Category Archives: McGrath, Patrick

Asylum: Patrick Mc Grath

“None of them noticed that she drifted through her days in a state of detachment and abstraction, functioning as she was expected to but not ever, totally there. None of them noticed but me. I was watching her.”

In Asylum, Patrick McGrath blurs the lines between those who treat mental illness and those who suffer from it. Perhaps, McGrath seems to argue, it’s even a matter of proximity…

Asylum is set at an institution for the criminally insane. It’s 1959 when psychiatrist Max Raphael, a dull, dispassionate, “reserved, rather melancholy” man brings his beautiful wife Stella, the daughter of a disgraced diplomat and his 10-year old son, Charlie from London to a walled asylum. Max is the new deputy superintendent, and the Raphaels take up residence in a large stone house just inside the walls. Max has his job and his patients to attend to, Charlie has school, but Stella doesn’t fit in with the other wives … what sort of life does she have within the confines of this “desolate” place?…


Stella is perhaps a trophy wife for Max, but they’re fundamentally mismatched. She’s bored, lonely, unhappy, sexually frustrated, and drinks too much. While the staff see the inmates as an entirely separate group of people, Stella, already alienated from the other hospital wives, resentful of the absolute power of the medical staff, doesn’t seem to be aware of a clear demarcation. Then she meets inmate Edgar Stark, an enigmatic artist who is restoring an old Victorian conservatory at the end of the Raphaels’ vegetable garden. Stark “functioned at a high level of intelligence,” but he’s subject to paranoid delusions, and years earlier, during a fit of violent rage, he murdered his wife, decapitated her and mutilated her head.

And if you think you know where this story is going, well you’re right. Even though she’s warned about Stark’s past, Stella heads straight for disaster.

The story is narrated, unreliably, by Dr. Peter Cleave, and we know through Cleave’s quiet, controlled narrative voice that something went horribly wrong with Stella. Interestingly, Cleave’s voice is so quiet, so controlled, that there are times when we forget that he is telling the story, and more importantly, that perhaps, just perhaps, he played a role in the events that took place.

The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion.

The book isn’t simply the story of what takes place; it’s Dr. Peter Cleave’s narrative placed on top of past events. Here is a tale of illicit wild passion, of Stella growing increasingly out of control with the story told by Cleave’s  occasional, very occasional, clinical interpretation. It’s not that Cleave’s interpretation is incorrect, but it is inadequate, and just why his clinical interpretation of events is inadequate adds subtle psychological depths to the story. The way Cleave watches Stella and Stark echoes a behaviorist watching two rats in a laboratory–with one important difference; Cleave is not a disinterested observer, and hints of Cleave’s true feelings are buried deep in his narrative. He was opposed to Max’s employment at the asylum in the first place, and his decisions at vital points in the story bring his neutrality into question. It’s perfectly brilliant that Stella’s story should be told by an observer who is hardly disinterested. Edgar Stark, with his “restless, devious intelligence,” is Cleave’s pet patient, and Cleave, a sexually ambiguous character, is fascinated by Stella. There’s a section in the book when Stella and Stark have “urgent and primitive” sex on the ground. In the next paragraph, time has passed and Cleave questions Stella about her sex life with Stark. Interestingly, and hardly coincidentally, he says “I probed her gently,” a very telling, Freudian choice of words when he questions Stella to get the details. It’s a love triangle of sorts with all the physical passion between Stark and Stella, and Cleave a voyeuristic observer who holds limitless power at the asylum.

And that brings me to the book’s title: Asylum–a word that has more than one meaning–a place of refuge or an institution for the mentally ill. The ending packs a powerful punch with Cleave’s professional reasonableness teetering into creepy obsession.

Aslyum was made into a film. It’s well worth watching ( I just watched it for the second time), and although the plot is fundamentally the same in the book and the film, there are some differences. The book, as usual, is more complex and subtle. Peter Cleave is a much more invisible character in the book than in the film whereas Stella is much more off the rails.


