Tag Archives: psychological fiction

What about the squirrels?

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/graeme-daniels/blended2/

Okay, so I’m not going to be churlish about my Kirkus review. On the whole, their critique of Blended is positive and fair, given the limitations of space (allocated word count for the review), plus the needs/priorities of their readership. I particularly enjoy the compliment directed at my style: “Daniels writes in a fluid, elegant prose”, though I’m also aware by now that in the world of publishing, good prose isn’t what sells books. High concept or gripping plots are the order of fiction. Besides that, for those who may be interested in my modest family drama, the pieces between the lines, or the elements not commented upon, here’s my response to my best Kirkus review thus far—my filling in of the gaps.

First of all, regarding the summary: Kirkus generally does a good job of summarizing the plots of the books they review, and most of their efforts seem directed towards this task. In fact, blink once too often and you might miss what the reviewer actually thinks of a work. So, not too many complaints in this department, just a comment on what is missing. Tillie Marsden, my protagonist, does indeed have an altruistic (if waywardly so) bent, and is only thinly understood by her husband, Bill, adequately described here as benignly workaholic. Jacob, the stepson, is however, much more than a surly twenty-something who mostly gives silence to Tillie, as the reviewer suggests. Like the primitivistic imps that are the immigrant Pakistani couple’s seven children, Jacob is a rambunctious, unfinished dish at large in Tillie’s back garden and inner space. He recalls for her callow habits, dreams, and other lost ways of her own youth, and amidst the comic boyishness of Jacob, his ‘gross-out’ edge, there is within him a thoughtful streak that moves Tillie.

Passages about eating habits, misadventures around food, plus a certain amount of toilet humor may have thrown my Kirkus reviewer. There is little to suggest in his or her 700-word opinion that these parts of the book were much more than filler between plot advancements. I’m used to this: several of my novels feature tangents and other indulgences that bemuse some readers. It’s an aspect of what I believe is my surrealistic style. Symbolic phrases and cryptic elements abound, there to be seen if readers care about such nuance, and to be missed by the majority because…because they have better things to do? I don’t know. I think lasting art, or at least that which has captured my mind, is rarely there on the surface, seen or heard the first time one scrolls past. Elements, bits and pieces, aggregate and tell stories beyond the story. Seriously. Therefore, back to eating, belching and farting, the beta elements of my social chaos theme: The seven kids of my Pakistani family are meant to parallel Jacob’s persona, serving the “twinned lives of the two families” idea that the reviewer observes.

It’s gratifying that this aspect of the novel was noticed: “an admirable attempt to figure out something about America’s view of itself and the outside world”. But what about George, my Donald Trump stand-in who takes over leadership at Tillie’s ACS job and plays the bombastic vulgarian, crudely intruding upon civilized order until learning some humility at that subplot’s end? A happy resolution, I thought. Worth mentioning, I further think. What about the undercurrent of imperial corruption that lies within the working world of Bill and his not-so-benign corporate employers? Turns out they were the company that employed Bahram, the father of the refugee family, hence their emigration to the town wherein Bill and Tillie live. It also turns out that Bahram left his former job and country under a cloud, having been embroiled in nefarious events in Pakistan, a residue of which is exported to Bishop Grove and revealed in the novel’s climactic sequence. Wasn’t that worth mentioning? I also wonder.

And finally, what about my squirrels, those mute, intrusive yet ubiquitous creatures whose scrambling, ravenous pleasure feeds on us, somehow comments upon us? They chase each other, fighting over territory, competing over resources provided by hosts, and acting with entitlement, as if thinking they’ve been here longer than anyone or thing. Buy a copy of Blended and you’ll see a squirrel on the back cover, lurking upon a tree, gazing upon the Marsden household. Project what you like onto its expressionless void. Imagine who might take the squirrels’ places in another reality, locked out but coveting what’s in.

 

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Kirkus reviews Blended

Finally, a Kirkus reviewer likes one of my novels. Take a look:

 

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/graeme-daniels/blended2/

 

More later. Let me take it in…

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Holden Caulfield would understand

 

Final day of 2016. Possibly the last time I will focus on my most recent novel, the one featuring my most cryptic of titles, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole.

