reader: “Nobody can be getting as much out of this stuff as I am!” That’s broadly how I feel with McGrath. Already, just a few days after finishing Trauma, I’m looking forward to revisiting it, perhaps later in the year when it’s published in the UK.

  6. Actually no Sara, though with a little revisionism I could claim it was. It’s just a happy coincidence. It was inspired simply by the idea of having a quiet place of refuge on the web – for me as much as anyone else!

    I do rate Asylum very highly though, in my notional Top Three McGraths along with Port Mungo and Dr Haggard’s Disease.

  7. Indeed it is Jos, and in some ways Trauma seems like a distillation of everything we love about McGrath’s work. The grotesque is usually taken as meaning physical, but with McGrath it almost always has a psychological aspect instead (and sometimes as well as). As for gothic, I have the feeling McGrath views that identification as something of a restriction these days. Can’t quite recall where I got that idea from, but watch this space over the next couple of weeks!

  8. I believe you’re right. It seems to meMcGrath did start with a fully-fledged pastiching of the Gothic, which then led him to explore madness in more detail.

    I am quite happy to find someone who shares my view on Port Mungo (and Haggard), a powerfully haunting text yet that hasn’t been well-received by critics altogether.
    Will certainly be looking forward to exchanging with you on Trauma as soon as I get hold of a copy.



  9. Well I’m not sure where you are Jos, but it’s out now in the US, but not in the UK until July. I’ll be putting up an interview with McGrath later this week which might give some insight into his books and Trauma in particular.

  10. Don’t miss dovegreyreader’s excellent review of Trauma here. The book is published this week in the UK. My local Waterstone’s had them out early last week, so I picked up a copy then: a handsome volume it is too, sewn-in bookmark and everything.

  11. I am somewhat surprised you did not acknowledge that Child 44 is on the shortlist for the first novel award. Shame.

    Setting aside that obvious oversight, I do have to agree with your quick take on the Novel Award shortlist.

  12. You’re right Kevin: mea culpa for the Child 44 omission – it needs all the help it can get.

    The Costa is an interesting award. In its previous incarnation as the Whitbread Award, it had a fairly good record of highlighting worthwhile books which had been overlooked by the Booker, such as Andrea Levy’s wonderful novel Small Island in 2004, or Michael Frayn’s Spies in 2002. Also its categories meant that less widely read books could get a boost of publicity, such as poetry when Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney won the overall Book of the Year prize four years running, from 1996 to 1999.

    However since it was rebranded as the Costa, with new sponsors, the novel categories anyway have taken a definitely more populist line. Weak stuff like What Was Lost or Gifted – both longlisted for the Booker too – shouldn’t really have been there. And although I am a big McGrath fan, it’s true that Trauma is probably a more thrillerish read than any of his other books, which may explain its inclusion this year. Good luck to him anyway.

  13. Thanks for bringing this to our attention John. Did you see that Mrs Doyle from Father Ted is on the judging panel? So there must be hope for Patrick McGrath and his dysfunctional cast of characters.
    I have just read Trauma. It did not have the emotional rollercoaster feel to it that I experienced with Dr Haggard, Asylum and Spider – with those novels I felt mentally drained and hung out to dry. In a positive way of course! But the characters are so well drawn in Trauma and there is still that nervous feeling throughout that there is something you have not been told.
    McGrath and Barry on the Costa list – two very deserving books and authors in my opinion.

  14. The Costa awards would appear to be in the process of redifining themselves. When you have Barry and Debernieres on the same list (and they are both good authors, but with different audiences), it would seem you have an identity problem. The same could be said for the first fiction award. Too bad in the short term — as you observe, the Whitbread prize did have a worthwhile niche.

  15. Indeed, Susanne – and I’ve been wondering what Levy’s been up to since. It’s almost five years now since Small Island was published, and each further month that passes can only increase (unreasonable) expectations for her next!

    Andy, yes Trauma is not so psychologically exhausting as some of McGrath’s books, but it is more narratively gripping, I thought. Yes I saw that Mrs Doyle is on the panel! Perhaps she, like some bookshops in my home city, will think Patrick McGrath is Irish because of his name and root for him accordingly.

  16. I loved Trauma. It’s whetted my appetite for more of McGrath’s books. My first McGrath was Port Mungo, which I thought was evocative and dark, but I followed it up with Martha Peake which I found slightly disappointing. I do think he handles psychiatry very convincingly – I wonder how much of an influence his father (a psychiatrist) was. It’s also refreshing to read novels where psychiatric details are totally convincing. In contrast, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, which I found very powerful and beautifully written, mangled a few facts about psychiatric training, which rubbed a little lustre off its magic for me.

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