Sometimes, if rarely, a book comes my way which cuts through judgments and settles to alter me. In a vague, so often sentimental way, literature is claimed to be some kind of moral or spiritual prophylactic, consolation or guide; I do not find it so generally; I usually read for a certain kind of pleasure only. It’s the sort of pleasure of the text, the narrative, the word which comes from other than literature too – the philosophical, the scientific, the polemic and so on. So too, on those occasions when a book, or it may be a painting or film, ‘cuts through’, something other than insular pleasure is taking place, something is catalysed, something understood.
Janice Galloway’s first novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, has rightly received critical praise. In short, its formal qualities are inseparable from its ‘content’, the latter most difficult to contextualise since its content is itself ‘about’ a lack of form, a subject and object of identity – a self and a mind – that is in breakdown, fragmentation, contradictory tension. I don’t want to spend time here on examining the literary qualities apart from having made the point that it is a major achievement to have formalised formlessness.
Instead I want to highlight three or four aspects of the novel which have done the ‘cutting through’ for me. It should be said at the outset that although the book is by a woman, about a woman and deals with ‘mental and emotional distress’ most conventionally identified as “women’s issues”, I think that while there are many rich approaches that will have been made with this focus (and including a woman’s relationship with man), it’s only a small step to see the novel as a refraction of more general human concerns. What would unite such concerns would be the word ‘communication’: how we ‘talk to’ ourselves, to others, and how in some way we are made of a compound of these two activities.
The whole issue of mental health saturates culture these days (as well as keeping doctors busy). The qualitative state of a diagnosed ‘condition’ does indeed bear more than a passing family resemblance to serious illness: the state of ‘severe depression’, for instance, is intensely physical in its debilitating pain, and is so utterly removed from everyday miseries and unhappiness that it shares nothing but the same letters in the same order. It is almost impossible to convey the inner experience even to those one loves and trusts. Yet, there is some truth too that before some qualitative singularity emerges, so many elements of a major psychiatric condition bear resemblance not only to illness but to the normal discourses and cultures of everyday life. While the quality of disintegration in Galloway’s book is very powerful in its impact, I think that we can see our own ‘healthy’ minds and the worlds we live in reflected in the structures and elements of the marginalised, denormalised, categorised other of the ‘patient’. These elements and structures are often only revealed in their skeletal form when we are given insight to crossing an edge, a safety boundary, to a state in extremis.
So expect, if you haven’t read the book already, to find yourself enjoying a conversation with a lively, sexualised, working woman (or the woman who works part time in the betting shop on a Saturday): she doesn’t stand out at all. And expect to find a mind beneath the woman in the street with the inoffensive manner and the ready smile which is in turmoil, occasional agony, ahedonic depression, and bears an acrid mix of shame and guilt (these latter ‘moral’ words are, as a matter of empirical fact, crucial to the reported experiences of many ‘patients’ but so rarely acknowledged by their professional advisors, careworkers, the medicalised ‘system, ‘them’). Indeed, expect quite a few laughs along the way. Joy, the protagonist, is an intelligent and witty guide to some of life’s aburdities, never more so than when she is interrogating some of the ‘helpers’ she meets. But these sparks of wit are from the same heavy stones that clash together to make the other disunited flashes.
Joy is a drma teacher (part time) in a secondary school. Her pupils seem to like her, some visit her in hospital; her headteacher is solicitous but off the mark, it is impossible for him to understand. Others try to love her as they can, almost intensely with food and advice. That the world is indeed filled with good people, love and friendship, communal joy, positive values is apparent throughout the novel. She is aware of it but separate. She has lovers, complicated and intense yet even here she is only partially involved, scripted, unable to connect fully and intimately. One solid solace, friend, anxiolytic is Gin – that seductive form of self-medication which unites the mad, the bad and the normals. Understated as it is, her social life on the wards of the hospital resonates with life anywhere. Perhaps here though, with life again stripped to a sort of miminalism, some hope is apparent (and hopefulness simply through the life force of the spirit of the narrator as well as specifics is evident throughout), some dim promise of relating the self that looks inwards to the self that looks out to others.
