Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food is published today. She shares five unforgettable novels of mental distress.
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Christopher Baldry returns home from WWI shell-shocked, which has resulted in amnesia. He doesn’t remember having been married or having a child (who has died). All he remembers is that he was once deeply in love with a woman of a lower class, and he sets off on the heartbreaking impossibility of trying to pick up where they left off.
Jane Ciabattari: This was West’s first novel, published in 1918, and one of the first works of fiction dealing with what we now call PTSD. The soldier Chris is locked into a time of happiness fifteen years earlier, when he was 21, not 36. His wife Kitty, cousin Jenny, and the innkeeper’s daughter, Margaret, who he loved, and who has since married, maneuver to sort out the rest of his life. How do you think her descriptions of his experience compares with the postwar reactions of contemporary soldiers?
Binnie Kishenbaum: It’s difficult for me to know the answer to that question. With the exception of 9/11 (which, terrifying as it was, was not extended warfare), my understanding of the unnamable tragedies of war is lived third-hand from books, movies, and the news on television, and even then, it can be too much to bear. I can’t imagine anyone coming home unscathed, if anyone does. What seems to be very different in West’s depiction of Chris’s post-war trauma from that of the veterans of the Vietnam era through to the wars in which we are presently engaged is that, despite the record-setting death toll, the rot of trenches, the gas attacks, the time in which WWI happened was a more innocent and ignorant one. Because so many soldiers who suffered from what was called battle fatigue were executed for treason, and therefore did not come home, I’d think that West was afforded more liberty in the way she could depict the aftermaths of war, in a way less realistic perhaps, but nonetheless accurate as a representation of the desperate need to forget. To erase the nightmare as if it never happened necessitated that Chris resume his life back to a time when he was happy… Regardless of how the traumas of war manifest themselves, what West makes clear is that no soldier comes home intact.
Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Set in an unnamed Latin American country, a man who is nothing short of a reprobate is hired by the Catholic Church to transcribe and edit the stories of the remaining indigenous peoples whose families were massacred by the government. The inhumanity, the horror, and the dignity of the people take hold of him until his grip on his sanity is overwhelmed.
JC: I can’t help but quote the opening lines from this remarkable novel, which tracks the effect of a sort of textual witnessing of the Guatemalan genocide in the preparation of a truth and reconciliation report.
“I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me. I am not complete in the mind, I repeated to myself, stunned by the extent of mental perturbation experienced by this Cakchiquel man who had witnessed his family’s murder, by the fact that this indigenous man was aware of the breakdown of his own psychic apparatus as a result of having watched, albeit wounded and powerless, as soldiers of his country’s army scornfully and in cold blood chopped each of his four small children to pieces with machetes, then turned on his wife, the poor woman already in shock because she too had been forced to watch as the soldiers turned her small children into palpitating pieces of human flesh. Nobody can be complete in the mind after having survived such an ordeal, I said to myself…”
How would you describe the effect of this voice, which floods us, carries us along into madness?
BK: I’m not at all surprised that you quoted those lines. If you hadn’t, I surely would have. “I am not complete in the mind.” No wonder that the narrator was more astonished by such strange and perfect phrasing than by the depiction of the grotesque brutality that follows. Inhumanity is commonplace, all too easy to ignore, but a haunting string of words never heard before reverberates. And as you so aptly put it—the narrative “voice floods us, carries us along”—the voice does not allow us to linger. What follows—those two long sentences, which I’m grateful you provided—didn’t draw me into the book; rather, the voice grabbed hold and threw me into a deep and dangerous raging river, and there was no getting out. Moya’s Senselessness (a perfect title with its multiple meanings) forces us to look at what has happened. The narrator often sounds indifferent; even irreverent, as if he is immune to the agonies he is transcribing. His copious drinking and insensitive sexual escapades are comical, which would render him unsympathetic unless one, as I do, subscribes to the belief that tragedy and comedy are intertwined. It is the comedy that heralds the inevitable: he is no longer complete in the mind.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
Judith Hearne was raised by her aunt with all the snobbery of the well-to-do bourgeoisie. When her aunt dies, Judith is reduced to living in boarding houses but does not surrender her airs. Secretly, Judith drinks. A lot. Ultimately, her alcoholism results in Judith’s profound humiliation, shame, and ruin.
JC: And she is so lonely. There’s a line in which she is sitting at the boarding house table, knowing no one is paying her any mind, and for company she looks down at her shoes “winking up at her like wise little friendly eyes. Little shoe eyes, always there.” And do you find Moore’s use of her fantasy life also engaging?
