Tag Archives: novels about the unconscious

About reviews, popularity

Ever get the feeling someone’s trying to tell you something by not telling you something? Psychotherapists (that identifier feels awkward for some reason) have to learn to interpret the unsaid, by thinking about non-verbal information: everything from muted sighs to averted glances at a hidden clock, to I’m-running-late text messages, belated vacation or business trip announcements; e-mail terminations. Relationships in some people’s lives end with tumbling regularity. Exchanges are transient. Promises are easily given, and more easily withdrawn or better yet, forgotten. If you wrote it down, good for you. Kudos for the documentation, signifying that something meaningful happened.

I don’t spend a lot of time documenting psychotherapy, largely because it makes for dull reading, the type of notes one is meant to write for nosy overseers. It makes for good stories however, not that I can lift them directly from my clients’ shares. Instead, it’s an exercise in grabbing at pieces, tossing them at a blank page, worrying later about the links. For my first four novels I’d picked sketchily from my clients’ backstories, preferring to represent moments, unidentifiable fragments of individuals’ lives, maintaining everyone’s confidentiality. Except mine, of course. It’s several years since my first effort, the much somethinged Living Without Blood, about somebody named Eric Metcalf and his friend Richard something else, coming together after years of gradual estrangement in order to…actually, I’ve forgotten what they did together. I loved LWB at its time of publication—2009. It was my first-born: a sloppy, muddled beginner trying to find its legs after a nine-month labor, but occasionally standing tall, inspired by a self-consciously prosy flow. Skip to 2012: the release of Crystal From The Hills, a picaresque adventure that I’d conceived as a 600-page novel, only to split the story in half, releasing its follow-up, The Situation, two years later. Crystal took three years to write, in sporadic bursts in between semesters of my post-graduate training program at the Masterson Institute. Written three times, suffered over like a still-birthed thesis, it was my best effort thus far I thought, and I was confident enough of its value to submit a manuscript for review, with Kirkus magazine, a reputed den of literary cognoscenti.

Kirkus didn’t like Crystal From The Hills, calling it “sprawling”, “meandering” (a reference to its many flashbacks, childhood background material to make John Bowlbyesque sense of my protagonist’s disturbance). I got my first real taste of a reviewer’s, and presumably an average reader’s distaste for disrupted narrative, impatience with detail. I learned that some might find my prose difficult to read, for it was “ponderous”, “stacking of clauses and syllables”; containing way too much minutia. Gee, had they ever read David Foster Wallace? There wasn’t much complaint (from Kirkus) about the plot as such, or about character development—rather a suggestion that readers prefer heroes to be heroes, or at least charming, as opposed to being self-absorbed underdogs, or as one reader put it, losers. Ironic, for the novel’s underlying theme was empathy, so I did indeed fail in my task. I absorbed the criticism graciously, I think, noting that for my modest investment I’d received more honest feedback in two paragraphs—indeed more feedback, period—than I’d received from most non-paid (friendly or not) readers over the previous three years. Seriously, outside of the odd sympathetic review posted on Amazon, my readers, which include one loving family member, plus a rough crossection of my friendship circle, have given me little interest over the years. Some of them don’t care for psychodrama, preferring sci-fi, fantasy, non-fiction, or pleasant yarns about dogs or foreign travelogues. I think some struggle with the opening pages of my books, are left sucking oxygen within minutes having regarded my prose as if it were like the text of vacuum cleaner manuals. Most think that theme is subordinate to plot, which I agree with to some extent, except that some just don’t register ideas, only action. And some just don’t read. Period.

Oh well.

