with the ter­ri­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

a sure symp­tom of im­mi­nent de­gen­er­a­tion.’’ Not only is the city de­gen­er­at­ing in Trauma. So is Amer­i­can civil­i­sa­tion, and mem­bers of the Weir fam­ily.

McGrath was born in Lon­don in 1950 and lives there and in New York. He grew up on the grounds of Broad­moor Hospi­tal, Bri­tain’s largest top- se­cu­rity men­tal hospi­tal, where his fa­ther was med­i­cal su­per­in­ten­dent, and later worked in a top- se­cu­rity psy­chi­atric unit in On­tario. Th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences may ex­plain his be­ing a prac­ti­tioner of and apol­o­gist for the new gothic.

Men­tal hos­pi­tals, of course, thrive on the trau­ma­tised. ‘‘ I awoke with a start, sweat­ing, trem­bling, short of breath: I felt I was suf­fo­cat­ing,’’ says Char­lie Weir, psy­chi­a­trist and nar­ra­tor of Trauma . ‘‘ It was the familiar hor­ror, see­ing the body as though for the first time. This is what trauma is. The event is al­ways hap­pen­ing now, in the present, for the first time.’’

Just about ev­ery­one in the Weir fam­ily, and ev­ery­one with whom they come into con­tact, is trau­ma­tised. In­evitably, Freud is in­voked.

Char­lie Weir says of Nora Chiara, his all too recog­nis­able, neu­rotic lover: ‘‘ She was ea­ger now to be mol­li­fied. We hated to be es­tranged. Freud once said that signs of con­flict are signs of life, but we had life enough with­out that.’’

Mol­li­fi­ca­tion is con­ducted in Man­hat­tan restau­rants and bars: ‘‘ ‘ The in­ven­tion of psy­chi­a­try is a rel­a­tively late de­vel­op­ment in hu­man his­tory,’ I said. ‘ Like all good things it came with the rise of the bour­geoisie.’ ’’ The nar­ra­tive of Trauma may be gen­er­ated by a psy­chi­atric truth: ‘‘ Had I guessed it al­ready, had I glimpsed the eter­nal, in­ex­orable truth that it is al­ways the sick ones who seek out the heal­ers? The lost ones who hunt down the fa­thers?’’ But what hap­pens when the healer is sick? When the fa­ther is lost? Physi­cian, heal thy­self. Be­cause he con­ducts ther­apy with his trau­ma­tised Viet­nam vet brother- in- law in a bar rather than in group, Char­lie is re­spon­si­ble for his sui­cide. But Char­lie has been trau­ma­tised as a child by his par­ents and has re­pressed the cru­cial event. This is, of course, a Man­hat­tan novel, set in a city that long ago out­stripped Vi­enna as the heart­land of psy­chi­a­try, the ‘‘ talk­ing cure’’.

‘‘ Lis­ten,’’ says Char­lie’s for­mer wife, Agnes, ‘‘ you live in New York, you have bad dreams, it’s the city. It’s a war zone, Char­lie, you have to be a war­rior to live here.’’ Trauma goes with the ter­ri­tory. As is of­ten the case with gothic fiction, and per­haps as should be the case with the novel of trauma, Trauma is con­vinc­ingly and thrillingly plot­ted. It’s just the book for sleep­less nights, with an ar­magnac on the bed­side ta­ble. It is the stuff ( bad) dreams are made of. Don An­der­son taught US lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney for three decades.

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