Patrick McGrath's new novel isn't his best. But it's another example of his extraordinary talent for dissecting our inner lives, and for blurring the fine line between sanity and sicknessby Alexander Linklater / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Trauma by Patrick McGrath (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
“Dread,” says Dr Charlie Weir, the psychiatrist-narrator of Trauma, “signals not the imminence of a catastrophic event, but… the memory of a catastrophic event, one that has already happened.”
By raising this observation towards the end of his new novel, Patrick McGrath is not only steadying the reader for a denouement, he is describing his own narrative method. Charlie is a New York City psychiatrist helping his patients to deal with traumatic events in their past while trying to sort out his own life, unaware that he too is being manipulated by a hidden event. In little more than 200 spare pages, McGrath digs back through the chronology of Charlie’s life to expose his psychological origins. The brilliance of the storytelling lies in the way it gives this retrospective process the illusion of forward momentum: we march onward towards an undisclosed past.
An aghast flooding of the past into the present underlies all of McGrath’s work. The son of a superintendent of Broadmoor (pictured, below right, in 1956), he grew up with tales of the criminally insane and, as an author, has produced some of the most realistic interior descriptions of psychiatric experience in English fiction. His is never a Laingian attempt to re-interpret madness as sanity, nor does he entertain a grain of Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest romanticism, but he does reveal a profound understanding that psychotic states, however deranged, remain real states of being with real histories. Now aged 58, and a long-time resident of New York, McGrath has not been a prolific author so much as a concentrated one, his seven novels and two collections of short stories reworking and refining a particular technique. This has sometimes led him to be dismissed as a writer limited to the psychological thriller, or a modern vein of the gothic. But this concentration is precisely what gives his work its power, producing an oeuvre that aspires to the coherence of genre—not in the formulaic sense of crime or science fiction, but in the way that Edgar Allen Poe or Robert Louis Stevenson generated distinct, imaginative worlds that constantly reappeared and developed through their stories.
In McGrath’s psychological realm, all experience takes place on a spectrum between merely relative sanity and manifest pathology, expressed by characters or narrators who are only ever partially aware of…