The effort to engage strangers moved on. The Situation received a warmer review from Kirkus, as in lukewarm, with concessions that it contained less of its predecessor’s flaws, as in less background material, less “meandering” plot. This was a somewhat hollow non-criticism, as the novel was a sequel and therefore did not require much backstory. However, other elements, like theme, the relatively fast pace or crisp prose, plus what I thought were clever plot devices (For example, Crystal’s opening, “He’s dead”, regarding a referenced character named Weed, is mirrored by Weed’s opening line of Situation: “I’m alive”. Reaction from Kirkus: nothing). Clarion/Foreword reviews didn’t notice this and other plot tidbits either, but otherwise offered a glowing review of The Situation, giving me four stars out of five, and remarking that my text was “captivating”, my writing assured; the story humorous, adventurous and fast-paced: gratifying, if not quite redemptive of the story as a whole. Kirkus’ reticence continued to irk me. I held the impression that their reviewer was holding something back, thinking my novel worthwhile but not wanting to say so.

This idea was reinforced earlier this year by their latest (and likely the last I’ll solicit) review, for my new novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. I was cautiously optimistic this time, half thinking my third submission would be the charm, otherwise simply believing my latest novel is pretty damn good. Alas, it was not to be. Upon providing a typically competent synopsis of the plot and a begrudging recognition that I was “drawing attention to an important issue”, Kirkus then complained that my protagonist, the sarcastic, at times pathetic Daniel Pierce, is not likeable. No kidding. According to them, he is pompous, contrarian (like that word, actually), and anti-feminist—a problem, apparently. Actually, as a therapist he’s resolutely neutral: a Bionion depository, as he puts it, “lacking memory or desire” (a famous Wilfred Bion quote). Outside his office he’s not so much anti-feminist as anti that which co-opts platitudes for self-serving aims, which is why he might be unlikeable. I suppose that negativity is not likeable, which I further suppose depends upon point of view. Anyway, it should tell me something, this reaction: something I’ve known at least since high school: in this world, in nearly all endeavors, it’s not enough to be good. BTW: my novel is damn good! But here’s the thing: you have to be liked.

 

 

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Introducing Venus

 

Time to fulfill a promise. Last year, about nine months ago now, I previewed a novel I had then nearly completed and which now has been available for about three months online. At the time it was called Blocked, not that names matter, and I wrote that I’d comment on the novel, its various themes and other elements, leading up to and beyond its publication. Alas, that didn’t happen. Sorry. I know you were waiting with baited breath. Anyway, I got distracted, like my protagonist Daniel Pierce often does; became sarcastic, as I still am, though he is less so. Among other things, my object relations explicating Tommy article got accepted for publication in an academic journal (I’m quite proud of that, in case you can’t tell), and random events occurred, concerning dogs, graphic novels, the politics of evidence-based psychotherapy: all happening with Bionic (as in Wilfred) meaning.

So the novel’s called Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole, which is a meaningful title, but you’d have to read the novel to learn fully its point. I know. What a typical, asshole-self-important author thing to write. Well, I’ll give a heads up on a couple of things, hopefully make this labor of my last two years interesting for you. Venus is a reference to women, which shouldn’t surprise. A prairie vole is a monogamous rodent. There. Figured it out yet? Oh well, let’s take it one step at a time, one day at a time, which should clue you into one theme of the story, at least. So, the first chapter (about five pages, I think), will introduce you to Daniel Pierce, a lonesome psychologist (actually, the reader doesn’t really learn his name and vocation until chapter two) who is talking to an insurance representative, seeking payment for a claim that’s gone awry, but also flirting somewhat. There’s some foreshadowing in this comic opening, but mostly I’m introducing a voice—one that’s flippant, like this blog entry—and a theme of subjugation to a system or machine. Daniel suffers and doesn’t “forgive” systems, but he latches onto individuals, like his clients, and also like the angelic-seeming, barely English speaking helper on the line. She’ll listen to him, he hopes. She might really listen. No one else does, he explains sourly.

