Like a heroine in a Victorian melodrama: Patrick McGrath, Asylum

Patrick McGrath, Asylum (first published 1996; Penguin paperback, 1997)

Stella Raphael’s husband Max is a forensic psychiatrist and deputy superintendent of a ‘maximum security’ mental institution closely resembling Broadmoor (known when it opened in 1863 as a ‘Criminal Lunatic Asylum’; famous inmates included Richard Dadd, the artist) in Berkshire, 30 miles north of London. She plunges into a ‘catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession’, with inmate Edgar Stark – said to be a gifted sculptor, but a deeply disturbed individual who developed a delusional jealousy for his wife that culminated in his murdering her, decapitating her and mutilating her head, hence his incarceration and treatment at this institution.

Her story is ‘one of the saddest I know’, states our self-important, stuffy narrator, Peter Cleave, a senior psychiatrist at the institution, who is treating Stark. Later in the story he treats Stella, too, after she has a breakdown as a result of just one too many catastrophes in her life. His narrative, we quickly realise, arises from his over-confident interpretations of what she appears to have told him in their consultations.

The melodramatic gothic plot of this taut, gripping novel is outlined from the start, and it is narrated with tough, even brutal bluntness, as the opening paragraph makes clear, as if to forestall a reader’s desire for suspense:

Four lives were destroyed in the process [of Stella and Edgar’s affair], but whatsoever 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.

What kept my attention wasn’t so much this lurid scenario, but the intriguing narrative technique. I’ve not read any other McGrath novels yet, but from what I’ve seen in interviews with him he’s fond of the ‘unreliable narrator’ approach. That’s apparent from page 1, and the extract I quoted above provides a revealing example of how the author exploits this ambiguity and slipperiness in what we have so smugly shown to us by Cleave, the narrator, too confident that his professional insights and self-awareness are superior to anyone else’s – including the protagonist in this affair: Stella.

Note the self-righteous tone of condemnation in the first sentence quoted, Cleave’s implicit suggestion that Stella should have shown ‘remorse’, but instead stubbornly, wrong-headedly ‘clung’ to her ‘illusions to the end’. This is not the objective, impartial analysis of a clinician; it’s McGrath’s carefully planted clue, at the outset of the narrative, that Cleave is biased and probably motivated by his own weaknesses, desires and punitive (of others) inclinations.

This is brought out in his evasive admission that Stella ‘had to’ deflect him from ‘the truth’. That it was ‘too late’ when he realised this alerts us to the novel’s inevitably tragic ending. It was not in Stella’s selfishly deluded interests when the passionate affair with Edgar was taking place, he insists in the fictional present time at which we are to imagine him composing these lines, to let him ‘see clearly’. The implication is that she was mendacious and he was cleverly duped. This leads to the question, how could he, a highly experienced psychiatrist who specialises in manipulative sexual obsessives, let that happen?

Asylum: cover pageIt’s clear that everything that follows represents a version of events that lacks complete veracity or clarity: the narrator’s perceptions are ‘deflected’ by Stella’s devious (as Cleave represents them) manipulations. It’s the tension that this narrative technique produces that’s almost unbearable by the novel’s final stages, and that gives the narrative its ferocious, startling power.

Cleave’s voice increasingly intervenes with nods and winks that are intended to nudge us into concurring with his own interpretations of Stella’s partial revelations, but which cumulatively have the opposite effect. Here’s a random example from the early stages of the affair, when Stella is first attracted to Edgar, and hides away a sketch of her that he’d drawn and given to her:

She kept it in a locked drawer and showed it to nobody, for reasons she was reluctant to look at too closely. Nothing improper was happening on the surface, but she hadn’t said a word about her new friend to Max; and by consistently failing to mention an event of significance in her day she was practising a form of duplicity. She rationalized it. She should have known that deception eventually eats away all that is wholesome in a marriage, and she should have faced this, but she didn’t. She chose not to. From this evasion all else followed.

