Patrick McGrath's "Asylum"

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Frank Lekens

1 okt. 2000 03:00:0001-10-2000
The only novels of Patrick McGrath's that I've read so far are "Martha
Peake" (see my other post) and "Asylum". Judging by these two novels
McGrath seems to be an author who takes a specific style of writing,
tied to a particular era, and then writes a novel meticulously drawn up
in that style.

Where the style of the novels differ widely, they have in common a
certain preoccupation with the macabre, with the grotesque, with
insanity and emotions that are larger than life.

In "Asylum", the style is that of a psychiater in the 50s. The fifties
is when the story takes place. In an asylum for the criminally insane, a
wife of one of the doctors falls in love with one of the inmates. The
colleague of that doctor witnesses how the affair unfolds, and narrates
the events. But just as in the case of "Martha Peake", one sometimes
wonders at the amount of detail the narrator is able to bring to the
story - after all, he has to reconstruct it mainly from what the woman
herself tells him. Also, despite all his clinical professionalism (he
describes falling in love as a type of psychological illness) and his
somewhat barren, "hollow man" type of personality, every now and then a
some striking detail or other ruffles the placid surface of his story
and makes one suspect that the narrator isn't as reliable and mentally
stable as he may seem. For instance, he seems to take a rather obsessive
interest in the sexual details of the affair of this woman with the
The subtlety of the book lies in the fact that McGrath never
makes it entirely clear whether the narrator does indeed have an
unhealthy interest in the woman's sex life, and hence whether his
account of the affair is unreliable (although there are strong signs
that point in this direction) - or whether the narrator's telling of
these details is justified by the obsessive nature of this torrid love
This basic uncertainty contributes a lot to the novel's force.
I've never really seen an author treat the concept of the "unreliable
narrator" quite as subtly as McGrath does it here. In a novel with an
"unreliable narrator", the author usually comes down on one side of the
dilemma in the end, and makes it clear either that the narrator's story
isn't to be trusted in certain particulars, or that our distrust was
unwarranted after all. In "Asylum", the case is less clear cut.

(E.g. take Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, where it's fairly clear to
most people to what extent the butler ignores the emotions actually
present in the scenes he's describing.)

I'm curious to know what other people think of "Asylum" (or of Martha
Peake, if anyone has already read that), because I think it's such a
curious book. Once again, though less obviously so than in "Martha
Peake", McGrath also wields a type of larger-than-life realism. His
characters seem quite real and convincing, but they're also a little
larger than life, and not really "real" in the sense that you tend to
identify with them. They're part real, part cliché (made up out of
narrative clichés and the stereotypes of pulp fiction and films. I'm
thinking here especially of the inmate whom the wife falls in love with:
an artist who killed his wife in a fit of jealousy, decapitated her and
gouged out her eyes. The way this is told, and the way his artistic
efforts are described, sometimes reads like the stuff of 50s B-movies or
horror comics rather than like a "serious" psychological novel.)
Frank Lekens is where it's really @

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