Filed under Fiction, McGrath, Patrick

Constance by Patrick McGrath

To say that I looked forward to reading Constance, Patrick McGrath’s latest novel would be putting it mildly. His novel Dr. Haggard’s Disease makes my favourite books list, so I approached Constance with some high expectations. McGrath’s father was the superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital, and I don’t think I’m making a leap when I say that you can see this influence in his work.  I’m specifically thinking of Asylum and Spider which were both made into excellent films in case anyone is interested. Since Patrick McGrath uses the unreliable narrator in his novels, I expected more of the same creepy insanity. Was I disappointed? Well yes and no.

SO … imagine that you are a middle-aged professor, an expert on Romantic poetry with a couple of failed marriages under your belt. You don’t think you’ll ever love again at your age and with your soured attitude towards love and relationships. And then, one night, while attending a  book party, you spot a beautiful young woman alone and out of place in the room full of people. You go and talk to her, take her from the party and go to a restaurant to talk. The young woman, whose name is Constance, is obviously damaged goods. Brittle and … yes … on the mentally fragile side. She hates her father (long story) but also has a daddy fixation. Not a good combination. And to top it off, you become the father figure in her life. How unhealthy and potentially hazardous is that?

ConstanceAnd here’s how the novel begins:

My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went  before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling querulous voice so unshakeable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary.

Constance is married to her new “daddy,” and things, hardly surprisingly, are not going well. While I understand why one partner in a relationship may seek a new parent, I’ve always found the other partner facilitating that role cringeworthy. Perhaps it can work if both people in the relationship accept the parent-child dynamic but how can it be healthy and isn’t it guaranteed to be fraught with problems and tension? Naturally, it follows that this parent-child relationship is going down the toilet. Sidney is, of course, old enough to be Constance’s father (that’s why she’s attracted to him) and so according to Constance, he likes to lecture his girl-bride and ‘teach’ her how to think. Shades of Pygmalion here so often found in relationships between much older men and young women: she offers youth and he offers experience, stability and financial security.

Told in dual narratives from Constance and Sidney, narratives that are possibly unreliable from their very defensiveness, we learn how these two people met. We already know that Constance has a daddy-complex, and while Sidney seems happy enough, at least initially to accept that role, he’s attracted to Constance’s damaged self. Sidney, a lover of Romantic poetry, is working on a  book called The Conservative Heart and is at an all-time low when he first spots Constance at the book party that changed the direction of his life. Attracted by her “air of angry untouchability,” he approaches her. On Constance’s part, she sees Sidney in a far from flattering light. We’re told he’s tall and “heavy,

It was a warm evening. I was in my light seersucker and apparently there were beads of sweat on my forehead. The effect she said later, was that of an obscure consular official going quietly mad in a far-flung outpost of empire.

Constance’s daddy complex is more than matched by Sidney’s doomed Romanticism:

I asked her about her childhood, and she told me she’d grown up with her sister, Iris, in a falling-down house in the Hudson Valley complete with a framed verandah and a tower. It had been in her family for generations, she said, but when I asked her how many generations she was vague. Oh, two at least, she said. Daddy grew up there. It stood high on a fissured bluff, and on the south side of the property a steep wooded slope descended to a wetland meadow by the railroad tracks and the river. This was the view she’d had from her bedroom window, she said, the sweep of the mighty Hudson far below her, with the Catskills in the distance. It was called Ravenswood.

It was all too good to be true. The old house with its tower on a bluff above the river, and this beautiful girl, clearly in flight from who knows what horrors she’d suffered there, it was a Romantic cliché, the whole thing. But for that I liked it all the more.

While Constance ostensibly seeks a new father figure who is everything her real father isn’t, Sidney soon, in common with Constance’s father, becomes the villain–the villain to be rebelled against. And while Sidney was initially attracted to Constance as a damsel-in-distress, that old cliché becomes wearisome when he realises that he is now the source of her distress. Sidney discovers that being the caretaker of a mentally damaged, fragile person is both draining and thankless, so when Constance’s sister, Iris, moves to New York and finds an apartment “over a noodle shop in Chinatown,” Sidney is pleased.  Sidney rather approves of Iris who intends to become a doctor like her father, and this really doesn’t help the child-parent dynamic between Constance and Sidney as this effectively recreates the toxic competition between the two sisters for attention. Sidney’s approval of the freshly relocated Iris,  “a messy beatnik floozy,” very effectively signals trouble for Constance’s marriage.

