27. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut

Published in 2010 by Delacorte Press.

“I’m getting better again, taking medication, doing my very best to be a good patient, but then out of the blue, the chain-link fence that surrounds the hospital pulls me toward it, wraps around me, and is going to crush me. […] At some point in there I try to tell my father that I’m feeling better, and he says that he wouldn’t nominate me as Mr. Mental Health quite yet. I want to ask him if he is in the running or just one of the judges.”

I’m fully prepared to be wrong here, but I suspect that high on the lists of why people gravitate towards reading memoir is because they anticipate a certain unflinchingness in articulation. They expect, oft-erroneously, that if a person’s got the testicular/cervical fortitude to put themselves out in the limelight, then, by gad, they’re going to write with moxy, with aplomb, with some brass! I’m pleased to report that Mark Vonnegut’s got all three. Even though I’ve not yet read anything by his famous father, I was hesitant, approaching this title. You know full well how the children of illustrious creatives often balk from the wide circles of fame their parents cast. If they do venture into productive waters of their own, they typically embody one of the following traits:

1. They offer work that is painfully, ludicrously derivative—but this is forgiveable, and less egregious than—
2. the fact that they just as easily feign ignorance of their parents’ existence, shunning the specific styles of their mothers and fathers.

Shunning is all well and good, but shunning for reasons that are petulantly emotive rather than deliberately stylistic—well, that smacks of danger, to me… the danger of potentially good art being obscured by the long, long arm of familial resentment. It’s important to note that Vonnegut doesn’t write with cloying sycophancy or feigned apathy about Kurt, when he writes of him. In this way, I suppose people who turn to Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So to glean more of Vonnegut Senior’s inner workings would be most put out. I respectfully posit that they’re looking in entirely the wrong place. This is Mark’s story, after all. Readers like myself, who’ve not had the benefit of reading his previous book, The Eden Express, will likely be relieved to know that this second offering stands heartily on its own—though, doubtless, if you enjoyed this one, as I did, you’ll want to seek out the first.

A wideness and generosity of range drives the scope of the memoir; it feels like we’re touching base with Vonnegut at various points on his life, that he’s chosen this approach in attempt to round and flesh out the narrative: to show the polyvalency of the paths he’s trod. In addition to sharing the trajectory (if not the specifics, but more on that anon) of his four psychotic breakdowns, the writer presents his childhood days, his memories of Kurt the non-writer (his pre-fame father was, to quote Mark, “the world’s worst car salesman who couldn’t get a job teaching English at Cape Cod Community College.”) We’re also treated to reflections on Mark’s seemingly circuitous path to entering medical school at the age of twenty-eight, glimpses into his family’s mental health (or lack thereof) history, his decision to specialize in paediatrics, humorous anecdotes gleaned from his stint of relief work in Honduras. The overall impression created is less linear than good-humouredly scattered, with the chapters anchored by the author’s own paintings.

What’s particularly illuminating about Vonnegut’s situation is that, as both mental patient and physician, he’s able to speak candidly and forthrightly about either side of the institutional coin. His perspectives on the profession, patient-doctor relationships and medical insurance are wise, modulated by experience rather than any desire of his to sell you something. The insights he proffers on what one might term “behind the scenes” goings-on in the world of health care might not be novel, but it’s refreshing to have them uttered by someone in his specific white coat. Here, he speaks about the nature and classification history of his ailment:

“I was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. […] What I had and have is more consistent with what is now called bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic depression. The name change was an effort to get away from the stigma around the diagnosis of manic depression. Good luck. Until we come up with an unequivocal blood test or the equivalent, we’re all blowing smoke and don’t know if what we call schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are one disorder or a dozen.”

It’s especially gratifying to read Vonnegut’s less than flattering opinion of the corporate concerns that undercut the quality and consistency of aid given. In remarking on the shifting behaviours that govern patient-doctor discussion, he reminisces with gratitude on the open, wide-ranged talks he was able to have with his own psychiatrist when his Thorazine dosage was being reduced. In speculating on what that procedure would entail in a present-day setting, his tone is resolutely bald.

“Today, if I was lucky, I’d see a case supervisor monthly and maybe a psychopharmacology nurse every three months. Clinical guidelines would mandate that I be on antipsychotics for at least five years. The medication I was on would be determined by who paid for lunch and what deal was cut between my health insurer and the pharmaceutical industry.”

I didn’t get the impression that the author was trying to earn a battery of enemies in the medical insurance field. He’s not calling out the insurers, the pharmaceutical manufacturers, the impersonal practitioners, because he’s trying to curry favour with readers for his audacity. One senses that Mark Vonnegut’s just speaking his mind, that having lived through his psychotic episodes (which he refers to as “breaks”) made him less susceptible to tolerating perceived injustices: in short, that those very breaks helped build him into a more genuine, candour-driven self.

An anticlimactic area centres on the issue that there is little visceral untangling of the four psychotic breaks themselves. The writer doesn’t shy away from bringing them up, but we’re never allowed a full and inexorable assessment of those specifics. The autobiography opens with the general delineation of Mark’s symptoms: his inability to eat or sleep; the voices that plagued him; his tendency toward self-harm; his heavy sedation. I kept waiting, with bated breath, to be led further down the rabbit hole of an insider’s vivid description of bipolar disorder… but it felt like Mark kept me solidly, perhaps even safely, at the fringes. Maybe this is as much enlightenment as can be reasonably expected, and maybe this is just the way Mark experienced those breaks, too. Still, it’s difficult not to feel stranded on the shore of apprehension, hoping an illuminating wave of prose will sweep us into the churning emotional seas of a world populated by voices in your head. It never happens. Perhaps I ought to be grateful for that, rather than critical.

