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Traumaby Patrick McGrath
Synopses & Reviews
Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as "an uncommon storyteller [with a] trademark ability to probe the layers of the human psyche," Patrick McGrath has written his most addictive and enthralling novel yet.
Charlie Weir's family is comprehensively dysfunctional — abandoned by his father, his mother ravaged by that betrayal, and his brother, Walt, a successful artist, less Charlie's ally than his rival. So it's hardly surprising that he should find a vocation in psychiatry in New York City, counseling traumatized war veterans returning home from Vietnam. Agnes Magill, the sister of one damaged soldier, soon becomes Charlie's wife. But the suicide of her brother, Danny, ends the marriage, leaving Charlie to endure a corrosive loneliness even as Manhattan grows steadily more dirty and dangerous around him.
Then, in the haunting aftermath of Charlie's mother's death, Agnes returns to offer him the solace that he has never been able to provide for her. Almost simultaneously, he is presented with a quite different anodyne — a volatile woman whose irresistible beauty, tinged though it is with an air of grievous suffering, jeopardizes everything he has hoped might restore his dwindling faith in his calling, his future and himself.
As Charlie's hold on sanity weakens, and events conspire to send him reeling headlong toward the abyss, the themes of family, passion and madness — by now synonymous with Patrick McGrath's writing — rightly assume "the inevitability of myth," as Tobias Wolff has written of his work, in "fiction of a depth and power we hardly hope to encounter anymore." A genuine psychological thriller, Trauma is an experience at once unnerving, unsettling and utterly riveting.
"Being a wimp, I tend to shy away from novels about bloodthirsty maniacs, serial killers and human monsters of any sort. My heart just can't take the emotional beating. I pity the poor boob about to be eviscerated by the smiler with the knife; I shudder when the smooth-talking sociopath invites the lonely young woman up to see his butterfly collection; I suffer with the parents and friends of the murdered... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and sexually abused couple. So I was genuinely hesitant about opening Patrick McGrath's latest. Would I have to hide my eyes and peek through my fingers as I read? I knew that some of McGrath's books — 'Spider' and 'Asylum,' in particular — are modern classics of dark psycho-sexual suspense. But years ago I'd enjoyed his first novel, 'The Grotesque,' and greatly admired its icily witty prose and black comedy. So eventually I got a grip on myself and started page one of 'Trauma': 'My mother's first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault. I felt I should have prevented it. This was about a year before my father left us. His name was Fred Weir. In those days he could be generous, amusing, an expansive man — my brother, Walt, plays the role at times — but there were signs, perceptible to me if not to others, when an explosion was imminent.' No cannibalism in the opening — I've always found that to be a good sign. More appropriately, I admired how artfully McGrath establishes his dysfunctional family — depressed mother, overly sensitive kid, emotionally volatile father, ebullient role-playing brother. Needless to say, I kept on reading, wanting to know more. In fact, I read for four or five hours, all the way to the end. That hypnotic, reasonable and wistful voice of Dr. Charles Weir, psychiatrist, had me utterly in thrall. The man clearly aches with unhappiness — and maybe with something more than just unhappiness. The first chapter ends with the funeral of Weir's mother: 'In a compressed few hours I had encountered every person with whom I'd ever known intimacy save one, that being my mother, and she was dead. I was estranged from all of them except one, that being my daughter, who lived not with me but with her mother. I was approaching forty and I no longer regarded my life as possessing unlimited potential, or any at all. I felt my own isolation strongly, and while I was still sexually active the possibility of proper human intimacy seemed every day to recede further from me.' Weir, we soon learn, has had a difficult life. Whenever he'd try to help his weeping or battered mother, whether as a child or as a man, she'd turn on him for interfering, snap that he was 'always trying to help people who don't want it.' Yet 'how can any man see his mother in pain and not do everything in his power to relieve that pain?' But then he always was exceptionally sensitive. By contrast, Weir's older brother has always been enviably at ease in his skin, the family favorite, successful with women, successful as a painter. 'Anyone,' their mother used to say, 'can be a psychiatrist. It takes talent to be an artist.' Most of Weir's story takes place in the 1970s, when Vietnam vets are flooding clinics, desperately in need of counseling and therapy. So our freshly minted psychiatrist specializes in treating war trauma, helping those who cannot live with the knowledge of what they witnessed or did. Weir is, moreover, deeply interested in the workings of memory: 'The falsification of memory — the adjustment, abbreviation, invention, even omission of experience — is common to us all, it is the business of psychic life. ... I know how very fickle the human mind is, and how malleable, when it has to accommodate belief, or deny the intolerable.' Unfortunately, Weir bungles the treatment of one of his patients, his new wife's beloved brother Danny. The doctor blames himself for the consequences, can hardly bear going home to the resultant domestic grief and quickly grows convinced that Agnes will never forgive him. He decides to move out so that she can heal more quickly, and before long she remarries. Soon