“What the hell is a prairie vole?”, complained one reader, who further implied that he didn’t like obscure metaphors in popular art–that is, until I pointed out that his favorite book was Catcher In The Rye, and that his favorite film was To Kill A Mockingbird, and that his second favorite was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

“Fine, you’ve made your point,” he conceded, only to add, “But pretty please, so I don’t have to bother Wikipedia—what the fuck is a prairie vole?”

“Fine,” I replied. Fine, I think finally: I will explain more pointedly, more comprehensively than I have before, my oh-so-obscure metaphors. I guess I’ll start with the second one: a prairie vole is a monogamous rodent. I’ve written that before and left it at that, feeling cheekily evasive. But there’s more, of course. I learned about prairie voles a couple of years ago, from the book The Compass of Pleasure, a non-fiction about addictions, whose author, David Linden, wrote with similar cheek about creatures that didn’t fit the masculine stereotype of wanton promiscuity—hence a passage about prairie voles, who not only put a ring on it and devote themselves to one partner, they behave aggressively towards other females who impinge. How romantic. What real men prairie voles are.

The latter trait doesn’t necessarily pertain to psychologist Daniel Pierce, my recently widowed and ever faithful protagonist—at least, not until he meets Lira, a former prostitute antagonist, with whom he engages with tense debate, contesting her careless feminism, which underlies her effort to expose one of Daniel’s patients, who is accused of child abuse, among other things. Because of Daniel’s resistance to her, Lira presumes his solidarity with masculine license, and is only mildly convinced by his grief-stricken diffidence, and much less by his ethical stance on privacy. Still, over the course of the story his reluctant attraction to Lira becomes evident, adding to the air of sacrifice in his character.

Which leads me to the other metaphor, the less obscure term, Venus. No one has asked me about the meaning of this one, which is disappointing on the one hand, and mildly gratifying on the other. I guess that readers get the idea. I think. Anyway, though I believe most readers are aware that Venus is Roman mythology’s answer to Aphrodite, and means goddess of beauty and love, what may not be entirely clear is the term’s relevance to the story.

Well, firstly, and most sentimentally, Venus is a reference to Mary, Daniel’s recently deceased (from cancer) wife, who is “looking down” upon her ever faithful husband, lovingly. You’d think this alone might render Daniel likable, or at least sympathetic, and thus gird him from the wrath of readers who might (like Lira) upbraid him for not later doing the right thing, from an average point of view. Because the average view is that therapists and other mandated reporters can and should, if they have the information, violate their patients’ privacy if said information might help the investigation of child abuse and thus yield the protection of children.

Daniel rejects the simplicity of this argument and therefore represents, as my hero/anti-hero, what I imagine to be one of, if not the most unpopular position that any responsible adult might take in today’s society: the protection of a possible sex offender’s privacy. I was acutely aware when I was writing Venus of how this might affect a reader’s sympathy for my central character.

And as a male writer with a male protagonist, I position center stage the opinion of women, especially. What does Venus, the symbolic everywoman, think of Daniel? Would she think him a hero? Probably not. Merely decent? Maybe. Look down on him, so to speak? Would it be enough for Daniel, to be considered decent? Is being decent enough for men? For Women? It seems to me that many in our culture are reappraising heroism: what counts as heroism—who gets to be a hero. Women seem to feature in more traditionally heroic roles in cinema these days (note the deliberate effort in the Star Wars series, for example), so a millennial, unlike a traditionalist, might chide Daniel for being cowardly, but not rely upon him, necessarily. Lira, for instance, will pursue her cause with or without Daniel’s help. She might not need men anymore, though—and here’s my truly final (not to mention obscure) spoiler—she might join them.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Longing to matter

 

End of the year. These are the shortest days as time tumbles towards the new year, and in that compressed space it seems time to add a parting note or two about my last novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Written mostly in 2015, published in the shortest days of last year, I now feel it slipping from my mind, no longer living a constant, parallel life in my head. I imagine many writers, the successful and the (like me) unsuccessful, are like this. We are fickle. We skipped well upon rocks over water when kids, and are prone to moving on in certain areas of our lives, losing interest before others do, assuming that interest is there in the first place.

