There’s something to be said for the contemporary novelist having a background in psychology. While the mass-market thrillers and romance novels that pack the supermarket shelves are happy to remain plot-driven page-turners, the modern literary novel prides itself on its ability to unravel the thoughts and emotions of its characters rather than relying on narrative thrills, to show us what Barton Fink memorably termed ‘the life of the mind’. One need only look at the works of Ian McEwan or Paul Auster to see that contemporary fiction is as much about internal ponderings as it is about external events.
Patrick McGrath’s novels have always been distinguished by his ability to work his way into damaged and abnormal psyches, and, as you may have guessed from the title, Trauma is no exception. The story of Charlie Weir, a psychiatrist specialising in trauma victims in New York City, it shows that even those who analyse people for a living can’t always see inside their own heads. Charlie could use a few sessions on his own couch.
Admittedly his life is more chaotic than most, although it’s not so far removed from reality that we can’t identify with him. Charlie’s marriage has fallen apart following the death of his brother-in-law, a war veteran who Charlie was treating for post-traumatic stress syndrome. Charlie’s ex-wife Agnes blames him for her brother’s suicide, and he is now abandoned to a life of solitude and self-recrimination. Following the death of his mother he reopens an ill-advised fling with Agnes, but at the same time he is introduced to Nora, a friend of his brother’s who he begins to date. Nora has issues of her own, and she often wakes up in the middle of the night suffering from horrific nightmares; naturally, it isn’t long before Charlie offers to treat her for what he diagnoses as an underlying trauma.
It’s not immediately obvious where McGrath is heading with Trauma, as Charlie’s life meanders between these various threads, and even once the narrative has finished you may be left wondering what it was all about. Fortunately McGrath’s prose style makes for easy and engaging reading, and in Charlie Weir he has created an intriguing and troubled central character, rebounding from a lifetime of failures, poor choices and traumatic events. Even if you can’t see the point in this expose of a fictional psyche, you can’t helped being dragged into Charlie’s own particular circle of hell.
In fact Trauma works far better as a thesis than it does as a novel, as Patrick McGrath seems determined to push the modern novel’s obsession with psychological realism further than any of his peers. Conventional plotting is largely sacrificed in favour of the complex puzzle that is Charlie Weir’s brain: Trauma doesn’t unfold as a series of events so much as a sequence of revelations concerning its narrator’s mental state. For some of you this will be an infuriating diversion from the more conventional approaches to plot and narrative, but you have to admire McGrath’s ability to dissect the psyche of his central character so acutely that we feel we know him better than he knows himself.
As for those mass-market thrillers, Trauma is as far from them as Freud’s The Interpretation Of Dreams is from this year’s latest John Grisham paperback. And that can only be a good thing.