McGrath novels often include a lurid, pathological past, and there are hints of that from Constance, and those hints blow wide open into a lingering malignancy as the book progresses. All the past secrets, of course, reside at Ravenswood, a house that is slipping into decay–symbolic of course of the pathological secrets buried deep in the past. Why is Constance’s father (who reminds Sidney of the “pitchfork man in Grant Wood’s American Gothic”) so emotionally distant from his daughter? There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here in the very unhealthy atmosphere at the family home at Ravenswood. There’s a creepy dried, up, “sour,” housekeeper, Mildred Knapp, who takes over after the lonely death of Constance and Iris’s mother Harriet. What’s the dark secret involving Mildred’s husband, and why are certain topics strictly off limits at Ravenswood? The book has an underlying trademark McGrath creepiness, with its emphasis on death and decay. Buildings and people fall apart. While one character is slowly dying, New York’s Penn Station is being stripped and noisily demolished–both incidents depress Sidney who sees the pointless destruction of the station as evidence of the decay of civilization.

Constance is a problematic character in this beautifully written novel in which the characters never quite seem comfortable together as they drift through the story rather like disinterested dance partners. While Constance is the less-favoured daughter, there’s something of the spoiled brat about her damaged air, and for this reader, there were a couple of story threads which were never fully explored–one involving oily lounge lizard, pianist Eddie Castrol, thrown into the mix but underexploited for the plot.  Dr. Haggard’s Disease remains my favourite McGrath novel, and it’s a book that set an impossibly high standard to beat, and unfortunately Constance doesn’t come close. The madness and obsession found in Asylum, Spider and Dr Haggard’s Disease appear in Constance but in a much lighter dose. There were occasions when the novel seemed about to take the reader down the dark labyrinth of total insanity, but instead the story lands on neuroticism. Does Gothic not translate effectively to Manhattan in the 60s? Or is Gothic simply replaced by its more modern counterpart, Neuroticism?

But she had such a tricky psyche, all turned in on itself like a convoluted seashell, like a nautilus, and at times I caught her talking to herself as though in response to what she heard in that seashell. When I asked her who she was talking to she’d all at once startle and wouldn’t tell me. It was disquieting.

Review copy.


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Dr Haggard’s Disease by Patrick McGrath

John Self over at The Asylum recently urged me to pick up a Patrick McGrath novel, and since I’d already read and enjoyed Spider and The Grotesque, I took Self’s advice and picked up Dr. Haggard’s Disease.

dr haggards diseaseIt’s difficult to know just where to start with this book. But I might as well start with the statement that I am still chewing over the story and its possibilities even as I write this post. For, you see, Dr. Haggard’s Disease is told by an unreliable narrator, and so after closing the cover I am left questioning the accuracy of the presentation of events.

The book generated all sorts of lively discussion in this house: Is love a disease? Well it can be. Thwarted love and obsession certainly are unhealthy mutations, and in Dr Haggard’s Disease, love falls squarely into the unhealthy variety, but then again Dr. Haggard’s disease could refer to something else entirely….

The unreliable narrator in this story is Dr. Haggard, and as the novel begins it’s WWII and Dr Haggard is living a reclusive life as a country doctor. Haggard’s constant companion is referred to as ‘Spike.’ There’s a certain amount of mystery about Spike and it may seem possible that Dr Haggard has some loony locked in the basement, but those of us who have Spikes of our own recognise Spike for what he is.

One day, Haggard unexpectedly receives a young visitor, RAF spitfire pilot James Vaughan. James opens the conversation with the statement “I believe you knew my mother.” It’s a harmless enough sentence–6 simple words that open a dark chasm of pain, thwarted love and obsession.

