Asylum – Patrick McGrath

5 December 2008
To the end of Chapter 4…
…the long hot summer of 1959 is over. (Was it really as long and hot as that? Months of heat, like 1976? Does it matter?) It seemed like a good place to stop: Stella’s disastrous affair (which is the wrong word for it) has led directly to Edgar Stark’s escape and disappearance. It’s also led to the probable end of her husband’s hopes of promotion, to the dark suspicion amongst the hospital staff, amounting to near-certainty, that she was involved with the patient, to the likelihood that none of them will ever get their old lives back now….

From the start the narrative’s at one step removed. The narrator isn’t an omniscient author but a senior psychiatrist who knows the people involved. We’re to believe that what he knows for certain has been told to him by Stella, although we don’t know when or over what period of time. We occasionally get references to details she gave him and how she seemed when she gave them but, really, most of the story is fairly conventional. She would have needed a long time to tell him every single scrap of description he supplies us with…. But we’re ok with that – because Peter, the nearly omniscient narrator, is a character in himself and at this point, just over a quarter of the way through, we don’t know how reliable he is. He’s old-school, opinionated, sure of his own judgments – and I can’t believe McGrath would have placed him in the middle unless he had some of his own spin to give.

We know from the start that this is going to be a tragedy, because Peter tells us. We also know about Edgar Stark, the clever nutter who seems perfectly well-adjusted. Just don’t expect any sense from him about the wife he killed and whose head (as we later find out) he mutilated horribly. Stella is presented as a fairly easy victim. She’s a 1950s wife, with little to do except contemplate the emptiness of her life in general and her marriage in particular. And near the end of Chapter 4 Peter is almost admiring of the way Stark has set up his story so cleverly: he’s prepared Stella for the things the doctors will say about him, manipulated her responses in advance….

And what about Stella? For this to work we have to believe that whatever she has going with Stark is strong enough, and far enough beyond her control, for her to put it before anything else in her life. (When he first escapes, it’s her mother-in-law who first expresses concern about Stella’s ten-year-old son.) Is she a stock character? The bored middle-class housewife who jumps, so to speak, at the chance of a bit of rough? Maybe she is, and maybe that’s why McGrath has distanced himself from her, interposed the self-satisfied, controlling voice of the middle-aged shrink. He knows what’s wrong, explains (in hindsight) why she will make her next move… and I suppose we’re willing enough to believe him. It’s only a story, after all, and a woman out of control is an entertaining enough prospect. And she’s only just begun: her lover is on the run, there’ll never be a return to their heat-fuelled sex, and, shit, she’s as desperate as ever

6 December
Chapters 5-8
It started raining at the end of Chapter 4 and it hasn’t stopped. At least, once McGrath gets Stella out of her stifling carry-on in the middle of nowhere and into a different kind of stifling carry-on in south London, it’s all doom-laden, grimy and damp. And that’s just their underwear, which they don’t get a lot of chance to wash in the loft at the top of a slummy block surrounded by warehouses and gloom.

Getting Stella out of the asylum and away from the most boring man in the Home Counties takes about a chapter. She stews away for a while, until… Edgar Stark telephones her. So she makes three supposed shopping trips to London – where it turns out she doesn’t need heat to fuel her sex-drive – and a well-handled scene in which she outmanoeuvres her suspicious husband and forces him into a humiliating apology. But it’s not enough. Peter knows what she’s doing (or tells us he always saw through her act) and warns her not to put herself in danger. Hah. One of he themes of these chapters is her inability to care about danger, or even admit there is any. She’s on a train the same afternoon.

