with the territory
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.