There isn’t much to help a reader feel sorry for the self-pitying Daniel Pierce, but a troubled, flaky son, and a deceased wife give some cause early on. Later, as he becomes dogmatic, contrary, awkwardly humored, if self-deprecating, liking him might get even harder. But try, won’t you…he needs help. As to his crises, the reader first learns about Ryan, his early twenty something son: absconded from Daniel’s home after completing a stint in rehab and winning from him the reward of an inherited car—a bad move, Daniel concedes. You’ll learn that it’s one of many mistakes he is making in his life, though hereafter they will relate mostly to his working life: his poor boundaries, and at least questionable ethics. In the early pages, Daniel’s wife, Lisa, is introduced as “sleeping”—a figurative trick, for she is really gone. She and Ryan are spectral figures in this tale: oblique motivators, sources of regret, or in Lisa’s case, an overseer of sorts.

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Coup De Grace

**click title for image

Having some difficulty with the novel, The Situation. Some of you are reading it, for which I am grateful, but some of you are not getting it, about which I am…hmm…chagrinned, to put it politely. I know. I’m a whining, narcissistic author, starved of understanding. I should accept the partial appreciations I am receiving, the enjoyment some are having, taking what they like, as they say in 12-step programs, and–and the corollary is huge–leaving the rest.

To hell with that.

I wrote both CFTH and The Situation, for various reasons: 1.) to express myself creatively, 2.) to entertain, and 3.) to teach something important as an adjunct to my psychotherapy practice, which happens privately, behind closed doors, thus generating a need to venture outwards. There are in my novels several themes of note, and as my own process is sometimes unconscious, I can’t account for them all. Not that I don’t try, so here’s a rough list of succinctly-termed ideas present in the text and subtext: addiction, trauma, the tyranny of workplaces, of secrets within closed systems, like workplaces and families; about the ubiquity of dissociation, of impotence, and indifference; about the distance of friends, the lingering power of the absent, and the tense battles between lovers, for each self to fit in.

I guess that should be enough, but especially for The Situation–the follow-up and coup de grace–there needed to be something special (not to mention positive), something to make sense of, tie together the story as a whole. Empathy. That was the quality–the redemptive, sobriety-supporting (as one reader puts it) quality–that came to mind, as the point. And so, the novel delivers a climax with empathy as its thematic core, and everyone, author, characters and readers alike, should get the point and transport said point, somehow, back to our (or their) daily lives. And they seem to, those supportive few. But there are clues along the way–words unfortunately skipped, I suspect–that are getting missed; and it’s important. Why? Because you might notice something in relationships as in art: you shouldn’t miss the details.

Anyway, much misunderstanding centers around a contentious section of Situation, entitled “Nightmare”. Bryan “Weed” Tecco, my cardboard villain from CFTH, referenced only in his absence in that novel, is thereafter my protagonist, and he’s alive, contrary to the suppositions of my other characters, and in all likelihood, readers of CFTH. Emerging not-quite drowned from a lagoon in West Marin, he holes up at an old friend’s house in villagy Bolinas, then hitchhikes back to suburbia, only to be picked up and later drugged by a man, Dan Pritchard, with a sadistic streak and an apparent diaper fetish. Apart from recalling Chris Leavitt’s wayward new diaper invention from the first novel, the notion here is to have my character make a psychic return to helplessness: to a time when all needs are taken care of (and Dan Pritchard does take care); to a time when the body is uninhibited; to a time when the mind is bewildered, and possibly terrified. Weed is humiliated by Dan Pritchard, and though he appears to escape uninjured, there lingers the suggestion that Weed has been violated, while asleep no less.

Attentive readers, those who stuck with the various backstories of CFTH, may think this just desserts, this victimization. After all, according to Chris Leavitt, Weed introduced friends like Chris to not only a drug using lifestyle, but also a milieu in which prostitutes, sex, and consent for sex, moves freely (from one POV), or inchoately, dissociatively (from another). Regardless, I had plans for Bryan “Weed” Tecco–plans to make him an unlikely hero, back from the dead, but more importantly, back from infamy and indifference. In the chapters that follow “Nightmare”, Weed resolves not to talk about his ordeal with Dan Pritchard, but as many in my practice have discovered, not talking about something far from means that one is un-impacted. However, time is short in drama, and therefore serendipity: Weed meets Jill Evans, a shared “friend” of Chris Leavitt, and as she accompanies Weed on his road-trip search for his friend, she lets slip the clumsy near-rape Chris had attempted in CFTH. For the determined separatist, Weed, this presents an opportunity for his own suffering to quickly metabolize so that he might support another.