Some years earlier Dr. Haggard worked as a surgical intern at St Basil’s Hospital in London. His bleak shrunken little life is split between grueling, exhausting shifts at the hospital and his meagre, inhospitable little room in a boarding house on Jubilee Road. One day while at a funeral, he spots Fanny Vaughan, the bored, beautiful and dangerously neglected wife of St Basil’s senior pathologist, Ratcliff Vaughan. Then, as fate would have it, Haggard meets Fanny at a dinner party. While Haggard is lonely, socially inhibited and sexually naive, Fanny is confident and bold. And the very first time they meet, Fanny turns the conversation to the subject of passion when Haggard states:

“But tell me an idea that isn’t worn out.”

She looked away, apparently contemplating the question. The frown persisted, a delicate vertical wrinkling of the white skin of her forehead.

“Passion,” she said.

“Passion?” I was something of a stranger to that idea! “I should have thought that passion, at least was about pleasure—?”

“Oh no,” she said quickly, “it’s not about pleasure at all. Passion is very serious. I know you take it lightly, but you’ll learn someday what a responsibility it is. It’s the best we’re capable of, civilized human beings.”

And so begins a brief, passionate affair between Haggard and Fanny, and the affair becomes–for Haggard–an addiction.

The novel goes back and forth in time–from Haggard’s present life in his isolated country home of Elgin to his exquisite and ultimately painful affair with Fanny. As the tale unfolds, Haggard is revealed as an unhealthy man–both physically and mentally. Some of this unhealthiness is a direct result of the affair, but the rest…well that’s up for grabs, and it’s also where the issue of unreliable narrator comes into the scheme of things. Is Haggard (a morphine addict) delusional? Can we trust his version of events?

McGrath’s novel delves into the sheer seductive, obsessive physicality of Haggard’s elicit, stolen moments of passion: the irresistible urge for union, sinking into heady physical sensation of total pleasure , the luxury of running his hand along the cool, alabaster skin of his lover, the hints of perfume that remain long after the encounter and then the long, unendurable wait until the next:

“I was desperate to see her again. I needed to nourish my love upon her being, as though my love were a ravening parasitical creature which if it could not feed upon her would feed instead upon its host, causing agony. Missing her was no state of tranquil melancholy, it was active, it was fiercely energetic.”

Haggard’s description of his addictive obsession for Fanny as a “ravening parasitical creature” that must “feast” upon its object “instead [of] upon its host” is similar to Haggard’s morphine addiction that also demands to be fed: 

“The morphia had silenced Spike, replaced his ache with that pervasive vital warmth that seemed somehow always to compose me.”

So morphine addiction is similar to passion–both need to be fed, both are addictive, and both can be destructive. And this leads back to Fanny, Haggard’s vibrant yet ultimately elusive lover who notes: this is a story about “passion not pleasure.” Two entirely different things.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel  is the book’s presentation of the medical profession. Haggard is at first seen (through his own narration, of course) as a humane, caring alternative to Fanny’s husband the Pathologist and the bombastic, boorish surgeon Vincent Cushing. Both Cushing and Dr Vaughan carve up the dead with ghoulish relish, and Fanny ponders “what is it that makes men spend their lives poking through the diseased bits of dead bodies?” This question echoes throughout the novel and begins to haunt Haggard after Fanny complains that the smell of formaldehyde lingers in her husband’s repulsive touch.

But while Dr. Haggard is different from his London counterparts, he isn’t much better. His ‘humanity’ towards patients translates to shooting them up with morphine and selling them coloured water in medicine bottles. He buys the country practice partly because it’s stuffed full of elderly patients with a “fair bit of cancer,” and just like his predecessor, Peter Martin at Elgin, he has no faith in the power of medicine. He covers his lack of faith in his own profession by telling himself that the quackery he peddles promotes the body’s own healing power. Oddly enough at one point in the novel he notices a woman’s “yellowish-greenish tinge” and silently wonders if she suffered from “jaundice.” When the woman becomes his patient, however, he resorts to his usual quackery and chalks her “neurotic” ailment up to an unhappy marriage.

For me Dr Haggard’s Profession is the best McGrath so far. Although this is a novel that explores the destructive powers of obsession, on another level there’s a subtle layer of menace that permeates the pages. After all it’s rather terrifying to explore the idea that suited ‘professionals‘ who are supposed to oversee and manage our health can be closet loonies eyeing our diseased bodies while contemplating the excitement of an autopsy.

