I'm new to the writing of Patrick McGrath and nor was in the least bit sure this was a wise move, but I felt the need for something entirely different and Trauma was to hand and looked shortish and quickish. In the end it wasn't quick at all, far too much to consider.
I'm woefully out of touch with the male US writers, somehow I position them out of my realm then I discover that actually Patrick McGrath is English by birth but that doesn't seem to change much. He sits rightly or wrongly in the Constellation Impossible in my mind along with the likes of Bellow, Roth, Updike & Co. It's Saul Bellow's fault really, we fell out over Herzog and have never quite effected a reconciliation. I used up a precious week of my life years ago reading it for a new reading group. Fearing the shame of failure I ploughed on, Andy Murray has nothing on my tenacity when stupidity and humiliation beckon, and I duly pitched up with my copy annotated with inane drizzle which I had hoped might help me wing it through. I hadn't really grasped the Bellow concept at all but everyone else had given up after twenty pages so I was crowned the unchallenged Bellow Expert, but it was all enough to scare a girl off US male authors for life.
Trauma is certainly an intriguing read as Charlie Weir, psychiatrist with enough textbook symptoms of his own to keep him in therapy finds himself in a messy tangle of personal and professional relationships with boundaries fast disappearing as the tangle of psyches becomes a complete bird's nest of chaos.
With references to views of the twin towers and firemen and definite mentions of a sultry August I quite thought the plot was leading up to 9/11 and I'm still not sure whether that might have been the intention. Perhaps Patrick McGrath changed course fearing the extra hundreds of pages that would have added to the book? Whatever, it was a good decision because the conciseness and discipline of a mere 200 pager (they are becoming rare these days) worked to perfection.There is enough trauma in this book without adding 9/11 to the mix, the Vietnam veterans have quite enough of their own to deal with and there's only so much you can squeeze into one book and expect a reader to emerge whole and in one piece at the other end.
The traumas of every single character are played out with a keen eye for the due process of psychiatric malaise and Patrick McGrath explores the issues proficiently and with care and that's important. Charlie slowly becomes as embroiled and troubled as those he seeks to help and you can but watch helplessly as the haunting 'physician heal thyself' scenario unravels towards an ending that is quite breathtaking.
Trauma perhaps also a red warning light to the dangers of mis-managed therapy, equally capable of causing trauma in its own right, and I'm reminded of the late great Bernice Rubens whose thoughts on therapists of any description are so brilliantly and excoriatingly exposed in her novel Nine Lives. Bernice incidentally also named Philip Roth as one of her favourite writers. Therapy in the wrong hands highly dangerous and those of us who tread on that territory professionally know the perils of taking the lid off without having something ready and waiting to catch what jumps out.
Charlie is caught out and pays a heavy price and rightly so in my mind, I get quite cross about literary cop-outs for professional misconduct that in real life would be reprehensible and life-threatening. Though absolution is available it's only a short-term remedy, Charlie has far too much of his own trauma to deal with first.
A gritty New York read and a solid exploration of its subject, Trauma sports a UK cover that conveys par excellence the claustrophobic angst-ridden minds and lives of so many of Patrick McGrath's characters. That tangle of fire escapes says it all.
I shall read more now I know what to expect, it wasn't that terrifying at all, name a Philip Roth for beginners someone and, while you decide which one I really should read, don't miss John Self's interview with Patrick McGrath over in his Asylum.