For myself, of the various intermingling themes in Venus, freedom and loneliness linger with the most purpose. From the outset of the novel, the freedom of therapist Daniel Pierce is not a happy one. Estranged from his son, and grieving over the death of his wife, he plods through a daily task which reflects a more mundane aspect of his isolation: he struggles to communicate with a representative of an insurance company, seeking to get paid for his services. Intended to satirize the managed care industry, this exchange is bookended at story’s end, and lives in light juxtaposition with the novel’s more serious plot. Yet it highlights an unpleasant side of Pierce’s outsider role, one in which complaints go unheard; acknowledgement, and sometimes reward, is delayed, or withheld indefinitely. The result is helplessness: a sense that he is alone, vulnerable, and—treated as dispensable by a governing machine—fated to lose.

The idea was to set him up (and the reader) for a winning comeback. Daniel Pierce, a stand-in for mental health professionals who are underpaid, who are poorly represented by their associations; for whom laws (like AB1775) are written without their proper consultation, gets to be difficult. He gets to show an arrogant if well-meaning interventionist that he won’t enact hers or mainstream society’s notions of heroism. He gets to show lawyers, even a judge, that he won’t be at their beckon call, and further, that he won’t betray the principles of his profession just because they think there is a greater cause. For anyone who might listen, he (like myself), will expose hypocrisy, tautologies, and—despite the will of a legal and professional system—fashion his own ending.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Side note: I enjoyed a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock recently in which Martin Scorsese enthused about Vertigo, one of my favorite films. He loved the way the film indulged fantasy, dodging that which is plausible for the sake of compelling drama. Amen, I say. And so, Venus is a statement of my fantasy: a longing to matter when isolated and (at least sometimes) unheard. The story is ironic for me in so far as I am largely happy in my relatively isolated, private practice. Yes, I have the occasional problem with managed care, but in Venus I put a little on it for the sake of compelling drama. And yes, I have been subpoenaed and otherwise called upon to break the confidentiality of clients by an importuning authority, but I have not grandstanded as Daniel Pierce does.

The story is ironic for Daniel Pierce in so far as he isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his wrongdoing client. His default advocacy for a man accused of molesting his child is a serendipitous event, and Pierce defends the privacy of their session (the professional one, plus those which symbolically take place away from the confines of an acceptable setting) not because he thinks the man innocent, but rather because he’s concerned with principle: preserving the confidentiality of the therapeutic space, for everyone. If you think that a precious or overreaching cause, especially in the context of child abuse, then consider what I’ve previously written in entries like “Why child abuse isn’t as important as you think”. Why are psychotherapists mandated reporters of child abuse while lawyers and clergy (in effect) are not? Is it because our service isn’t dovetailing with legal rights? Is it because we are secular in our mission?

To address a secondary theme, Pierce isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his misbehaving client base. Though not nearly as hateful as Lira, his women and children’s advocate antagonist, Pierce is often jaded by the sex offending or sexually addictive men that he sits with. Many of them are indeed entitled, or misogynistic, or plainly self-centered, while others are less offensively lost—underdogs of another kind. In some respects, Daniel is like most therapists: trying to be neutral, but nonetheless stumbling into an advocate’s role at times, holding different sides of individuals, including that which is objectionable. As weary with them as he is any oppressive system, Daniel weighs his dedication to those wayward men against a sometimes-I-wonder-why-I-bother-with-you attitude.

I have bothered considerably with the ideas contained with Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. I have, I think, one more aspect, or pair of ideas, to explain. Then it will be time to move on to another story, and perhaps another cause. On to lengthier days.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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And sharks do not eat gas tanks

 

It’s not as though suspension of disbelief isn’t a thing. In Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, the reader has to believe that three children, whose parents have both died of separate illnesses in quick succession, can live undetected by neighbors, schools, police or social services, for several weeks, even as corpses rot in their home’s basement. In Jaws, that trauma-inducing film of my youth, the viewer must accept (or not think too much about) if wanting an optimal thrill, that sharks might leap across boat decks or swallow gas tanks.

