Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Trauma by Patrick McGrath

A psychologist who has spent a career identifying the debris thrown up by other people’s unconsciousness to trip them up in life is unable to deal with his own internal demons in Patrick McGrath’s novel Trauma.
Set in New York in the 1970s many of Charlie Weir’s patients are Vietnam vets suffering from the still unnamed post traumatic stress disorder. One of the most damaged in Charlie’s brother-in-law Danny whose best friend died at his side and who eventually takes his own life.
Charlie believes that his wife, Agnes, blames him for being unable to treat her brother and he leaves her, carrying this guilt with him.
He also feels guilty that he was never able to treat his own mother’s depression. The relationship complicated by the fact that she rejected him in favour of his brother Walt who never tried to interfere when his mother was depressed while Charlie was always at her bedroom door trying to comfort her.
“It is the mothers who propel most of us into psychiatry, usually because we have failed them,” he writes.
With all this Oedipal baggage Charlie also has to deal with a peripatetic father, who abandoned his family when Charlie and Walt were still boys, and a poisonous relationship with his brother.
Walt introduces Charlie to Nora and they begin a relationship, even though Charlie is having an affair with ex-wife Agnes, who has remarried, and he suspects Walt is having an affair with Nora.
There is a large dollop of Freudian psychology in here and McGrath explores how suppressed memories, childhood hurts and guilty adult secrets can sneak out of the dark caverns of our mind where we have tried to stash them away and forget about them.
It is an angry book in terms of how the US became involved in Vietnam in the first place but also how those who were sent there to kill and who saw their closest friends die were abandoned and left to deal by themselves with survival guilt and nightmares about the lives they had taken.
McGrath is comfortable with the language of psychology, dream analysis and mental trauma manifesting itself as physical debilitation, but his novel doesn’t get too bogged down in terminology.
I did however find myself reaching for my Lonely Planet Guide to New York to keep up with the peregrinations of the narrator. (On a sideline the last four novels set in New York that I’ve read have all used the city’s topography and landmarks to varying degrees as a central part of their narration – Trauma, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal and Benjamin Black’s The Lemur).
The psyche is a landscape for McGrath as much as Manhattan, where most of Trauma is set. Charlie feels that he is drawn to Nora because he can sense that she is psychologically damaged as well. It is this relationship, the ongoing affair with his ex-wife Agnes and the coming to terms with the death of his mother that start to prise open the fractures in Charlie’s own psyche.
While he enjoys some success in treating his patients he ignores the symptoms of his own gradual mental decline. He points them out and notes them but tries to ignore them. Inevitably he is overcome by “the nightmares, the flashbacks, the panic attack, the rage”.
Trauma is an edgy, uncomfortable novel to read. Charlie is not a character who necessarily draws the reader’s sympathy but you can’t help being carried along with him on his slowly unfolding downfall and the sense of dread that reality is slipping away and being undermined by a dark suppressed memory floating just below his consciousness.

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