Book Review: Found

BookReviewLogoReview by Kasandra Lambert

In her debut novel, Found (SparkPress, 2016), certified nurse practitioner Emily Brett presents the story of Natalie, a young ICU nurse living in Denver, Colorado who is desperate for change. This novel follows Natalie as she leaves her stable job and becomes a travel nurse, placed in locations around the United States and abroad for a set amount of time.

29332829Natalie’s somewhat impulsive decision to quit takes on new urgency  after a strange encounter during the final days of her job in Denver. She fears a coworker, Beatty, has had a hand in killing her husband, who was a patient under Natalie’s care. She shares these concerns with her boss before leaving and thinks little of it until strange occurrences start to happen in all her travel assignments. Continue reading “Book Review: Found”

Book Review: The Port-Wine Stain

BookReviewLogoReview by Anna Kirsch

The Port-Wine Stain (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016) is the third installment of Norman Lock’s American Series, a series where each novel is  a stand-alone narrative dedicated  to memorializing  great American writers by writing in a style that is part pastiche and part homage. The Port- Wine Stain is devoted to celebrating Edgar Allan Poe.

27135742The Port -Wine Stain is narrated by Edward Fenzil to an undescribed listener he calls Moran. Fenzil is a young surgical assistant to Dr.Thomas Dent Mütter, who in the winter of 1844, meets Edgar Allan Poe. While to the literary reader Poe is the most recognizable  figure, Mütter is just as important to Fenzil. It is Mütter who sets up the meeting between Poe and Fenzil and it is Mütter’s early form of cosmetic surgery that introduces into Fenzil’s imagination the concept of physiognomy. Physiognomy maintaines that a person’s character is determined by their physical body, or to be exact, the shape of the body. The idea that a twisted body could be the sign of a twisted soul is the ideological cornerstone of the novel. Continue reading “Book Review: The Port-Wine Stain”

Reducing the ignorance: stories in imperfect language

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This Monday we have a piece from Ekaterina Prosandeeva, MA, PhD Candidate at the University of Eastern Finland in the Philosophical faculty, School of Humanities. She writes, “My current doctoral work is concerned with the binary of norm and deviance and the conveyance of the subjective experience of mental illness in the contemporary English literature. The doctoral research is supported by the North Karelia Regional Fund of the Finnish Cultural Foundation.” You can contact her via email at ekatpr@student.uef.fi, or on Facebook or LinkedIn.

There is a tendency among the general public to consider narratives of mental illness a highly specialized sort of reading. Such an attitude solidifies the us/them binary: one denies what seems irrelevant to him or her claiming (or rather assuring oneself) that it is none of his or her concern. This is a vicious circle: on the one hand, the entire issue of ignorance arises precisely from a lack of desire to be concerned and, on the other hand, the refusal to be concerned is a direct consequence of being ignorant. I chose to study narratives of mental illness in part in order to break this circle and to demonstrate that a “non-involvement” attitude is limiting in many ways.

The first thing I found out in the course of my research is that our opinions and judgments are often formed by superficial representations of different disorders. It is remarkable that such representations operate both ways: some disorders are demonized to the extent that people suffering from them are pictured as extremely hostile others, while the names of other disorders enter our everyday small talk and thus depart from their actual clinical picture.

on-the-run-2
“On the Run”, Henry Cockburn’s artwork.

Schizophrenia is one of those demonized ones, the realm of fear and the unknown. When Henry Cockburn, the co-author of the Henry’s Demons memoir1, was deinstitutionalized he managed to resume his art studies. Henry told some of his fellow students that he had schizophrenia but the response he received was: “Oh, do you have a split personality?”2 It is likely that the young people confused schizophrenia with a multiple or dissociative identity disorder, as it is pictured by Daniel Keyes3, or else, shaped by a stereotype and a familiar word combination they had happened to overhear somewhere. Thus, stereotypes produce distorted representations of some conditions and further contaminate the labels produced by the always-already unreliable language that has its own limits.

The unreliability of language is the second important thing to take into account. We can look up schizophrenia in an etymology dictionary to find a literal translation from Greek— “a splitting of mind”. Thus it is fairly easy to confuse it with multiple identity disorder if one fails to get to the “splitting of psychic functioning” that Bleuler implied while coining the word schizophrenia.4 Or else, if one fails to look through, say, Cockburns’ Henry Demons or Daniel Keyes’ The Minds of Billy Milligan. Upon reading the mentioned stories, it becomes fairly hard to confuse Henry Cockburn and Billy Milligan.