And later, as he finally connects with Jules Grotius, the creator of the subversive online game, ‘The Situation’–the self-styled guru of a new medium through which conscientious activism can be achieved–he listens, half-percolating the needs of his re-emerging self, half-reconciling current events with past traumas, while absorbing the heroic purpose he has unwittingly lived over the previous several days. Weed the drug dealer may live on. Weed the woman-distrusting bully may even persist with old habits. But Weed the game-fixated, insular enigma has been dealt a death blow.

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Where there is hierarchy there is violence (part two)

 

…Which means there are casualties. They are victims, if you’re feeling sympathetic and outraged. They are losers, if you’re not. Chris Leavitt, my protagonist from Crystal From The Hills, is not much of a victim, but he is much of a loser. And I write that with love. In a way, I prefer losers to victims, though they are in some respects the same. Losers lack the hubris of victims, mostly because they haven’t the fortitude to call themselves victims. So Chris Leavitt is a traumatized individual; a casualty and a loser, not a victim: he is privileged, free for the most part but wary of his onlookers–his shadows, both real and not. Ironically, he pays more attention to the less than real shadows, which render him paranoid yet oblivious to what’s right beneath his nose. He is innocent in so far as he is uncalculated, uncensored and anarchic. Whether too impulsive enough or just lacking in political savvy, he is unequipped for any tight, hierarchically-driven order.

There are hierarchies all around: some are tacit structures, governed by race, class, gender, philosophy, religion–prejudices of various kinds. This is not original, but then neither is the hand-wringing that surrounds public controversies. It’s not nice to judge people for being different, people say on camera. But they do. Of course they do. It’s the correct thing to aim for the center (“the center holds” our President tells us), but all around us (and him), splitting, the thoughtless, triage-like division of life into “good” and “bad”, right and wrong, is occurring, and meanwhile, we are all shepherded into cliques, nurturing our prejudices and providing succor within echo chambers. I was once clique-bound at Thunder Road, the workplace that employed me for fifteen years, and which I depict in another book, Working Through Rehab: An Inside Look at Adolescent Drug Treatment. Contrary to my younger observations, Thunder Road is just another typical hierarchical system governed by shadows who determine who fits and who doesn’t; whose turn it is to be in charge, and whose turn it is to go…what works and what doesn’t. Leaders use corporate tools for the most part: manuals, handouts, HR policies, lawyers and spreadsheets, to create order. Meanwhile, the world they govern is an inchoate mass driven by an oral tradition, and the unconscious.

My turn on the rollercoaster lasted longer than most, though it was never my goal to merely have my turn. It was my pretension to do more, and now I have, only from the outside looking in. The point of my book is that taking a turn is not enough. Being politic, fitting in and censoring dissent may suit a hierarchical system, but it is psychological death to the conscious individual, the growing professional. I could avoid hierarchies, mess with hierarchies, dissent and maneuver only so much until shadows converged and told me that if I was to continue avoiding the trappings of leadership and compliance, then it was my time to leave. Cohesion: it means togetherness, which is good, sort of. But coherence, which is like music, is superior. I remember being told once by someone in charge that if I was to really take a turn being in charge, then I’d have to assert just that, regardless of what is right. The decisions were mine, I was told: ultimately, what I said prevailed, not because I was right, but rather because I was in charge. Reluctant leadership. I nodded compliantly but remained slippery, thinking this a dangerous, undemocratic idea, this thing about being right because it was necessary to be so. The problem with equating rightness with being in charge is that being in charge doesn’t last.   