What will win readers to this artful autobiographical meandering is, ultimately, its ease of voice. The narrative is laden with quotable illuminations on the role of art in assuaging despair, on the combined weight-inspiration of laying claim to a famous father, on the ways in which interludes of madness can wreak havoc on your life and simultaneously transform it to your best advantage. All of these are shared in the writer’s personable, gently self-deprecating style. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More is a interior journey you can take with the signposts of a life that’s been, by turns, extraordinary and reassuringly simple. If you think of your autobiographical narrator as a companion and cohort in the reading experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find one more earnest and admirably principled than Mark Vonnegut.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by the Random House Publishing Group (Delacorte Press imprint) for review, through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by their generous gift of gratuitous literature.

24. Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Published in 2011 by The Dial Press.

Nuri’s childhood is well-heeled, sensitively moulded; he does not lack for parental affection, though it is frequently distilled with eccentricity. The recipient of uncommon, and uncommonly shown, affection from his parents, he finds himself, at a tender age, thrown into a bemusedly altered state when his mother succumbs to a mysterious illness. In an attempt to restitch the tenuous fabric of their familial comfort, Nuri and his father, former political dissident of international reknown, Pasha, vacation at the Magda Marina Hotel, a sweltering beachside resort dotting Alexandria’s coastline. It is there that father and son encounter the entrancingly beautiful, yellow bikini-clad Mona. Their interactions with her form the basis of a complicated, acutely felt triangular relationship that spans erotic awakenings, unspoken betrayals, and the passage of many years, indelibly altering each participant in its perfumed wake. When Nuri and Mona are left reeling in the aftermath of Pasha’s abduction, the mire of bureaucratic red tape and festering resentments through which they must navigate leave them sceptical as to just how precise their lifelong impressions have been, of the man they love most.

Something about reading Matar’s prose puts one in mind of wandering through the dense foliage of a half-sentient dream, wherein the author delineates, blurs and casts colours of sound and light over our keenest emotive reactions, wearing the robes of a master chiaroscurist. Seemingly ordinary expositions are transmogrified so that we drink his imagery beneath a sea that is mapped somewhere between our own imagination meeting his. Rarely do we doubt this authenticity of voice, which renders the work as easy to absorb (for the reader who appreciates fineness of form) as the purest air. Lexically, stylistically, Matar barely makes a misstep, and in this regard, each page is a pleasure.

Threads of the disturbingly and entrancingly erotic hem each page of Anatomy of a Disappearance, and they don’t strictly apply to the characters one might pair by default, either, which is what makes the implementation of this ragged desire all the better. Insofar as the tri-pointed bond among stoic Pasha, mercurial Mona and frequently discomfited Nuri himself can be said to be its own personage, that unnamed fourth character that embodies their inharmonic disunion feels eros across the board. Some of the best passages of the novel thickly hint at never-to-be-resolved shards of sexual tension between father and son; the foundations of this are even more intriguing to parse than every sweaty boudoired flirtation that Nuri and Mona trade, predictably. Those open to the multivalence of burgeoning sexuality will find this aspect of the reading richly, thoughtfully cast.

Emotional complexity could be said to be the feeling cornerstone of the novel; this marries seamlessly with the thematic exploration of the survivor’s impasse: of what remains to be done once a loved one’s enforced absence drags itself past the point of rational hope. The novel is also constructed as much on the skeletal considerations of a bildungsroman, making the aching peregrinations of Nuri all the more valid. We both feel for him, and feel that his suffering, his sense of displacement at his typecastedly stolid British boarding school, his fumblings through the onsault of sexual prerogative, are necessary and credible. If Matar has Nuri flounder and regret for the sake of sustaining depth, then it is skilfully done, not without compassion, not without (more importantly), reminding us of how easily replaceable his childhood and teenage difficulties are, with any of our own, barring (or including) the shadow of a father one fears may never return, or be returned.

At times, Nuri grapples for an identity outside of the distant cloak of his father’s presence, and the complexity of his reaction to feeling this is vividly imparted—his reluctance, guilt, shame, bravado, swirl all together, blotting onto the page our impressions of him as a meticulously drawn protagonist, worthy of our attention, sympathy and solicitude. In one of the most perspicaciously hopeful scenes of the novel, an adult Nuri pauses in the midst of a solitary walk, to consider the apartment block before him.

“The stone buildings stood dimly in the night, and, looking at them, I felt a deep longing to inhabit their rooms. To make love and eat and bathe and sleep in there, to quarrel and make promises, to sit with friends and talk into the night, to listen to music, read a book, write a letter, consider the position of a new object, watch flowers in a low vase, watch them at different times of the day, clip their stems and replace their water daily, move them away from a harsh light, a drafty passage, draw out their time.”

Occasionally, the contemplation over whether Pasha will ever reenter Nuri’s life becomes subtly secondary to the question of whether or not Nuri will ever successfully navigate a personhood with which the latter can be content, away from Pasha’s all-encompassing orbit. Truly, Nuri works against the threat of his own inevitable disappearance, specifically in how he can make his life count, before the decline, in how he can etch himself visibly into a world where he, not Pasha, can own the starring role.

Some books seem so quietly, inexorably suffused with the idea of the best they could be that they never quite, to phrase it with seeming, but unintentioned unkindness, get over themselves. Anatomy of a Disappearance is one of the most thoughtful, thinking person’s reads I’ve had the pleasure to know this year, but perhaps much of its internal grey space is never externally worked out across the page. The result is a study of the intricately plotted map of minefielded human interaction, which may yield more casualties of clarity than clearly charted coordinates… which, when you’re reminded of Tolstoy’s oft-quoted opening liner on family, seems to be less disingenuous than damned honest.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by the Random House Publishing Group (The Dial Press imprint) for review, through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by their generous gift of gratuitous literature.