24 identities of Billy Milligan.
24 identities of Billy Milligan.

While schizophrenia is a demonized diagnosis, one of those used in our idle talk on an everyday basis is depression. In his book (an extract also published in Unholy Ghost collection) William Styron compares “depression” to a slug, saying that it pretends to be non-malevolent and prevents a general awareness of its own horrible intensity.5 The etymology of depression is as ambiguous as that of schizophrenia with its seme of being “pressed down” or “weighed down”. The structure of the word and the inaccurate use of it scarcely give a full picture of clinical depression. Neither does the impersonal dryness of hospital records.

What can help then to reduce the ambiguity and lift the veil at least a little bit on mental illness? I believe that a story is what makes understanding possible and reduces the ignorance about human conditions. Jacques Derrida suggested an idea that the words are found “under erasure: the word is not accurate, he says, and we cross it out, yet it remains visible because we cannot do without it.6 Although “depression” is inaccurate and our stories are mediated by language, such stories convey the experience proving that it is not isolated and incomprehensible. It would be great luck to use a perfect language that could immediately and naturally convey our thoughts and experiences but we live in no fairy tale and we need to come to terms with the imperfect language we have and take incoherent stories into account. As Joshua Wolf Schenk says in his essay in Unholy Ghost, he hoped for a “direct communication” but when he spoke, “it was with stumbles and stammers”.7 A coherent speech can hardly represent a translation of a fragmented experience—even an incoherent one often fails. Furthermore, the majority of stories people may tell are far from being those of full recovery, though the latter are more often published. An assumption that only coherent narratives of full recovery count can be discouraging for a writer.

Therefore, the third and the fourth issues I would like to emphasize are the myths: that of coherence and that of a full recovery. In other words, illness stories are not and should not be the stories with happy ending. The last line of Henry’s Demons reads: “I sit under the tree which speaks to me and gives me hope”. I know a reviewer8 who claims that this line reminds him of a horror movie. Inappropriate as it is, this claim demands a “completed” story and underestimates the open-ended stories, no less worthy than the former.

Footnotes

1. Cockburn, Henry and Patrick Cockburn. Henry’s Demons: A Father and Son’s Journey Out of Madness. New York: Scribner, 2011.
2. Cockburn, Henry. “If I say I’m schizophrenic people reply, ‘So you’ve got a split personality’”. Independent November 27, 2012. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/henry-cockburn-if-i-say-im-schizophrenic-people-reply-so-youve-got-a-split-personality-8360497.html
3. Keyes, Daniel. The Minds of Billy Milligan. New York: Random House, 1981.
4. Bleuler, Eugen. Dementia Praecox: Or the Group of Schizophrenias. New York: International Universities Press, 1911.
5. Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. New York: Vintage, 1990.
6. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
7. Schenk, Joshua Wolf. ‘A Melancholy of Mine’. Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. Nell Casey, ed. New York: Perennial, 2002. 242-255.
8. Garner, Dwight. Phantoms of the Mind, No Longer Schocking but No Less Haunting. The New York Times, Feb. 1, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/02/books/02book.html

Book Review: Bob Stevenson

BookReviewLogoReview by Burcu Alkan

Richard Wiley, 1987 winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Best American Fiction, takes a new path in his latest novel, Bob Stevenson (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016). Having lived in Korea, Japan, Nigeria, and Kenya, his previous novels mainly deal with distant geographies and cross-cultural encounters. Yet, with his eighth book, he brings his storytelling closer to home. Set in New York City, Bob Stevenson tells the story of a psychiatrist who falls in love with a patient and the very-human difficulties of emotions that arise from such a knotty affair.

29363262-1The novel opens with Dr. Ruby Okada rushing off to meet a fellow doctor and a friend, Bette, for dinner. In the elevator of the clinic, she meets an enigmatic man with unidentifiable charms that grip her attention. What happens next is unravelled in the rest of the novel, as Ruby tries to come to terms with the consequences of her impulsive decision. The mystery of the man in the elevator, and Ruby’s relation to him, is presented through a curious narrative that touches upon the emotions underlying and shaping one’s filial, social, and romantic relationships. Continue reading “Book Review: Bob Stevenson”