Patrick McGrath: Asylum

Before you read the book:

A few weeks ago when I realized that October was just around the corner (I’m always behind on this stuff these days), I decided to look for a good literary creepy book with loads of atmosphere.  Hence, my venture to Patrick McGrath.  Here’s yet another well known author who is new to me.  Thanks to John Self’s blog – yes, “Asylum” – I am now an initiate to this “gothic” author.  So here is a bit of an homage to you, John.  It’s because of your blog I chose this particular author – one of your favorites, I see – and this particular title as my first.

I have to be honest: at first I wasn’t sure I picked out the right book for me, let alone the right book to suit my mood.  At first it felt a bit too – oh, I don’t know - focused on unruly passionate romance.  That unsatisfied feeling didn’t last too long, though.  Quickly, I saw that the development of the love affair was not nearly as important as its psychological repurcussions.  And McGrath does an excellent job creating tension through the psyche. 

Though as I said the first couple dozen pages didn’t work for me, the first paragraph really grabbed me as it explained quite a bit of what was to come:

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.  Four lives were destroyed in the process, but whatever remorse she may have felt she clung to her illusions to the end.  I tried to help but she deflected me from the truth until it was too late.  She had to.  She couldn’t afford to let me see it clearly, it would have been the ruin of the few flimsy psychic structures she had left.

Here we meet our narrator, Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist at an asylum for the criminally insane.  Stella is the wife to the newly staffed forensic psychiatrist, the ambitious Max Rapheal.  Edgar Stark, Stella’s lover, happens to be one of Peter Cleave’s patients, an artist who, after developing jealous delusions, killed his wife and then mutilated her head. 

Even though Stella knows a bit about Edgar’s past, she is incredibly attracted to him as he works to fix up their conservatory.  She simply cannot believe that he’s as dangerous as they say, and in fact she doesn’t believe he should be locked up at all.  This is all background, though, and something we can basically get from that first paragraph.

Once the love affair develops, however, the book immerses itself into Stella’s psyche as she navigates through her relationships with Edgar and Max and Doctor Cleave.  Here, for example, is an encounter Stella has with Max soon after the love affair is off the ground.

Behind him on the far side of the drive the pines rose in a dark mass against the evening sky.  She embraced him with a warmth unusual for her, and as she did so an ironic thought sprang into her mind, that it’s the guilt of the adulterous woman that drives her into her husband’s arms.

“Hello,” he said as she clung to him like a woman adrift, a woman drowning, “what’s all this?”

She moved away to the mirror over the empty fireplace and patted at her hair, and tried to find some sign of sin on her face.

“Nothing.  I missed you today, that’s all.”

“Why did you miss me?”

She turned to face him.  There was real curiosity in his voice, and she felt the psychiatrist in the man, or rather, the man receded and the psychiatrist emerged as the wheels turned and she saw him examine this fragment of her psychic life and fish around for its meaning.  In that moment he became her enemy.  She knew then that any openness between them was dangerous, and that her explosive secret must be hidden with especial skill from the eyes of this sudden stranger with his desperately acute powers of mental intrusion and perception.

Thankfully for me, the book continues in this vain, focusing mainly on internal elements rather than on the love affair.  And McGrath has some other interesting components to the story.  It doesn’t take long before we can start wondering how Peter Cleave knows as much about the love affair as he does.  And soon after we can begin questioning how he fits into this mix.  Though his language is most of the time clinically detached, we can discern that that is one of his own devices for covering his feelings.

Bolstering the narrative are a number of gothic elements – the architecture, a conservatory, the garden, the sea, the torrential love – but none of them feel cliched or out of place for the story.  In other words, while this has gothic elements, I wouldn’t say it’s a “gothic” book.  That would, in my opinion, place it in a restricting category.  It’s much more than that.

So I’m happy with my first foray into McGrath’s land.  I’m sad to report, however, that it wasn’t quite as moody and disturbing in a creepy, haunting way as I was hoping.  Any suggestions?

27 thoughts on “Patrick McGrath: Asylum

  1. As I said at the end of my post, I’m still looking for a good book to suit my Halloween mood. Something haunting, ghostly, atmospheric, and still literary. Perhaps in the vain of the great The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, a book that is both a fantastic ghost story and an incredibly written piece of fiction. Or like pieces by Poe. Please give me any suggestions.

  2. Rob says:

    How about Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House? Or The Collected Stories of M. R. James, if you’ve not already read them. Actually, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre—his history of the horror genre, written in the early eighties—is a much underrated read.

  3. Stewart says:

    I am now an initiate to this “gothic” author.

    Don’t let McGrath hear you say that. He doesn’t like the tag, especially since he’s only written one Gothic novel.

    For me, Dr Haggards’s Disease is the one to read. But, since you are doing your New York project, his latest, Trauma, may be the one to tackle, since McGrath lives in New York and the book is his first novel set entirely there.