afterward the doctor's life begins to spiral downward, its only brightness being the Saturdays he spends with his daughter, Cassie. Until, that is, he meets the fragile, wounded and beautiful Nora Chiara. For a while hope revives: 'She was with me because she wanted to be, and remembering how we were then, when it was all promise, with nothing to ruin it but folly, or fear, I see us as though from a camera attached to a track on the ceiling: a lean, lanky man with his hair cut short, en brosse, in a creased linen suit with one elbow propped on the candlelit table, his chin cupped in his fingers, the other arm thrown over the back of his chair, listening with a smile to this peachy woman gesticulating and smoking on the other side of the table.' Note that ominous phrase 'how we were then.' Throughout 'Trauma,' McGrath shifts the narrative back and forth through time. The reader knows that something life-altering is going to happen, but for Weir it has clearly already happened. What is it? From what vantage point does Charlie Weir now look back on his past? Repeatedly, he hints at wisdom gained too late: 'One of the rewards of maturity, I told myself, in a rare burst of complacency, is the ability to make a rapid decision on a matter of profound emotional significance and have confidence in its soundness. The folly in this line of thinking didn't become apparent until later.' And so gradually, relentlessly, McGrath builds up an atmosphere of unease. After Nora starts to suffer nightmares of being chased in a tunnel, Weir grows convinced she needs therapy. It would appear that brother Walt knows more about this mysterious young woman than he's letting on. Suddenly, Agnes re-enters her ex-husband's life, holding out the possibility of reconciliation. Meanwhile, Weir keeps having his own nightmares, usually the old dream of his father putting a gun to his head. 'In the darkness,' he tells us, 'anxiety steals in like a wolf. Glimpsing weakness of spirit it circles for the kill.' He later adds that 'in the years I'd been treating trauma I'd learned this, that when ordinary anxiety becomes sufficiently acute it will rouse the dormant horror no matter how deeply repressed it is.' Rousing dormant horror doesn't sound like a very happy prospect. Could Dr. Weir be more like his traumatized patients than he realizes? McGrath deepens the ambiguities and tensions down to the very last chapter of 'Trauma.' Even then, some elements of the story's plot remain deliberately unresolved or enigmatic. And when the book is over, the reader is still left wondering about the precise tone, the actual implication, of its final sentences. Beautifully crafted and paced, 'Trauma' can be viewed as either a superb psychological thriller or as a masterly evocation of modern alienation and despair — assuming, of course, there is any difference. The contemporary novel of terror typically focuses on the breakdown of personality, the return of the repressed, the untimely mixing of memory and desire. Happily for us wimps, McGrath eschews splatter or gruesomeness, instead relating Charlie Weir's story in clear, quick-flowing prose, as if Dick Francis had rewritten Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier.' (That last, you'll remember, is the novel that opens: 'This is the saddest story I have ever heard.') 'Trauma' is, in short, a terrific literary entertainment, one that will keep you on edge, worried and guessing for 200 pages. Still, I was just a teensy bit wrong about the cannibalism. Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda(at symbol)gmail.com." Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Trauma is Patrick McGrath at his dark-hearted best. Read one page — one sentence — and you'll be hooked by this elegant psychological thriller....Trauma reminds you of how satisfying it is to be unable to put a book down — and then, when it's over, to be sorry and relieved to enter your own comparatively unhaunted life." Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine
"Tortuous, often gripping....The novel is aptly titled, since trauma can be said to be the origin and the end of its insidiously uncoiling developments." Sven Birkerts, The New York Times Book Review
"Unpleasantly self-righteous characters gather accusingly around a narrator who's awfully clueless for a shrink — though well written and shrewdly perceptive, as always, this isn't one of McGrath's more compelling efforts." Kirkus Reviews
"This is a book more to be admired than embraced. The uncompromising development of its initial premise is carried out with a chilly skill that exactly duplicates the professional approach of its central character, the 'alienist.' Recommended." Library Journal
"Each of these characters seems a real, living entity that any of us could encounter on any given day....[A] wondrously strong title from a gifted writer who should be getting far more attention." BookReporter.com
"[A] novel that feels like a transitional work: a bridge, perhaps, from Mr. McGrath's distinctive but increasingly repetitive horror stories to something less metaphoric but equally Freudian, less overtly bizarre but just as revealing about the peculiarities of the human psyche." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Patrick McGrath's first-person narrator is much too chilly to do his job....Instead of immersing us in Charlie's problems, dragging us relentlessly to his ultimate discovery, McGrath writes so flatly that it's hard to care." St. Petersburg Times
A genuine psychological thriller by an uncommon storyteller "with a trademark ability to probe the layers of the human psyche" (San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle), Trauma is also Patrick McGrath's most addictive and enthralling novel yet.
About the Author
Patrick McGrath lives with his wife, Maria Aitken, in New York and London.
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