The next chapters are about the trajectory of the relationship and Stella’s responses, carefully assessed and labelled for us by Peter the shrink. (He’s been doing this from the first sentences of the novel: he introduces Stella’s story as a case study of obsession, naming its inevitable stages like those that the boy goes through in the Fry’s Five Boys chocolate ad that first appeared a century ago. The stages for the Five Boys are ‘Desperation; Pacification; Expectation; Acclamation; Realization – it’s Fry’s.’ Peter’s list is: ‘Recognition; Identification; Assignation; Structure; Complication and so on….‘ Close enough. People who like to control like to categorise, enjoy lists.) Everything in London is hunky-dory for a couple of weeks then, obviously, goes downhill fast. We don’t need Peter to say a word about the way Edgar starts to regard Stella with the incipient jealousy that led to him murdering his wife.

And there’s a Mcguffin I forgot to mention before, because it wasn’t important then: Hedgar is a Hartist. So there’s a lot of stuff about the hartistic temperament, the hi-solating nature of the creative process, het cetera. But it also gives McGrath a neat visual metaphor: the clay head (geddit?) of Stella that he endlessly works and re-works is a visualisation of his own mania: it’s Stella, Jim, but not as we know her. There’s Auerbach in there, with his endless reworkings and superimpositions, but there’s Paolozzi too, slicing and cutting. Stella, being a moron, doesn’t recognise the danger signs, even when he starts bashing her about. (And yes, I know there’s a documented psychology about the way people, usually women, accept violence from their partner. That doesn’t mean I have to believe in Stella.)

Eventually, even Stella can see she’s not in the safest place in town. In a fit of obsessive jealousy he attempts to beat up Nick, the endlessly long-suffering friend who’s provided Edgar with, er, asylum. Then Stella hears him sharpening a knife and… and what? She waits for him to kill her. But he doesn’t: he uses the knife to cut an orange to share. Peter commentates for us, but it’s not all that necessary: he wants to kill her but he isn’t drunk enough or convinced enough of his own suspicions. But she remembers something: he thought his wife was trying to poison him – so he only gave her some orange to test it. Gulp. At last, as soon as she can, she gets out of there. Luckily for her, Nick has access to another safe-house, a seedy flat at the bottom end of a house this time, not the loft…. (What is it with McGrath and his locations? He‘s as careful with them as a location scout.)

Meanwhile Peter wants us to know that he believes Edgar is fighting against his own mania, not giving into it – but then, he would think that: Edgar is his long-standing patient. But all Stella knows is that he sounds dangerous when he bangs on the door of the flat. She and Nick cower in silence – and then we see why Peter is so interested in her case: she’s not dangerous, but she’s as irrational as Edgar in her own way. After sex with Nick – no comment – she turns on him for his weakness and ineffectuality. And guess where she goes back to…. However. The loft is empty, except for some men (reporters? The cops?) who want to talk to her. Time for Chapter 9.

11 December
Chapters 8-11
I mentioned locations. First there was the ‘bin’ (the shrinks’ jargon for it) in the long hot summer. Then there was the Southwark loft in the long wet autumn. In the next section McGrath gets everybody into exile for the long shitty winter: North Wales, in half a rented farmhouse. Stella’s husband has been quietly but irresistibly eased out of his high-status job, and he’s had to take what he can wherever he can. Stella and the 10-year-old son have to tag along and, obviously, it’s hell for all of them. She goes quietly demented, drinks too much, resents getting letters from the boy’s school about his failure to thrive. And, inevitably, she lets the farmer shag her fairly regularly (which his wife tacitly allows) in the from-behind way that is art-house shorthand for loveless sex. McGrath makes it as hard to read as it is for the family to live there, from somewhere in Chapter 9 to somewhere in Chapter 11. And these are long chapters.

I was glad when something happened, even though I didn’t believe a word of it. Somehow McGrath has got to get Stella into the next place (tell you later) and in order to achieve it he has to do a bit of stage-management: he arranges for a school trip to a bog, with Stella reluctantly accompanying. Her son falls in and drowns while she smokes a fag right alongside. Yeh, sure. She’s seen by the teachers, she’s condemned by absolutely everybody, and… a passing psychiatrist pronounces her clinically depressed and offers to take her in. The shrink, not there by accident at all of course, is Peter.

