(1) American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
Link with mental health: sociopathy.
American Psycho is a entertaining yet terrifying satire on the apathy of modern society, depicting the dysfunctions hidden behind the superficiality of the American yuppie world. It is recounted through the eyes of Patrick Bateman, a mass-murdering Wall Street broker. He is a typical, upper-class boy-next-door, who’s flow of consciousness (extremely accelerated due to the use of steroids and other drugs) manifests a refined, and almost obsessive taste for good clothes, good food, good music, good clubs, good prostitutes and preserving a good physical image. Not too strange huh? He also has a rather tasteful dislike for women and the homeless which he sees as society leeches who are not prepared to work for a living. Still, not that far fetched.
The really freaky thing is that good old Pat’s nightlife is tainted by an unrelenting blood lust, triggered on by repressed sentiments of disgust and hatred.
Why it’s good: Ellis’s narrative style brilliantly depicts the banality of violence in our modern culture, and how easy it is to detach oneself from emotivity. The superficiality with which everyone in Bateman’s life, including his lawyer, repeatedly ignore his crime confessions, is rather disturbing.
Patrick’s stream of consciousness very casually flutters between describing entrees of expensive meals and brand names of his colleagues attires, to the logistics of eviscerating homeless people and their dogs, nailing his ex girlfriend to the floor of his apartment and walking around the house with the severed head of a prostitute on his dick. At a certain point Bateman’s character is so alienated from himself that the narrative even switches to third person.
The gruesomeness of the acts, coupled with the casual tone in which they are recounted, render it almost humorous and indeed, extremely disturbing.
Girl, Interrupted – Susanna Kaysen
Susanna Kaysen’s autobiographical novel is a scattered representation of her own two years spent in a progressive psychiatric warden, beginning in the spring of 1967. It includes her thoughts, letters and clinical notes.
Unlike many patient’s depictions of their time in confinement, which tend to focus on the degradation of psych words, Susanna’s novel distinguishes itself in that it is not just about being sectioned at McLean hospital, but incorporates her varied reflections on what goes on in the world. While her time has been ‘interrupted’, the outside world still goes on.
Some of the modern and socially interesting themes covered in the novel include: speculations about the link between mental health and creativity; the difference between mind and brain; the notions of ‘normal’ and ‘crazy’ (or rather the comparison between social non-conformity and insanity); the relationship between freedom and captivity (she refers to the hospital as a ‘refuge as much as a prison’); the influence of sexism and psychiatric fads in the realm of mental health and man’s obsession with time.
‘Is a non reality-recognising brain truly as different from a reality-recognising brain as a foot, say, from a brain? This seems unlikely. Recognising the agreed-upon version of reality is only one of billions of brain jobs.’
Regarding her diagnosis of BPD:
‘It’s a fairly accurate picture of me at eighteen, minus a few quirks… I’m tempted to try refuting it, but then I would be open to the further charges of “defensiveness” and “resistance”.’
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Link with mental health: Depression.
Yes, I know, you’re going ‘not the Bell Jar again’. Well, to be perfectly honest, I think american poetess Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, describing her own struggle with depression, is one of the best depictions out there of what it’s like to be so very low in mood.
The Bell Jar is most definitely not an easy and flowing read: it is most definitely not one of those books you devour all in once and even her attempts at taking her own life are described in a boring, noncommittal way.
“But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenceless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get.”
It is often insanely dull, repetitive and painful to read. Which is precisely why, I think this novel is absolutely brilliant.
You see, there are no heroes or heroins when you are depressed, no romanticised ideals, no breathtaking beauty, no passions. Everything is dull, slow, insignificant and painful. You know how you just can’t get yourself to read this book with enthusiasm? Imagine not being able to do it with anything in your life. Pretty ‘depressing’, huh? Well, that should give you a very tiny little snippet of what it feels like, as Plath puts it, to be stuck under the infamous bell jar.
“Wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
An Unquiet Mind – Kay Redfield Jamison
‘I have often asked myself whether, given the choice, I would choose to have manic-depressive illness. … Strangely enough, I think I would choose to have it.’
In An Unquiet Mind, american Psychologist and Psychiatry Professor at John Hopkins University, Kay Redfield Jamison, recounts her own struggles with the ups and downs of Manic Depression. Regardless of her scientific background, Jamison’s depiction of her own illness is extremely compelling and literary, the whole work opening up with a quote by Lord Byron:
‘I doubt sometimes whether… a quiet and un-agitated life would have suited me, yet I sometimes long for it’.
This autobiography is undoubtably well-written and captivating, and deals with many of difficulties in the struggle with bipolar, such as Jamison’s own refusal to take medication, and the negative consequences it had upon her life.
However (and I care to note that I do greatly love this book and admire the author herself for her life endeavours) I must admit that there is a certain romanticised tone to her depiction of bipolar disorder, almost as if Kay where heroin in some great and exciting adventure.
However, given how the book is, indeed, a depiction of bipolar disorder, the grandiose air that is given to her endeavours is actually quite in line with the magnanimous emotions that come with mania, whether or not the effect is intentional. Just keep a critical mind when reading this book and remember: bipolar disorder is not really that cool and with great ups you should expect even greater lows, just like after a weekend of cocaine consumption you could expect a massive comedown.
‘The Chinese believe that before you can conquer a beast you first must make it beautiful. In some strange way, I have tried to do that with manic-depressive illness. It has been a fascinating, albeit deadly, enemy and companion; I have found it to be seductively complicated, a distillation both of what is finest in our natures, and of what is most dangerous’