One of my favorite passages of literature reminds me that the exiled exist in numbers, are neither contained nor containable, even if they’re not in charge. Even if they’re not right. This is John Self from Martin Amis’ Money:

“I hate people with degrees, O-levels, eleven-pluses, Iowa tests, shorthand diplomas…and you hate me, don’t you. Yes you do. Because I’m the new kind, the kind who has money but can never use it for anything but ugliness, to which I say: you never let us in, not really. You might have thought you let us in, but you never did. You just gave us some money.”

 

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Sprawling, muddled and hard to follow

Consider the following beta elements: Hitchcock, Bolinas, fire, towering infernos, The Wizard of Oz, terrorism, telecommunications, and Birnum Wood. A meaningless collection of terms? Maybe…that’s what you’d think upon a quick read through of my novel, Crystal From The Hills. My “sprawling”, “muddled” brainchild was written intermittently over the last three years, and is currently receiving a smattering of appreciation, interspersed with triage-like criticisms, some valid and useful, some merely indicative of a drive-by reading. It’s early days yet. Mostly there is silence and the resounding feel of indifference. As with Weed, my villain, there is an overriding absence.

It’s to be expected. I’m not sure what kind of readership I’m aiming for, except for one of fantasy: an ardent following that reads things over and over again, ever searching for nuance. One review suggested a Joycean or Proust-admiring following–wrong. A book of minutia? The word implies triviality, or meaninglessness. I guess Wilfred Bion’s concept of beta elements doesn’t register for average readers; it doesn’t resonate. What do I mean? you may wonder…may wonder. Well, here goes, again: in drama, as in life, there is repetition; repetition that reveals. That’s basic Freud. The paraphenalia of society serve as microcosms of existence, illustrating the unconscious while it fills out the canvas of life. Chris Leavitt’s life is a canvas of elements, speaking in code and then blended into an inchoate mass. Alfred Hitchcock was a fan of psychoanalysis, which informs the themes of CFTH; the same is true of the many motion picture references contained in the novel. Other examples: Macbeth was a man who denied reality, and who failed to understand clues. Fires are part of the back-story of the protagonist, while towering infernos and terrorism now fuel the paranoia of American culture. Texting, e-mail, and the ubiquity of cell phones may dominate as mediums of communication, but it is ancient oral traditions that will whisper truths and pass them along, perhaps especially in small towns in West Marin County, where cell phone towers don’t exist still. Bolinas: the Luddite enclave. May the best grass roots movements of the future be born amongst your wooded seclusion. Within the mass of elements there is order and meaning, and for the attentive observer (as in reader), there is a pattern; an internal logic that ultimately should not baffle. Thus, events unfold in a manner that should feel familiar, perhaps like deja vu. There is a sense of things congealing with centripetal urgency (oops! careful Graeme–that’s a lot of syllables you’re stacking there.)

I guess not everyone will see things as I see them. That, after all, is the point of Crystal From The Hills. Take, for example, a climax of sex in CFTH (not the only climax). A critic has complained that a sexual episode between Chris and his girlfriend Jill–a clumsy grapple and possible rape–retroactively colors their relationship. My response: this passage is foreshadowed about once every ten pages of the novel without actually revealing the event (of course, I’m doing that here). Colors the relationship? The protagonist is guilt-ridden yet avoidant; Jill? she is conflicted: contemptuous and shamefaced, yet uncertain in her revenge. The explicit revealing towards the end is matched by the undercurrent that develops over the course of the narrative. The unconscious in which I place faith enables the reader to find logic and continuity in the unfolding. Meanwhile, the psychologically-minded know that the traumatized take their time, forget and distort, and even when finding clarity, they gauge the safety of those poised to hear their secrets. Is it safe to let you know what’s really been happening? How far have you made it into the novel? Are you ready to hear what its characters really have to say?

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