  4. Well, you certainly can’t go wrong with MR James, greatest writer of ghost stories in the English language.

    Otherwise, how about The Unburied by Charles Palliser? I thought that a tremendous work of modern gothic fiction, literary but ghostly.

    Not sure about the McGrath, I note that Peter Cleave refers to her “psychic structures” while Stella herself thinks about her “psychic life”. That’s a bit too much similarity of tone for two seemingly disparate characters for me.

  5. John Self says:

    So pleased to see you covering McGrath, Trevor. As you note, he’s one of my favourite authors (though believe it or not, the title of my blog is a coincidence!), and like Stewart, I’d recommend Dr Haggard’s Disease next, as a richer brew than Asylum, both linguistically and structurally. (To me, the narrative in Asylum the first time I read it seemed pale and cold compared with the roiling, tempestuous voice of Dr Haggard – but that was McGrath’s intention.) I also highly rate Port Mungo. His recent New York novel, Trauma, is also excellent but more of a thriller than his other books.

    You’re right to note that Asylum is not particularly moody or creepy – though I do think Peter Cleave is as creepy as they come in his own way. This links to Max’s comment, about the similar use of language between Cleave and Stella, which I think is deliberate as – for me – one of the central questions in the book is how much of what Cleave tells us actually happened as he says, and how much is his own take on things? Because Cleave narrates the story – he is in control in every way – we never get Stella unmediated by his voice.

    Stewart is right too about McGrath’s view of the ‘gothic’ label. Here he is in an interview (on my blog, hem hem!) on the label:

    [It's] more a restriction than anything, in that once the label starts getting bandied about people feel they don’t have to read you. They think they know what your stuff must be like. Only a couple of my books have been deliberately gothic, The Grotesque and Martha Peake. Others may have used gothic elements but had quite other objectives than to arouse dread and horror primarily. Old Main, for example, as a Victorian asylum does have a gothic tone to it, but I’d hate to see Trauma therefore classed as a gothic novel.

    Interesting too, Trevor, that you should comment on the first couple of dozen pages not working for you. I can still recall delighting in little elements – clues, we might say – on every one of the first few pages, where Cleave comments for example that the first time he saw Max (Raphael, not Cairnduff!), “I knew he wasn’t the sort of man to satisfy a woman like Stella.” These are of course mostly visible only on re-reading, though I’ll not urge that on you just yet!

  6. Isabel says:

    Where is this novel set?

    I don’t have any suggestions for you. Sorry.

  7. Thanks for your comments everyone. I’m looking forward to checking out some of the books recommended.

    Isabel, the books is set in the UK, both on the outskirts of London and northern Wales.

    John, I will try this one again some day, but I’m anxious to get into more of McGrath’s works first – looks like Doctor Haggard’s Disease is the top pick (though I’m a bit disappointed in the lack of originality in the American cover – it’s that quintessential Romantic/Heathcliffe painting)!

    I am also anxious to catch the clues laid out in the first several pages of Asylum. At the beginning I recognized that the narration had some similarities with Humbert Humbert in Lolita since the main character never got a chance to speak for herself. It was only quite late in the novel that I clued into other, more sinister, similarities.

    And, finally, thanks for the link to your interview with McGrath, John!

  8. KevinfromCanada says:

    Why not consider The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco for your Hallowe’en project? Okay, it is right up there with Stephen Hawking and Toni Morrison on the “most books purchased, not read” list but it is literary, haunting, ghostly and atmospheric, which were your criteria. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Sorry I can’t comment on the Asylum as I haven’t read it. I certainly appreciate the review and discussion — Trauma is the only one I have read.

  9. Kevin, I bought The Name of the Rose something like ten years ago and then read it four or five years ago. So I fit into the “puchased, not read” list for a while, but I’m glad I jumped off that boat. Truly one of my favorite books – and it is exceedingly literary with all of its references but still very accessible and very compelling in its mysterious plot.

    Come to think about it, I just might have to revisit it soon!

    By the way, I’m considering Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” but for some reason I’ve always put it off. Anyone recommend it to suit my current mood, or are my perceptions of it misperceptions?

  10. Rob says:

    How about Foucault’s Pendulum? That has a good haunting quality to it. (Incidentally, it’s much better on the second read—or it was for me, anyway.)

    I didn’t really get on with The Turn of the Screw, but I think I’m just one of those people who doesn’t like Henry James.

  11. Hmmm. I’ve had Foucault’s Pendulum in the back of my mind for a long time, but I’ve never looked into it at all. You’ve definitely pushed me to looking at it more closely. Ahhh, this blogging thing is great in that it helps me see my reading inadequacies but at the same time provides a way for me to start making up for them!

  12. Stewart says:

    Foucault’s Pendulum is a definite. It was my introduction to Eco and still remains one of my favourite novels.