I should add here that I am not a fan of dizzy romances. In fact I’m suspicious of the word ‘romance’. But Dr Haggard’s Disease is no romance, and if you’re already familiar with the psychologically complex novels of Patrick McGrath, you won’t need to be convinced about that. McGrath’s favourite themes are mental illness and adultery, and both are amply represented here. McGrath’s psychiatrist father was a medical superintendent at Broadmoor, so it’s easy to connect the dots concerning early influences on this author’s life.

On one final note, I now continually imagine Jeremy Irons in the film role of Dr Haggard. He does those tortured parts so well….


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The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath

“A rather bizarre incident occurred.”

The narrator of The Grotesque is Sir Hugo Coal–the rather unpleasant, self-important, domineering owner of Crook Manor. Sir Hugo–now wheelchair-bound and unable to communicate–narrates the events that took place at the manor a few months previously beginning with his daughter Cleo’s engagement to the effete Sidney Giblet, Giblet’s subsequent disappearance, and the police investigation conducted by the rather ineffectual Inspector Limp. Sir Hugo obsesses about his new butler, Fledge, and he is convinced not only that Fledge intends to usurp his place at the manor, but also that Fledge has managed to awaken the long-dead passionate longings of Lady Harriet Crook. To Sir Hugo, the sly and sneaky Fledge is the evil cause of all the mysterious occurrences at Crook Manor.

Patrick McGrath’s characters are all well-developed and original. The butler, Fledge, glides silently and efficiently from room to room, while his wife, Doris (the object of Sir Hugo’s odd fantasies), swigs from the bottle as often as she can manage. Sir Hugo had my interest from page one of this novel with his consistent nastiness–beginning with his glee over the death of Rupert Brooke, and his insistence on forcing the servants to feed his pet toad, Herbert (named after his father-in-law) maggots on the dining room table. Obviously, Sir Hugo is odd, and McGrath skillfully unravels his tale of murder through the mind of his egotistical, bizarre, protagonist. The novel lost some interest for me towards the end, and its strength was in the characters.


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Spider by Patrick McGrath

“For the rain brings peace to the living and the dead.”

By chance, I saw previews to the David Cronenberg film, Spider, and I was mesmerized by the film clips. When I discovered that the film was based on the book, Spider, by Patrick McGrath, I decided to read the book while waiting for the release of the film.

Spider is quite unlike any book I’ve read before. The narrator is Dennis Cleg, but he uses his childhood nickname Spider. Spider returns to his old neighbourhood after twenty years spent in “Canada,” and within a few pages of the novel, it’s clear that something is really quite wrong with Spider. Spider has problems with his memory, and he hears voices. He takes up residence in a shabby boarding house, and he spends his days wandering around old haunts–including the canal, local pubs, and his father’s old allotment. Memories begin to return, and a partial explanation of Spider’s history emerges. Spider tries to piece together the mystery of his past and records his thoughts in a hidden journal “to create some order in the jumble of memories.”

Spider records memories of his brutal father, Horace Cleg, his mother, and a prostitute named Hilda Wilkinson. Spider describes his father’s hideous temper and the dreadful beatings he endured at his father’s hands in the cellar. The beatings led to the creation of a necessary mental escape–a part of the mind that Dennis scuttles to for sanctuary, and it is in this part of his mind, that Dennis Cleg lives safely as Spider. Spider’s memories are interlaced with life in the stark boarding house, and here he is haunted by the unexplainable smell of gas, and a constant, growing dread that his “body is being prepared for something … so as to make room for something else.”

McGrath’s hypnotic prose mesmerized me from page one, and I was fascinated by Spider’s horrific journey towards the truth. As Spider’s fragile mental state disintegrates, McGrath manages to keep up the pace, and Spider’s thoughts are always lucid–just deranged. McGrath shows admirable talent and discipline by sustaining Spider’s character through insane inner monologue. McGrath’s father was a medical superintendent at Broadmoor hospital, and no doubt this experience gives this novel its authenticity. I’ve also read McGrath’s novel Grotesque and Spider is much superior. I recommend it without hesitation, but with the single warning that Spider is a chilling read.

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