Friday, May 1, 2009

Title Thirty Four: Trauma by Patrick McGrath

It figures; I take a short break from memoirs and end up with two back-to-back works of fiction that read like memoirs. Surprisingly, I don't get bored. Maybe that means my expectations are low, but whatever.

Trauma, a dark and densely-written tale of a psychiatrist in New York City in the 1970s, has enough damage in one character to give you vicarious dysfunction. Charlie Weir had the life sucked out of him from an early age, at the mercy of a depressive mother, negligent father, and self-absorbed brother. This, of course, led him into a career in psychiatry, where he subsequently attempts to heal in other people what is irreparably broken in himself, specializing in the victims of trauma, both emotional and physical. At the start of his career, Charlie moderated a support group for Vietnam veterans. The most damaged patient, Danny, had a sister named Agnes who first sought out Charlie in attempts to understand her brother; eventually Charlie and Agnes married and had a daughter, but their life together was shattered on the night that Charlie found Danny dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Unable to deal with his guilt and Agnes' blame, Charlie fled the marriage, convinced that he could only do more harm than good. Several years later, the death of Charlie's mother brings Agnes back into his life and they become fuck buddies, even though Agnes is remarried. Shortly after, Charlie also meets an incredibly broken and unpredictable woman, Nora Chiara. Charlie sees Nora as his chance for redemption, and they begin a relationship where she moves in with him, but the relationship is stunted from the outset by Charlie's clinical detachment and continued trysts with Agnes while Nora's increasingly violent outbursts of temper and nightmares shred the tenuous fabric of their connection further. In the end, Charlie has lost what little happiness he may have felt during those few months and gained only a greater emptiness, yet he resolves to go on with his practice, perhaps never realizing that he will one day simply disappear into the despair that radiates from the people he tries to help.

It's not a light read, but it is a thought-provoking one. It simply may not provoke thoughts that you'd like to think. The author has a deft touch and a keen sense of human frailty and pain, and I'd like to explore some of his other work, but I don't know if this is a novel that I would ever pick up again.

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