BK: Judith’s loneliness bleeds on the page, and the way she protects herself from it, the only way she can survive is to live in a constant state of denial and fantasy. She denies why she must find a new boarding house, and once she does, she takes comfort in assuring herself that she is of a better class of people than the other boarders. She denies any understanding as to why she is losing the few remaining students to whom she gives piano lessons. She denies her alcoholism. Her delusion that the O’Neill family looks forward to her weekly visits is excruciating. The O’Neill children mock her mercilessly; Mr. O’Neill retreats to his den to avoid her, leaving Mrs. O’Neill (whom Judith thinks is not good enough for Mr. O’Neill) to be the gracious, but clearly put-upon, hostess. Judith might be oblivious to how unwanted she is, but the reader is humiliated on her behalf. When her landlady’s brother, visiting from New York, tells Judith that he is in the hotel business, she latches onto the idea that he owns a hotel. We know he’s a doorman, just as we know that his interest in her in not romantic, but rather is based on his misconception that she is wealthy and might be a business partner. She, in turn, misinterprets the attention he pays her, and she fully indulges a fantasy that reeks of desperation: they will get married, he owns, not one, but several hotels, and they will be a part of New York’s upper crust. When she imagines the headlines about them in newspaper society pages, I wept. Judith Hearne might well be the saddest character I’ve ever read.
After Claude by Iris Owens
After Harriet and Claude break up, Harriet, although wickedly funny, spirals way out of control. Her obsession defies all reality and reason. Even the reader sometimes wants to get away from her, but there’s no escaping Harriet.
JC: In an early review of After Claude, which came out in 1973, John Lahr called Harriet a “female Lenny Bruce.” How does Owens use humor to signify Harriet’s distress?
BK: Like Lenny Bruce, Owens’s Harriet is “in your face.” She is outrageous, relentless, manic, and she pushes hard against the boundaries of “acceptable societal norms,” and she tells unwelcome truths. She’s also very funny. Not consciously or deliberately funny, but funny because she’s so nuts. Never mind that she broke up with Claude and not the other way around, she is relentless in her determination to get Claude back as well as to exact revenge on him throwing her out of his apartment (after she broke up with him). Harriet hilariously, with well-honed wit, rejects the platitudes of sympathy and advice given to her by her friends, revealing how empty the words of convention are. But Harriet is not a tragic character. Despite her over-the-top obsession, Harriet is no Adele H. trailing after her ex-lover to her own ruin. Claude was not Harriet’s great love. He’s only an emblem for what I can best describe as Harriet’s egocentric narcissism, which is yet another source of hilarity. We don’t worry for Harriet. We don’t ache for her pain because she isn’t in any pain. Whatever, if anything, is hurting inside her, no one will ever know about it. Including Harriet. She is strong and resilient, and she’s going to be okay. Forever nuts, but never broken.
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Mrs. Bridge doesn’t realize, much less understand, and certainly would never admit that something is wrong with her “perfect” life. Utterly unwilling or unable to do anything not prescribed by convention renders her flat-lined, feeling nothing. To not even know that she feels nothing might be even worse than to be depressed.
JC: Can you give some examples of passages in which Connell describes the effect of her lack of feeling? And how that makes we as readers feel?
BK: I was wrong when I said that Mrs. Bridge feels nothing. She does feel, but she smothers the feelings, covers them up, although we do get a few flashes of the emptiness she feels. The acknowledgements, such as they are, are most often prompted by her friend Grace, whom Mrs. Bridge considers to be “a puzzle and disturbing.” Grace is deeply aware of how vapid their lives are, and she is able to articulate her despair.
This is an aside but one of my favorite Mrs. Bridge-isms: the neighborhood women have gathered for one of their luncheons, Grace refuses the trite conversation, demanding they talk of more important things, which Mrs. Bridge believes to be over her head. Grace is railing on about the injustices done to Native Americans, and Mrs. Bridge, worried that an argument will ensue, aims to restore equanimity: “… she asks hopefully, ‘It does sound as though we’ve done some dreadful things, Grace, but isn’t it possible that when you investigate fully you’ll discover the Seminoles attacked us?’” She says this hopefully! Mrs. Bridge responds to things that baffle her with ridiculous banalities, and she never asks the question why. As a wife, she defers to her husband on all matters from sex to the opinions he holds, to the kind of car she drives; as a mother, she wants nothing for her children but to be utterly conventional, a desire that often rises to the level of absurdity. When her eldest daughter shows up for breakfast wearing earrings that Mrs. Bridge disapproves of, she says, “In the morning one doesn’t wear earrings that dangle. People will think you’re something from another world.” Without warning, she burns down the tower of rubbish that her son painstakingly built in a vacant lot, explaining to him, “People were beginning to wonder.” She severs the friendship between her middle daughter and the gardener’s daughter, which was fine when they were little, but….
Mrs. Bridge tries to fill her life, or mask the emptiness of it, by pursuing what I’d call hobbies, enthusiasms, that quickly fall by the wayside. Her art class was especially memorable because she painted Leda and the Swan; her personal touch was to give Leda a two-piece bathing suit. Later, near to the end of the book, her friend Grace commits suicide, no matter that Mrs. Bridge didn’t want to think about that, no matter that she tells her now-adult children that Grace died from eating tuna salad that had gone bad, Connell writes: “She often wondered if anyone other than herself had been able to divine the motive; if so, it went unmentioned.”