The similar structure to my first quotation is telling: ‘She had to’ is echoed in ‘She chose not to’. The judgemental, self-pitying tone is again apparent. Those pained, subjective, condemnatory barbs against her: her ‘reluctance’ to look closely at her secretive actions (‘she should have known’ and ‘should have faced them’ is transparently accusatory); the adoption of her presumed inner voice of self-delusion in ‘Nothing improper was happening on the surface’, with the clear suggestion that she’s concealing from herself the ‘true’, explosive significance ‘under the surface’; even that snide reference to ‘her new friend’ is redolent of … well, Cleave’s jealousy. She’s not the only one harbouring a morbidly jealous disposition.

Patrick McGrath in 2008: photo by David Shinbone via Wikimedia Commons

Patrick McGrath in 2008: photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

Numerous further examples could be cited. Here, on p. 71, Jack Straffen [see PS below], the institution’s superintendent, tries to warn Stella about Edgar’s scheming nature; this only serves to increase her determination to be vigilant about revealing her true feelings. The narrator provides her interior monologue:

…it was Jack Straffen who was attempting to manipulate her, not Edgar.

But this is Cleave’s anguished projection of how he imagines Stella was thinking at that point; it’s his jealousy again that’s revealed, not Stella’s self-deceptions. Then the voice slips back into Cleave’s own, and his intemperate, unprofessional partiality and jealous bitterness become even more apparent:

Oh, he was cunning, my Edgar. He had prepared her for something like this…

‘My Edgar’ sounds like a twisted (mad?) parody of Jane Austen’s ‘My Fanny’ in Mansfield Park.

A few pages later he reveals his prejudices again. With the narrative now peppered with ‘she said’ and ‘she admitted to me’ to justify his corrosive judgements on the doomed pair, he comes out with this extraordinary statement, after a particularly salacious account of Stella’s exhilaration and terror at knowingly stepping beyond the bounds of the law, society, her marriage and family in indulging her morbid sexual obsession (again this is Cleave’s portrayal of it, remember):

Romantic women, I reflected: they never think of the damage they do in their blind pursuit of intense experience. Their infatuation with experience.

His condescension and misogyny are made luridly clear, while Cleave…cleaves to his own self-deluded sense of outraged, superior probity and moral integrity. His corruption of the concept of freedom into something only deluded, infatuated women indulge in is deplorable.

Except of course he isn’t entirely wrong in his perception of Stella and Edgar. But lovers from Tristan and Isolde to Cathy and Heathcliff have been the subject of more compassionate fictional treatment. McGrath destabilises the reader’s own perceptions and preconceptions of what distinguishes ‘morbid obsession’ from hopeless passion.

Later Cleave says:

At root, I suppose, in spite of everything she loved him, or told herself she did, and women are stubborn in this regard.

His attempt at objectivity flounders immediately as he makes his habitual lapses into sexist generalisation and personal animosity: he condemns Stella because his perception is that in deceiving him she represented womankind’s generic duplicity and weakness – Stella maris, the idealised Virgin Mary, revealed as sexually depraved, intrinsically flawed Eve, who’s woe to man. This is a leap into an obsessive view – a kind of madness – as deluded as Edgar’s or, if she is mad, Stella’s.

As Cleave narrates Stella’s downward spiral into immolation, he brings to light his own, symmetrically similar descent.

I’ll stop there, having gone on longer than I intended. This is a skilfully deployed narrative, and McGrath’s engaging use of it invites us to think we’re wise to Cleave’s duplicity in insisting on Stella’s own devious manipulations of him, but, like him, we don’t fully see it until it’s ‘too late’.

So: the story of mutually destructive sexual obsession that ‘destroyed four lives’ is the ‘surface’ story, but what makes this novel compelling, for me, is that artfully duplicitous, multi-layered narrative voice.

PS.

I note in Wikipedia, where I was reading up on Broadmoor, that a child murderer called JACK STRAFFEN escaped from there in 1952, after which the alarm siren system was introduced. Interesting therefore that McGrath gives his 1959 superintendent, when the action of this novel is said to take place, the same name. Maybe it’s another indication of his questioning of the notion of ‘insanity’ and people who ‘run mad with love’, as Robert Burton anatomises it.

See also: Trevor at The Mookse and Gripes for a slightly more critical view of Asylum