In my novel, Venus Looks Down On A Praise Vole, there are numerous events, plot points and situations that stagger credulity to one degree or another, though none are fantastical in nature. Somewhat mundanely, the reader is meant to believe that my protagonist, Dr. Daniel Pierce, a psychologist, can pursue a career while regularly drinking in between sessions; that he could spend several hours in the company of a transgendered individual (admittedly in a pre-op stage) and not notice the person’s transformation; that he could forget names and patient details, not maintain adequate records, stop listening to people, actively dislike some of his patients, and still be a practicing clinician.

Well, that’s why he’s taking a break from his practice. Daniel Pierce goes on hiatus. That’s the opening plot point: his recognition of his falling apart, his need to stop working and deal with issues, some bad habits, and some losses: the estrangement of his son, the recent passing of his wife. But before he’s even fashioned a plan of restful inaction, his working life pushes back, or rather pulls him back into a working stance, only it will be a much different day on the job, what happens next. It will suspend his disbelief, make him think before the adventure’s done that he’s being seduced, patronized, rescued, recruited, chased…scapegoated.

Perhaps the most difficult event to accept is Pierce’s meeting of a former client in a sober living home. Kirkus reviews made this complaint, thinking it unrealistic that a psychologist would drop out of society, drop into a rehab-like environment, and meet one of his former patients, and even have the man as a roommate. Even if I hadn’t given cursory hints that this might happen—indicating that my unnamed setting is a small town; a hackneyed statement that the world is small—I’d grumble about this critique. After all, what’s so hard to accept? That a mental health professional would have a drug or drinking problem, need treatment or a retreat? That he wouldn’t take special care to avoid contact with his client base? Perhaps my reviewer isn’t aware that certain professionals—doctors and airline pilots, for example—do require or demand segregated, occupation-specific services, precisely because of this concern. It’s actually quite strange that the accommodations that are afforded these professional groups aren’t made for psychologists and other professional counselors.

But for me, this rather ordinary discussion misses an important point: namely, that a strict adherence to what is orthodox or realistic isn’t the most important aspect of a fiction; hence the term fiction. I had Daniel Pierce leave the structure he was in, or the rut he was in, because in order to regain his vitality and sense of mission, he has to leave not only his comfort zone, but almost his entire frame of reference. That’s an equally important axiom of drama, surely. Therefore, he has to perform an impromptu therapy in the most unlikely of circumstances; he has to not conform, challenge authority in ways he never has before. He has to observe ugliness that he’d previously been sheltered from; rethink gender, justice, his oldest notions of fitting in. In being responsible, being anything close to a heroic figure, he must consider that he may be right or wrong about the judgments he ultimately makes, but make his decision anyway.

 

 

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As dark as it gets

 

“Around ten o’clock, Andrew revealed a surprise: he’d been in therapy before, as in before he’d ever called me. And not even therapy, but analysis: for two years. He left because he didn’t like what he started to feel, a parallel between his drug addiction and emerging sexual compulsion. Though tired, I perked up, sensing something coming. Andrew spoke theoretically, about chasing highs, going back to an original experience. It felt like a prefacing explanation, his talk of addiction, its bedrock principles. Then he told me about his first time, the predictable, clandestine grope with an older girl, when he was eleven, she fourteen. The dreams of that girl, and his lust for teenage girls in general had never gone away, but he wouldn’t tell me more, not while there were legal issues pending, files not yet written. With that stuff looming, I wondered why he’d tell me anything, but then, I am ever struck by the desire to be known, by someone. Andrew’s loneliness gripped my heart, even as he retreated from memory, back to theory. He had an idea about pedophilia, he said, lowering his voice. It related to that original experience, that primal desire to be a child, experience pleasure as a child—natural, he argued. Shortly thereafter, his face broke, as if the pain in his soul had just hit him: that unsolvable clash between ancient fantasy versus the demands of growth.”