Joy is in grief and mourning for the sudden death of the love of her life. Aha then! Reactive depression or whatever. Perhaps, but only given in the terms of the text that the awful arbitrariness of Michael’s death precipitated a crisis that had already had most of its power energised. Most people grieve ‘healthily’. Joy herself wonders whether grief should be an illness. She thinks she is wasting the time of the health service, taking away care for the needy. She is so often putting others first. In one of her characteristically humorous sketches, she puts herself on trial: “The defendant is afraid of health. There is a certain power in illness she is reluctant to relinquish for the precise reason it lets folk off the hook. People do not visit the unsick.” (p.200). She feels uwnworthy, unworthwhile, unvaluable, nothing, empty, not real, not here, going through the motions. “Maybe there’s less to me than other people think.” (Offstage: Aha! that will be low self-esteem then).
She feels she is rotten. The imagery of atrophy prevalent in the spatial elements of decriptions, the shabbiness, the mushrooms sprouting in one of her homes from rot, the council estate dystopian decay, the dirt and the washing, the cleaning, smelling, untidy, unkempt, unrespectable, – all these and more suggest her interior private self. Incidentally, the imagery of decay is continuous, not continual: the disunited ‘tracks’ of her racing mind and feelings run in parallel, sometimes overlap, appear together, fade and highlight, this formalised in writing techniques.
Joy faces several doctors, all of whom have different ideas, none of whom seem to communicate with each other. She is asked the same narrow questions time after time. She is directed, cajoled, reprimanded. For me, her exposure to the monstrous Nancy, the occupational therapist, a wretched and miserable person (one whom, ironically, I should stop and think about, understand, demonstrate more than a passing concern) represents the nadir of an already abysmal mental care system. Joy is abused by the betting shop manager (who, again, is far from a specimen of mental wellbeing), and apparently used at his convenience by David, one of her pupils.
Her best friend is, literally, absent. Before she went to Canada she left a list for Joy pinned on the kitchen wall. Things to do in the evening such as listen to the radio, phone someone nice, sew. I suppose that’s what absent friends are for. Joy conemplates the list wryly. The growth of the industry wherein people write books of advice, offer amazing miracle cures, sell all sorts of superstitions and mumbo jumbo is not only a side of exploitative greed: it represents a cultural marker of the misery and desperation of the wider ‘normal’ population. Only somebody like Joy could see through it. As William James points out in his discussion of The Sick Soul as well as much suffering there is much wisdom and insight. The line that made me laugh aloud in the novel was after Joy had read a book (an annotated contents page she quotes in full) called Courage and Bereavement given to her by Doctor Two (all the Doctors she names with a number). She sees “American Publisher. I should have known from the spelling.” Then “Chapter 10 is a prayer. The author wishes me good luck…. I read the book in two and a half hours and cried all the way through.
“Like watching Bambi.”
This distrust of and contempt for sentimentality seems to me to be a sign of a very healthy scepticism, a resource for hope, and insofar as there may be a whisper of didacticism in the novel such sprinklings of the protagonist’s undiminished self, strong and stable, do suggest what is summated in the title. Sentimentality, brutal classificatory systems, sheer everyday ‘nastiness’, are to some extent kept at bay: the world out there becomes chimerical since the inward voice drives the soul.
There’s nothing to protect us from arbitrariness and the almost tragic impossibilities of communication. We know that all the distractions, the maxims, the books, the kindly attempts to get us out of ourselves, can’t reach our suffering and insubstantiality, our confusion and pervasive dreads. But perhaps if we rethink the whole summation of human miseries into one word, somehow a strength emerges. The name of that word would be Sorrow. The name of the young woman whose story we followed is Joy.
Janice Galloway, The Trick is to Keep Breathing
Vintage, London, 1999