Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Trauma & PTSD -- Fiction Style

As you all know from yesterday’s post, I spent Saturday at the Miami Book Fair International 2008. What I did not tell you was that one of the panels I attended included Patrick McGrath, the writer of Asylum and Spiders to name two of his most celebrated novels. In what has been called a Gothic style, McGrath has made a career about writing about the dark side of the psyche.

On Saturday morning, in a medium sized auditorium at the Book Fair, McGrath unassumingly assumed the podium. He is tall and sort of soft spoken with a slight English-sounding accent. Wearing a jacket and slacks with his silver hair slicked back he made a joke and then proceeded to read Chapter 5 from his latest work, Trauma. Narrated by Charlie Weir, a psychiatrist living in New York City in the 70s, Trauma is the story of Weir’s own family related drama, plus his work with patients, including those suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

That’s all I can tell you for now because I haven’t yet read the novel. I picked it up Saturday and am savoring the idea of it for my holiday trip across the country next week. However, I can tell you this from the chapter I heard: McGrath gets us. He gets trauma and the insidious nature of it. He gets the cyclical vortex of PTSD and its way of consuming a soul. He gets the heaviness of the past and the drive-you-crazy activity of memory in the present. He gets how an event can happen and virtually stop time. Most of all, he’s sensitive enough to get the nuances of how traumatic memory can entirely refocus an identity.

The interesting thing is that McGrath is not a PTSD sufferer himself. His is a view in from the outside. In our conversation after the reading, I asked McGrath how he had prepared to write about PTSD. He mentioned a list of research efforts that included reading the PTSD Bible, Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman. He also spoke with several psychiatrists, as well as veterans in order to obtain a completely rounded view.

I’ve been thinking that in all of the PTSD reading we all do that is directly, research and non-fictionally oriented, perhaps it would be a nice break, an interesting perspective to retreat to the world of fiction for a while where the characters act and we simply observe; where the author tries to ferret out the details and next steps while we allow someone else to do this kind of work for a change; where we look at PTSD outside of ourselves, as if it were someone else’s problem and not our own. I'm wondering what kind of perspective might we gain then....

When I have read the novel I’ll get back to you with a review. Until then, here’s what other reviewers are saying about Patrick McGrath’s, Trauma:

Michiku Kakutani, INTL. HERALD TRIBUNE
“…revealing about the peculiarities of the human psyche.”

Hilary Mantel, THE GUARDIAN
“Patrick McGrath is a writer of proven imaginative scope, dark in his concerns, vigilant in his methods... the easy conversational tone of Trauma is effective in its restraint, and the intertwining narrative strands are handled adroitly. The novel works beautifully as a sober, tightly written character study.”

Trauma is the tortuous, often gripping, account of [the narrator’s] collapse in the face of various long-denied recognitions, of the destructive guilt caused by the inadvertent consequences of actions that have not been completely understood… What gives McGrath’s novel its complexity, its shadowy dimensions, is the fact that [the narrator] has the training and the insight to see what’s happening.”

“… has all McGrath's mastery of looming dread: not of what's to come, but of what has been [as the characters] seek ‘some means of escape, some portal through which we could flee the past’.”

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