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Pickle Me This

May 20, 2009

Trauma by Patrick McGrath

Charlie Weir’s mother got a lot of things wrong. Favouring Charlie’s brother Walt and disdaining Charlie’s profession, she once remarked, “Oh, anyone can be a psychiatrist… It takes talent to be an artist.” This statement filed away in the lock-box of Charlie’s mind, which he sorts through all too frequently, seething with ancient resentments. His fixation underlining the fact that many people probably shouldn’t be psychiatrists, him in particular. He lies down on his own couch from time-to-time, and self-regards with much the same insight he accords other people in his life, and eventually it becomes clear that Charlie Weir is a danger to himself and others.

Charlie, the protagonist in Patrick McGrath’s latest novel Trauma, is at a remove from those around him. This he regards as an intellectual advantage, allowing him a deeper understanding of character, and making him a better psychiatrist in his own estimation. And it is true that for a time he received professional acclaim, working out of an office with a fashionable address, under an esteemed mentor. In the present day, however, circumstances are altered, though Charlie glosses over this (as he glosses over the fact that he grew up a loner, that he’s a man in his forties who has had only two serious relationships in his life.) He can no longer afford a receptionist, his referrals are way down, and one of his few clients has just attempted suicide.

Charlie works with victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, at a time when this is a relatively new field of study. His home in New York City circa 1980 is a fitting backdrop for such an occupation, a sordid, dirty, crime-filled nightmare of a city. His girlfriend Nora, troubled by her own bad dreams, explains them away with the city: “It’s a war-zone, Charlie, you have to be a warrior to live here.” He counsels women who’ve been victims of childhood abuse, of recent sexual assault. He’d previously been working with Vietnam Veterans, but gave this up when he’d started treating his brother-in-law, taken an intervention too far and the brother-in-law had killed himself. Discovering the body, believes Charlie, has been his own trauma, though he’s never had his situation “seen to”. He hasn’t really felt the need to, with his understanding of the pathology of trauma. This understanding, he thinks, is what differentiates him from the men and women he treats who are also unable to control their patterns of compulsive behaviour. It’s what sets him apart.

Of his brother-in-law, Charlie notes that never had he “encountered a man so profoundly alienated from his own humanity that he already felt dead.” Though Charlie himself is so profoundly alienated that he doesn’t even know he’s dead. His absolutely failure of empathy is his failing as a psychiatrist, as a brother, as a husband and a lover. When his brother-in-law dies, Charlie abandons his wife, believing her unable to cope with her husband’s role in her brother’s death. Displaying a complete lack of insight– what she’d be unable to cope with is abandonment in the wake of the loss she’s already been dealt. And now with his new girlfriend, Charlie is unable to regard her character beyond its pathologization, driving her away from him. He’s either being too much of a psychiatrist, or displaying behaviour so dense, it’s hard to believe he’s more than an automaton. He’s accused of being cold, of being clumsy, but fails to take on what these criticisms actually mean.

Charlie Weir is not an absorbing narrator. It’s true that he is cold and clumsy, and it’s a credit to McGrath that his voice doesn’t convince us otherwise– Charlie Weir convinces nobody except himself. (I do wonder about implications of psychiatrist/narrators– their seemingly absolute command of their characters, the characters’ resistance to falling under command. Is psychiatry itself a kind of failed novel?) What Charlie’s voice does mean, however, is that the narrative is not as enthralling as a “psychological thriller” probably should be. There is no “grip” about it, but tension does rise as Charlie becomes increasingly isolated. As we’re left with just his own voice, and the confines of his mind, which is a most terrifying place. His awareness of his breakdown cannot save him in the end, and we’re only forced to bear witness as he ever so clearly and evenly narrates his inevitable descent into an abyss.

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