Thursday, 5 June 2008

Notes from an Exhibition


Just read Patrick Gale’s excellent Notes From an Exhibition for our bookgroup. Actually I had bought it before it was chosen as a book group book because I’m a PG fan but, anyway, last night was discussion night.

The starting point of the book is the recent death of once famous, now rather declined artist Rachel Keen. The narrative approach uses the eponymous exhibition notes to introduce various paintings which have resonance with different episodes in her life. Each episode is narrated through the third person viewpoint of either Rachel herself of her family – husband, four children, sister.

Since the book spans a time period of forty-odd years this device to pick out key, emblemmatic bits of Rachel’s life works extremely well and having the various episodes told through the eyes of her family gives us a glimpse into what has made the life of this woman so precarious and her art so powerful.

Rachel Keen is not a likeable woman. A personality dominated by the pervasive effects of her bipolar disorder (what used to be called manic depression), she is self-centred to a pathological degree (and I’m not using pathological there simply as an intensifier, I believe Gale is portraying a very specific, damaged kind of personality) she seems oblivious to the emotional needs of her children and husband and often appears, by neglecting to look beneath their careful, surface responses, astonishingly harsh and unkind to quite small children.

Notes from an Exhibition is a quite brilliant study of what someone who has a mental illness can do to a family. Because her husband, Anthony, fell in love with Rachel (or the idea of her) before she knew he existed, their marriage represents nothing more nor less than a heroic rescue and their children fall in behind Anthony as little footsoldiers in the fight to keep their mother sane. It drives at least one of them mad. (I say that, but it was probably genetics...)

But is Anthony’s loving care actually a gilded, chemically-barred cage in which Rachel is forced to live? Are her children actually not the products of a happy and successful marriage but a necessary expedient for Rachel whose only escape from Anthony’s benign regime of antipsychotic medication (which dulls her creativity) is to become pregnant? What is the relationship between artistic inspiration and mental instability? What do we owe our children? What do they owe us?
These were all questions which were thrashed around in our book group but I think the one, for me, which was most interesting is the one about the nature of bipolarity and artistic creativity. Yes, I can see it sparking creativity in artists, particularly those who do more or less abstract work; I can even see it working for poets. But novels? Plays? I’m not so sure. I don’t think the bursts of intense, visionary creativity which mania seems to afford would sustain the necessary plodding effort which you have to put in to a novel, I can’t see them providing a coherent plot.

Am I wrong? Does anybody have experience of bipolarity in novelists?

Oh, and because the novel has got a bit lost in the questions, Notes from an Exhibition is brilliant. I think it’s the best Patrick Dale I’ve read yet. If you’re interested in families, madness, characters and a story perfectly told with a beginning a middle and an end (but not necessarily in that order) I recommend it.

8 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

I can't read this post yet, Alis: it's the featured book at a local book club I've been invited to attend next month. Until I've read the book, I'll save your post...

Alis said...

Hope you enjoy the book, Tim! Thanks for leaving the comment anyway...

David Isaak said...

Sure, there's bipolar novelists. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene almost certainly, and Lord Byron ought to be mentioned (even though he was a poet, his long poems took as much composition time as a novel). I think F. Scott Fitzgerald belongs on the list, and perhaps Faulkner as well, but they both self-medicated with so much alcohol that it's hard to tell.

Tchaikovsky was bipolar, and a symphony is a long-haul undertaking. Of course, he didn't view himself as bipolar: he thought his manic periods were "normal" and became even more depressed during his down periods because he was falling short of his 'typical' standards.

There's plenty of undiagnosed bipolarity around: if the cycle times are long and the swing isn't wide, it's often seen as an energetic, creative person who is prone to periods of depression. And, lord knows there are plenty of depressed novelists...

Alis said...

Hi David, thanks for the info on these folks.
Plenty of depressed novelists around is about right. More than most professions, I'm guessing. The kind of bipolirity you talk about, with shallow swings is referred to as cyclothymia by psychiatrists and, depending on the person, may not be seen as a disorder at all. I can imagine writing in that condition. Presumably the writers you mention were able to write when well. Those works that I've read of Woolf's and Hemingway's doesn't suggest mania or delusional states (not so sure about Faulkener) so it seems to me that the actual disorder doesn't give as much to the creative work as it would to a visual artist where it's potentially possible to actually represent abstract thought processes. What do you think?

David Isaak said...

I agree--but anecdotes and stories about bipolar people tend to talk about exaggerated manifestation of mania. I think the kind of bipolarity writers tend to manifest would include 'hypomania' rather than real bounce off-the-walls mania. What do they call that now--Bipolar II or something?

I have a friend who works in the psych world, and he says he believes that lots of folks classed as depressives are actually subject to bipolar cycles--it's just that their peaks on the up side only reach as high as what most people would call normal mood. Now there's a drag--all the downside and none of the up.

(Oh, yeah--how could I forget Kurt Vonnegut? And I think Philip K. Dick was a candidate, too, except that he was so wired all the time it looked more like amphetamine psychosis...)

There's an interesting book about writing by Alice Flaherty entitled "The Midnight Disease". (I just now pulled it down off the shelf--haven't read it in a couple of years.) In it, she quotes studies that suggest writers are 10-40 times more prone to bipolar diesease than the population at large, and 8-10 times more prone to unipolar depression.

That's not the ratio I would have expected--I would have expected more depressives. But maybe some of us need the up side to write at all.

I have, on occasion, been known to write for more than thirty hours straight, while on other days (today), it's all I can do to post a comment. So I fear I may slightly touched in the head myself...

David Isaak said...

PS Do you know the King Crimson song "Three of a Perfect Pair"? The only song I know that includes the word "cyclothymic" in the lyrics...

Alis said...

Hi David, yes the whole Bipolar II thing is interesting. It has been suggested that I'm cyclothymic but I think I'm sticking more to the seasonal explanation - I'm definitely prone to hypomania in the spring and early summer when the longer days kick in and I fight off depression the whole winter with a light box and - sometimes - medication. I think the notion that many of us 'need the up side to write at all' is spot on.
I love the word cyclothymic - must check out that song - also must see if I can work it into the wip!!

KAREN said...

That is a good word and I'll look out for it in your next novel! I haven't read Notes from an Exhibition yet, but it's on my list :o)