With less than a quarter of the novel left to go, the trajectory of the remainder seems clear. Chapter 11, which started on Cold Comfort Farm, ends… back in the bin. Peter is in charge there now, and he takes an increasingly sinister interest in Stella. Throughout this disorientatingly long chapter – surely a deliberate ploy by McGrath – Peter shows her professional attention which, somehow, goes beyond that. He casually mentions to us how beautiful she still is, how impossible they both find it to pretend that they are strangers. He even mentions at one point how he has allowed certain boundaries to be crossed in ways which he later regrets – but he doesn’t tell us what he means yet, just lets it simmer.

Hmm. The way he insists that Stella re-lives her obsessive affair with Edgar (and it’s still the wrong word) makes him seem not quite balanced. Near the end of the chapter he’s thinking aloud about how she’s in the wrong place, how she should really be somewhere like, um, his house, with his furniture and his pictures. And the reader is aware – because he mentions it – that he has the top job that her husband expected to have. He doesn’t need to mention that there’s only one thing missing – and she is entirely under his control. He even uses the word himself…. I never did trust him,

(Name note: Peter’s surname is Cleave, which has at lest three meanings that are relevant here. There’s an echo of Edgar’s butchery of his wife‘s remains; there’s something to do with Peter severing Stella from her old relationships, with the dead-beat husband and the newly recaptured Edgar. And there’s an older meaning, to do with clinging to, sticking with. ‘If you will cleave to my consent…’ says another epitome of trustworthiness and wisely exercised power to his wavering friend – and it’s only because I’ve heard Macbeth use it that I recognise the word.)

15 December
Chapter 12
The long final chapter, in which we see what a tricky, tricksy narrative this has been. The clear trajectory I predicted is dealt with in a few pages: Peter sees Stella in the privacy of his own office now, offers her drinks, suggests they get married…. But he keeps dropping little hints that it’s not Stella who’s to be the victim, but him. He keeps referring to the performances she gives, the calculations she makes. She tells him of her dreams, but he lets us know that he has no idea how much truth there is in anything she says. (By the time he’s become the novel’s narrator after everything has run its course, he knows that very little of what she said was the truth – but he’s not telling us until he’s good and ready.)

So the trajectory gets skewed: it was based Peter’s hoped-for outcome, and she’s too clever for him. All along, she’s merely imitating a recovery (she’s a shrink’s wife, remember) and Peter is annoyed with himself for letting his own motives get in the way of his clinical judgment. (That’s what he meant in Chapter 11 when he said he regretted allowing himself to cross certain boundaries….)

It‘s all simple, and the clue is in the opening pages of the book: this really is, as Peter told us then, a case study of a kind of morbid obsession. Stella knows Edgar is somewhere in the same hospital and she wants to get back to him. McGrath allows himself enough literary licence to make the denouement take place on the anniversary of the hospital dance at which she first realised Edgar meant business in the rough sex department. She hopes Edgar will be there, but is astute enough to realise he probably won’t be. So she has a contingency plan: a stash of sedatives saved over days or weeks. Which, after wowing everybody in the hospital in the same low-cut dress she wore a year before, she swallows in her room.

End of story. Except… Peter has the last word, and reveals perhaps more about himself than he intended. He’s lost Stella, he knows that – but, somehow, not entirely. In the last sentences of the novel there’s a twist, in at least two senses of that word. He describes how he has acquired the drawings Edgar made of Stella – and the head he’d re-worked so much it had become shrunk, as he tells us, to the size of his own hand. ‘I get it out over the course of the day, and admire it. So you see I do still have my Stella after all. And I still, of course, have him.’

That’s class: in his own eyes he’s become the puppeteer, the all-controlling god at the centre of his own world (’the size of my hand’ gets it perfectly). The irony, of course, is that the all-seeing narrator of this tale of obsession doesn’t recognise that alongside Stella’s story he’s revealed his own fixation in all its textbook stages. Maybe an asylum’s the best place for him, like the Anthony Perkins character at the end of Psycho. Look how controlled he is, just look.


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