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Virtual Book Club II

24 March 2014

Asylum

Forbidden Obsession

Asylum by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath’s novel, Asylum, (1997) is a compelling tale of illicit obsession.  The question the reader has to answer is: who is obsessed with whom?  Ostensibly this is the story of a passionate affair between Edgar, a murderer and seriously psychotic patient in a top security psychiatric hospital, and Stella, the wife of the deputy superintendent.  However, their story is mediated by a psychiatrist.  The narration of the supremely confident, authoritative Dr Peter Cleave is so firmly embedded in the text that the reader is carried along effortlessly by his minutely detailed version of the story.  But how reliable is Cleave’s narrative?

McGrath’s father was the deputy superintendent at Broadmoor for twenty-five years and the young Patrick spent his childhood living in a house in Broadmoor’s grounds.  The high security psychiatric hospital setting is very familiar territory for novelist McGrath.  Speaking of this childhood, the author is quoted as saying (Tonkin, 2000) that, “There is nothing I ever remember as a manifestation of insanity”. Liam Clarke (2009) claims McGrath “repressed what, in childhood, was uncomfortable or unfathomable to him, his novels compromising truths wherein is (sic) projected intolerable anxieties through his characters’ mad, bad and dangerous relationships.” I disagree with Clarke, whose view undermines a brilliant novelist who is in full control of his material.  McGrath is, in fact, so familiar with this world of insanity and psychiatry as to make it appear acceptably ordinary.  What his narrative method cunningly achieves is the questioning of the authority of the psychiatrist in the person of Peter Cleave.  Asylum  is set in the 1950s, a time when psychiatry was largely confident and respected by the public.  The reader of Asylum must take a leap outside convention and distrust the psychiatrist-narrator.

Psychiatrist Cleave makes no obvious attempt to hide the fact that the narrative is his.  Indeed, the book’s opening sentence invites the reader’s cooperation and confidence, as Cleave tells us: “The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now.”  The narrative proceeds with carefully drawn detail of Stella’s thoughts and the settings for her meetings with the patient/sculptor/murderer, Edgar.  Intimate domestic conversations between Stella and her husband, Max, are also related.  Indeed, the story largely appears to be told by an omniscient narrator.   Occasionally, Cleave states, “she told me”; more often he leaves out any information about how he acquired his intricately minute knowledge of the affair between mad patient and deputy superintendent’s wife.  When Cleave describes an early meeting between Stella and Edgar, saying, "He produced a red bandanna from his trouser pocket and wiped the sweat from his face and then from his hands..." the reader must ask how he knew these precise details, given that he was not present and any information from Stella was confided at a much later date.  The details Cleave presents appear as the imaginings of an omniscient narrator, rather than reporting of clinical sessions with a patient. We know, from his own admission, that Cleave is an observer rather than participator.  Describing the events of the hospital dance that opens the novel, Cleave tells us, “I watched the proceedings from the shadows of a pillar at the rear of the hall….” Further, Cleave is a self-important, self-confessed gossip, telling us that Max’s mother, Brenda, “relied on me for reports about her son.” Within the first few pages of the novel, psychiatrist Cleave tells the reader, “Edgar was one of mine”.  He subsequently refers to him on several occasions as, “my Edgar”, establishing his potentially jealous ownership of the patient.  Even more intriguing when we consider how the novel unfolds, Cleave says on page three: “Oddly enough I only saw him [Edgar] with Stella once, and that was at the hospital dance….” Peter Cleave’s expertise in “sexual obsession” is obvious throughout the novel.  What is less obvious is just who should be included in the reader’s assessment of obsession and jealousy.

The setting of Asylum in a hospital for the criminally insane is a clear nod to the gothic.  Here the design of the Victorian mental hospital building is intended for the observation of those within.   Such observation, coupled with the authority of the psychiatrist, is open to mis/interpretation.  The final twist at the novel’s end puts all the text’s stories in question.  Is this an asylum or a prison?  Who is incarcerated and who escapes?  Who possesses whom and in what form?  Who has the authority to present the stories of passion and jealousy?  The reader is swiftly carried along by McGrath’s compelling prose; but the reader must remain alert and observe the telling of this tale as carefully as would a competent psychiatrist.

This month's book club review comes from, PhD student, Jackie Hopson. Next month volunteer, Harry Bentine,  will be reviewing Andrew Voyce's graphic novel 'Side Effects'.  This can be purchased directly from Andrew by emailing: [email protected].  Harry's review will be shared on the blog on 14 April.

McGrath, P, (1997), Asylum, Penguin, London

Tonkin, B (2000), “Crooked Timbers of Humanity”, The Independent, 26 August

Clarke, L (2009), Fiction’s Madness, PCCS Books, Ross-on-Wye

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