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

Several points here, will touch on just a couple for starters. In this chapter, Daniel Pierce, my troubled protagonist and therapist, has serendipitously reunited with a patient he’d A.) thought he’d lost after a bad intake session, and B.) is the man whose privacy he is being pressured to violate by a rogue former prostitute and later, lawyers. Check out my novel and you’ll find out why.

The above conversation happens in the “privacy” of a shared room in a sober living environment–both men’s retreat. What Andrew (alias Derek) reveals here he would likely not have in the structured, orthodox forum of the therapist’s office. The thoughts Andrew shares are of a kind that few, in my opinion, share unless a near-profound alliance has been established. The reference to analysis, as distinguished from therapy, implies the depth divide between models of care, and further suggests what Daniel and Andrew tacitly have in common: they both tend to leave before the going gets tough.

 

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Sexual Narcissism

IMG_0458

“I’m in porn.” He’d said it quickly, in a clipped voice, while looking away, like he’d wanted the words off him, shooed away. I gave him a stilled look at which he grinned teasingly, masking unease. “Well, alright. I’m getting into porn, I should say. I’ve been in one clip so far.”

“Uh-huh. What film? What’s its title?” Rick laughed again, and shook his head. I felt like an idiot, stalling with questions to conceal my blushes.

“What film? I don’t know, man. Who cares…what film? Big dicks. It’s called ‘Big dicks’. There. I just gave it a title.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to—”

“Nah, it’s cool. I don’t know why I’m giving attitude, actually. I’ve got a name, if that means anything. Kane—Kane Able. How do you like it?”

“A play on…I suppose.”

“Sure.”

“That’s good,” I lied.

So I asked about plot. About the film with no name: I asked if his clip contained any plot, or acting, or even theme. Surprisingly, Rick, or Kane—was pretty sure I’d not make the shift on this one—said there was. Firefighting, he said, not surprisingly. His part, as in his role, was that of a firefighter who has entered a burning building to rescue a trapped woman, who is feebly crying out (I imagined the acting) until the hero arrives, ready to spare her. The room is very hot, about which the performers comment wittily, and then the room gets hotter, and soon they don’t care so much about the fire and…well, you get the picture.

“Any dialogue?” I asked. Rick looked at me as if I were reading from a book of stupid questions.

“I ad-libbed this one line as I came: ‘fire in the hole, baby’, I said.” This time I said nothing. “I know, don’t tell me,” Rick lamented. “Pretty dumb, huh?”

“Did she say anything, have any lines, ad lib or scripted?”

Rick shook his head, uttered a dismissive noise, like I’d asked whether the props spoke on set. I blew air through my teeth, and thought of Lira.

“That’s typical. It goes to show there just aren’t enough good roles for women these days.”

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

An example of parody in my mischief novel: the name Kane Abel is a play on words, of course, common to porn actors. My favorite from the real world of porn? Peter North. Subtle, right? Anyway, Kane is otherwise Rick, a young man whom Daniel Pierce meets while living at a sober living house, wherein he’s in retreat from a fraught personal and professional life. Rick’s day job is in a seafood restaurant, as a chef. There he causes trouble, disturbing his boss and Daniel’s temp boss, Jimbo, by stirring unrest, harassing female staff, flirting with nubile customers, doing very little cooking, it seems, while strutting his sex like a farmyard stud. Rick likely thinks his place in the service industry has layered meaning. He’s the kind of man who feels entitled to promiscuity, who feels offended, let down by another man’s diffidence, thinking that humankind benefits from the indiscriminate sharing of seed. He’ll try to re-ignite something in Daniel, provoke a libidinal return in the grieving, wilted psychologist. That last line, Daniel’s teasing of a feminist complaint, glides over Rick’s head, not so much because of stupidity, but rather self-absorption.

The role of women. What indeed is the role of women?

**image by Philip Lawson

 

 

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