  13. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’d agree with Foucault’s Pendulum as great for your project. You certainly will have to pay attention.

  14. I would have recommended The Turn of the Screw, I am fond of both it and The Aspern Papers (actually, I prefer The Aspern Papers).

    However, I’ve not yet read Foucault’s Pendulum and have heard good things of it, after my recent bad experience with Baudolino I’m a bit Eco-shy and it would be great to see a review of one of his more highly regarded works.

  15. John Self says:

    I third or fourth the recommendation of Foucault’s Pendulum although it’s more about the debunking of supernatural/’spooky’ things (and conspiracy theories) than those things themselves. A caveat from me though is that I last read it when I was about 19 or 20 and couldn’t begin to imagine what I might make of it now. I loved it at the time though.

    That US cover for Dr Haggard is Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Clouds, isn’t it? A popular artist for a certain type of book.

    I enjoyed The Name of the Rose too, though have had little joy with Eco elsewhere, ie The Island of the Day Before and Baudolino.

  16. Foucault’s Pendulum is on the docket. From the looks of things, John, you’d still enjoy it, as so many of our trusted friends here highly recommend it.

    Max, I’m also putting James, lots of things by James, on the docket. It seems that almost every book I read this year referenced him in some way or another. Plus, it’ll give me a great excuse to take The Master off of my shelf and read it to see if I like it better than Cloud Atlas (oh, the good old days of Bookerdom).

    As for the US cover for Dr Haggard, John, that’s the right one. It’s not that I don’t like the painting (and I like Friedrich’s other works more); it’s that this particular cover seems to be used so often and for bad books hoping to look more profound that it almost cheapens the book in my estimation. I’m sure it’s just a personal thing with me that could use some revision. I’ll get over my hangup and try Dr Haggard all the same.

  17. John Self says:

    I’m feeling the Henry James synchronicity too: my current read, Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers, references him also. (But then another of Ozick’s books is called What Henry James Knew.)

  18. Rob says:

    I’m really looking forward to seeing your review of Foucault’s Pendulum—it’s one of my favourites.

    Do try M. R. James, though, if you haven’t already. You can get his Collected Ghost Stories for a song from the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series, with a no doubt delightfully tacky cover.

  19. Stewart says:

    For Henry James, the ones that come to mind are Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty, and he even gets a mention in Philip Roth’s Letting Go, right at the start. The way that’s dragging must surely display a Jamesian influence. :D

  20. I’ve found some books by both Jameses. Hopefully my schedule will clear some and allow me to get to them soon!

  21. With respect to Eco, I don’t think I’ve seen a bad review of either Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum. His other (fictional) work seems less universally praised. I loved the first half or so of Baudolino, but simply stopped caring once the story moved to Prester John’s imaginary kingdom (accurately depicted as it was), it felt self-indulgent and flabby as I recall (and I was already quite familiar with the relevant mythology, which didn’t help).

    I haven’t read The Island of the Day Before, mostly as I’ve seen relatively few positive writeups of it and am a tad scarred by Baudolino. I admit I haven’t even looked at Mysterious Flame.

    Personally, I fully intend to read Foucault’s Pendulum, but I wonder if Eco’s success has rather proved his undoing after that particular work.

  22. Stewart says:

    Of Eco’s works I’d rate Baudolino third. I really enjoyed it – it is a comedy, after all – and it has some interesting set pieces, notably the locked room murder mystery in which numerous reasonable solutions are provided, each one dismissed.

    The Island Of The Day Before was okay. Not his best by a long shot. It was a departure of sorts from the two novels that went before, the opening dragging, but it soon picked up speed for the middle third, slowing down again to the end.

  23. Rob says:

    I’d agree with Stewart about Baudolino. It’s a fun romp, and if it doesn’t reach the heights of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, that’s okay; those are pretty impressive heights.

    I have less time for The Island of the Day Before, though. It really didn’t work for me, and I think Baudolino would actually have had a better reception if people hadn’t been so afraid of getting burned after The Island.

    I thought The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was better but not great. It had some nice passages, but I couldn’t really care about the overall story—there wasn’t much of one—and it felt a bit gimmicky.

  24. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’m with those who liked Baudolino, although I agree with Max that it loses momentum when it gets to the Prester John bit. When I was reading the latest, not-very-good Rushdie, I could help but think about Baudolino and how much better a book it is. I too would separate it from Rose and Pendulum where I think Eco pays much more attention to making his story as complex as his language — and definitely succeeds.

  25. Guy Savage says:

    Well if this was your first McGrath and you’d like to try another, I’d suggest SPIDER for “moody, creepy and disturbing.”

    I’ve read three McGrath’s total and have yet to be disappointed.

  26. Trevor says:

    I’ve had Spider in mind for a while because I saw the film a few years ago. I didn’t particularly like the film but heard the book was infinitely better and developed more things I wanted in the movie.

    What others did you read, Guy?

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