In Patrick McGrath’s Trauma, Charlie Weir is a psychiatrist in New York in the 1970s, dealing with veterans coming back from the Vietnam War. In his spare time, he counsels victims of rape and abuse. “In my work,” he says, I deal with the effects of trauma, but I am never there when the damage actually happens.” The reader, looking on, thinks, “Yeah, right.”
Because none of this valiant work with victims makes Charlie any happier. He is the son of an alcoholic and depressive mother and a violent but mostly-absentee father. He’s in constant, acrid competition with his brother Walt, whom he both despises and helplessly envies. He’s divorced from the only woman who could give him a larger perspective on the world, and he’s trying to resurrect that marriage by meeting his ex-wife for sex in hotel rooms. Into this dynamic steps a beautiful woman, Nora Chiara, who falls for Charlie but is prone to terrible nightmares: Charlie draws victims to him like iron filings to a magnet, but when he does, the consequences can be horrific. It’s not looking good for Charlie. Psychiatrist, heal thyself.
I read McGrath’s Asylum a few years back, and found it wonderfully twisty and neo-gothic. I admit, I hoped that Charlie would be a fantastically unreliable narrator: that the events of his life as he narrated them would turn out to be nothing like the truth. (I had a whole theory based on Nora’s name.) Instead, he turns out to be simply duplicitous, of himself as much as of others, and a bit mean-spirited. His brother Walt accuses him of being “not truly alive,” and this is true: among other things, he can’t see the consequences of his own actions. When he offers Nora “an intensive fixed-limit, goal-directed program of no more than twelve sessions over a period of six weeks” as a condition of their staying together, he doesn’t seem to understand that his position of power corrupts their relationship hopelessly. When he tries to get his wife to remarry him, he doesn’t understand why she would refuse.
As a result, the book limps a bit, even on its own terms. It’s good as a character study, a man caught in the paradoxes of his work, but it can’t build toward any kind of climax. Charlie experiences dread, but we don’t; there’s no there there. The ending, which takes us out of New York and into an old hotel in the Catskills, provides a minor surprise, but certainly not trauma.
After Asylum, this is a bit of a lightweight disappointment, but I’d try McGrath again, to see if others are better. Any recommendations?