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Michael Dirda
A divorced psychiatrist tries to heal war vets while his own life falls apart.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 4, 2008

TRAUMA

By Patrick McGrath

Knopf. 210 pp. $24.95

Being a wimp, I tend to shy away from novels about bloodthirsty maniacs, serial killers and human monsters of any sort. My heart just can't take the emotional beating. I pity the poor boob about to be eviscerated by the smiler with the knife; I shudder when the smooth-talking sociopath invites the lonely young woman up to see his butterfly collection; I suffer with the parents and friends of the murdered and sexually abused couple.

So I was genuinely hesitant about opening Patrick McGrath's latest. Would I have to hide my eyes and peek through my fingers as I read? I knew that some of McGrath's books -- Spider and Asylum, in particular -- are modern classics of dark psycho-sexual suspense. But years ago I'd enjoyed his first novel, The Grotesque, and greatly admired its icily witty prose and black comedy. So eventually I got a grip on myself and started page one of Trauma:

"My mother's first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault. I felt I should have prevented it. This was about a year before my father left us. His name was Fred Weir. In those days he could be generous, amusing, an expansive man -- my brother, Walt, plays the role at times -- but there were signs, perceptible to me if not to others, when an explosion was imminent."

No cannibalism in the opening -- I've always found that to be a good sign. More appropriately, I admired how artfully McGrath establishes his dysfunctional family -- depressed mother, overly sensitive kid, emotionally volatile father, ebullient role-playing brother. Needless to say, I kept on reading, wanting to know more. In fact, I read for four or five hours, all the way to the end. That hypnotic, reasonable and wistful voice of Dr. Charles Weir, psychiatrist, had me utterly in thrall. The man clearly aches with unhappiness -- and maybe with something more than just unhappiness. The first chapter ends with the funeral of Weir's mother:

"In a compressed few hours I had encountered every person with whom I'd ever known intimacy save one, that being my mother, and she was dead. I was estranged from all of them except one, that being my daughter, who lived not with me but with her mother. I was approaching forty and I no longer regarded my life as possessing unlimited potential, or any at all. I felt my own isolation strongly, and while I was still sexually active the possibility of proper human intimacy seemed every day to recede further from me."

Weir, we soon learn, has had a difficult life. Whenever he'd try to help his weeping or battered mother, whether as a child or as a man, she'd turn on him for interfering, snap that he was "always trying to help people who don't want it." Yet "how can any man see his mother in pain and not do everything in his power to relieve that pain?" But then he always was exceptionally sensitive. By contrast, Weir's older brother has always been enviably at ease in his skin, the family favorite, successful with women, successful as a painter. "Anyone," their mother used to say, "can be a psychiatrist. It takes talent to be an artist."

Most of Weir's story takes place in the 1970s, when Vietnam vets are flooding clinics, desperately in need of counseling and therapy. So our freshly minted psychiatrist specializes in treating war trauma, helping those who cannot live with the knowledge of what they witnessed or did. Weir is, moreover, deeply interested in the workings of memory: "The falsification of memory -- the adjustment, abbreviation, invention, even omission of experience -- is common to us all, it is the business of psychic life. . . . I know how very fickle the human mind is, and how malleable, when it has to accommodate belief, or deny the intolerable."

Unfortunately, Weir bungles the treatment of one of his patients, his new wife's beloved brother Danny. The doctor blames himself for the consequences, can hardly bear going home to the resultant domestic grief and quickly grows convinced that Agnes will never forgive him. He decides to move out so that she can heal more quickly, and before long she remarries.

Soon afterward the doctor's life begins to spiral downward, its only brightness being the Saturdays he spends with his daughter, Cassie. Until, that is, he meets the fragile, wounded and beautiful Nora Chiara. For a while hope revives: "She was with me because she wanted to be, and remembering how we were then, when it was all promise, with nothing to ruin it but folly, or fear, I see us as though from a camera attached to a track on the ceiling: a lean, lanky man with his hair cut short, en brosse, in a creased linen suit with one elbow propped on the candlelit table, his chin cupped in his fingers, the other arm thrown over the back of his chair, listening with a smile to this peachy woman gesticulating and smoking on the other side of the table."

Note that ominous phrase "how we were then." Throughout Trauma, McGrath shifts the narrative back and forth through time. The reader knows that something life-altering is going to happen, but for Weir it has clearly already happened. What is it? From what vantage point does Charlie Weir now look back on his past? Repeatedly, he hints at wisdom gained too late: "One of the rewards of maturity, I told myself, in a rare burst of complacency, is the ability to make a rapid decision on a matter of profound emotional significance and have confidence in its soundness. The folly in this line of thinking didn't become apparent until later."

And so gradually, relentlessly, McGrath builds up an atmosphere of unease. After Nora starts to suffer nightmares of being chased in a tunnel, Weir grows convinced she needs therapy. It would appear that brother Walt knows more about this mysterious young woman than he's letting on. Suddenly, Agnes re-enters her ex-husband's life, holding out the possibility of reconciliation. Meanwhile, Weir keeps having his own nightmares, usually the old dream of his father putting a gun to his head. "In the darkness," he tells us, "anxiety steals in like a wolf. Glimpsing weakness of spirit it circles for the kill." He later adds that "in the years I'd been treating trauma I'd learned this, that when ordinary anxiety becomes sufficiently acute it will rouse the dormant horror no matter how deeply repressed it is."

Rousing dormant horror doesn't sound like a very happy prospect. Could Dr. Weir be more like his traumatized patients than he realizes? McGrath deepens the ambiguities and tensions down to the very last chapter of Trauma. Even then, some elements of the story's plot remain deliberately unresolved or enigmatic. And when the book is over, the reader is still left wondering about the precise tone, the actual implication, of its final sentences.

Beautifully crafted and paced, Trauma can be viewed as either a superb psychological thriller or as a masterly evocation of modern alienation and despair -- assuming, of course, there is any difference. The contemporary novel of terror typically focuses on the breakdown of personality, the return of the repressed, the untimely mixing of memory and desire. Happily for us wimps, McGrath eschews splatter or gruesomeness, instead relating Charlie Weir's story in clear, quick-flowing prose, as if Dick Francis had rewritten Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. (That last, you'll remember, is the novel that opens: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard.")

Trauma is, in short, a terrific literary entertainment, one that will keep you on edge, worried and guessing for 200 pages. Still, I was just a teensy bit wrong about the cannibalism. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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