Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 4 December 2008

When I Was Five I Killed Myself

When I Was Five I Killed Myself is an odd little book. Let me address the little first of all. The book is: 15.2 x 9.6 x 1.4 cm in size. My novel is 19.3 x 13 x 1.3 cm in size. In other words it is two-thirds smaller than the average book not that my book is in any way average other than in size. I did not know that when I ordered it although when I received my copy I felt somewhat let down, about one-third let down if you want to know,

It had a cool title and you always get bonus points for a cool title. There are so many books with lukewarm titles out there. This book is not one of them. It was not simply the title that roped me in, suspicious so-and-so that I am. Oh, no. I read reviews.

The reviewers, clearly a mixed bag of amateurs, all praised the book and considered it a crying shame that it was not better known in the author’s home country. Fine, fine, thought I and then came the clincher: the hero and narrator, an eight year-old boy, was likened to Holden Caulfield. Ah.

I am sure I am not alone in regretting Salinger’s decision to become a recluse but what can one do about it? He can’t have long to go and then hopefully his relatives will see sense unless the bugger burns all the manuscripts he’s supposedly been working on all these years. In the interim the opportunity to read anything with a whiff of Salinger’s genius was worth forking out £2.94 plus £2.75 postage. Although a full-sized book for that price would have been nice.

I said it was an odd book as well as a little book. Well it is. My copy has footnotes. Unusual in itself, yes, but more unusual is the fact that they are in German. The book is in English but the footnotes are in German. Stranger still is the fact that this is a reprint of a novel by an American author, clinical psychologist and professional clown, which was first published in 1981 in a French translation where it became a bestseller and has been read by one in ten of the French population who know how to read. The author was even made a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

If I was to stop my review here you’d be tempted wouldn’t you?

But let me tempt you further.

I have already mentioned that the book is narrated by an eight year-old boy. His name is Burton Rembrandt (Not so dissimilar to Holden Caulfield is it?) who is at the Children’s Trust Residence Centre because of what he did to Jessica and like any author worth his salt the author, one Howard Buten, keeps us in suspense for the best part of the book. The girl is not dead – we learn that much quite early on – but whatever it was he did resulted in her being hospitalised. In the first chapter the author plays a trick on us poor readers and makes us think she’s dead.

        When I was five I killed myself.
        I was waiting for Popeye who comes after the News. He has large wrists for a person and he is strong to the finish. But the News wouldn’t end.
        My dad was watching it. I had my hands over my ears because I am afraid of the News. I don’t enjoy it as television. It has Russians on who will bury us. It has the President of the United States who is bald. It has highlights from this year’s fabulous Autorama where I have been once; it was quite enjoyable as an activity.
        A man came on the News. He had something in his hand, a doll, and he held it up. (You could see it wasn’t real because of the sewing.) I took my hands off.
        “This was a little girl’s favourite toy,” the man said. “And tonight, because of a senseless accident, she is dead.”
        I ran up to my room.
        I jumped on my bed.
        I stuffed my face into my pillow and pushed it harder and harder until I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I held my breath.

Needless to say he doesn’t kill himself. It does give you an idea how Burt talks. He’s clearly a reasonably smart kid for eight (he is, after all, the spelling champion of his grade), I would even go as far as to call him precocious, but he also gets things terribly wrong. As you would expect. He knows stuff without fully understanding it. His grammar leaves a lot to be desired but at least Buten takes care to make sure Burt makes the same mistakes consistently.

Because he has his unique way of talking it’s not so hard to see why people might draw comparisons between this book and Catcher in the Rye. Apart from the language and the mental health issues we also have the female lead to take account of. Holden dotes on his sister, Phoebe; Burton dotes on a girl at school, Jessica Renton, a girl described as having brown hair and no braids that always has her hands behind her back. At eight, though, this is less about love and more about finding a kindred spirit in this world. Jessica is far less of a stabilising influence on Burt as Phoebe is on her brother as demonstrated by her behaviour during a spelling bee:

        “Receive what?” said Jessica. Everybody laughed. Krepnik got real mad. “Receive is the word, young lady. Spell it please.”
        “I T.”
        “Jessica, maybe you would prefer to go straight to the office and forfeit you right to be in this Spelling B,” said Krepnik. “Is that what you want? Do you think your parents would find that amusing?”
        Miss Iris said, “Jessica, either spell the word or you may take an E in the spelling for the whole semester. Is that clear?” She was mad too.
        But I thought something. That Jessica is very smart in school and that she would win the Spelling B, and not me. I got very nervous.
        “Receive,” said Miss Krepnik.
        “Could you use it in a sentence, please?”
        “Yes. I like to receive things.”
        “Receive,” said Jessica. “M P X L Y H H O. Receive.”

This is an important section. Jessica is not simply a female version of Burt. Oh no. She is Eve to Burt’s Adam. Burt is not really a bad boy. Curiosity often gets the better of him and he gets into trouble, just like other kids, but he is the one who is bullied, not the bully.

The story is told in two strands in overlapping chapters. Burt talks about what’s happening to him day by day in the Children’s Trust Residence Centre and also relates the events that led up to his being sent there. The first chapter is just there to throw everyone off the scent and the book would survive fine without it but since it generates the cool title I guess it had to stay. It’s only a page and a half long so don’t worry about it.

In the Centre Burt’s nemesis is Dr. Nevele:

“Burt, I want us to be pals. Pals that tell each other things. Because I think I can help you figure out what your problems are, and then help you solve them. You’re a sick little boy. The sooner you let me help you the sooner you’ll get better and go home. Help me, ok?”

Burt’s not playing. He has, what he would call "a conniption fit" (because that’s what his mother calls his strops), and starts throwing things around the good doctor’s office eventually ending up in the Quiet Room which is where he finds a modicum of peace and begins to write out his story literally on the walls of the room. This is also where he meets his ally, an unconventional first year intern by the name of Rudyard Walton (clearly modelled on Buten himself) who, although he denies to his superiors taking any therapeutic interest him, befriends Burt and gains a level of trust; he also speaks up on the boy’s behalf saying that Burt has no purpose being there but no one is interested in his pleas. At one point Burt steals some letters from Dr. Nevele’s office which includes a copy of a letter from Rudyard to Dr. Nevele:

This child is no more of a threat to society than Orphan Annie. (At least he has irises.) The psychoses you seem bent on finding in his young psyche are no more than signposts that give clear directions to a place you’ve obviously never been to: Yourselfville.

Burton’s been double-crossed, and he’s mad. Wouldn’t you be? He doesn’t know it in his mind (forest of trees) but he feels it in his guts (literally, sometimes), and it was partially this double cross that led to the incident with Jessica Renton, and that continues to lead him into tantrums and silences here where he doesn’t belong and knows it.

He is a human being in kid’s clothing. He has the organs and the feelings of his species, but none of the rights. And he is not alone. This country is stewing itself in the notion that you’re not a person until you reach voting and drinking age. It’s wrong.

You don’t get it, Doctor (with all due respect), and because you don’t get it, you can’t give it. Let him go home. He isn’t crazy, he isn’t even strange. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

So there we have it. The age-old battle of the liberals against the conservatives, innovation versus the tried and tested. Yes, ultimately there is a socio-political subtext to this book. It is about the use and misuse of power. Like all kids Burt is subject to a system, to a world he doesn’t understand. There is no right of appeal. All he can hope to do is serve his sentence and grow up in the process. There’s nothing to stop him rattling his cage now and then and he does. One reviewer on Amazon wrote: “I think what's best about it is that the more you read it, the more you wish you could do something about it.” But that’s the thing, just as Burt is trapped in childhood so are we readers trapped on the other side of the page. All we can do is keep turning those pages. And turn them I did.

Seemingly, this book was originally targeted at the young adult market, but it is clearly an adult book. That said, I was intrigued by the comments made on this French site by children as young as twelve; the Google Translate filter is on. I didn’t find myself feeling any less empathetic for the youngsters in the book simply because of my age. If anything it took me back to a time I too rarely try to remember and, now I think about it, for broadly similar reasons. Burt doesn't want to be a kid anymore. But the way he sees it, being an adult doesn't hold much promise either. I know where he’s coming from.

Although the amateur reviews were all glowing not all the professionals were as kind. One said:

The many grammatical errors, which serve as unsubtle reminders that this is, after all, a child we're dealing with here, are simply lazy shortcuts meant to compensate for the overall tone, which is ultimately too precociously self-aware to be believable. – New York Times

I suspect what this reviewer has failed to do is to buy into the whole thing. You simply have to watch children with a clown to see how they do that. Or, maybe I’m being overly generous. Here’s what another had to say:

Buten writes in a style I have never seen before. He captures the childlike voice quite well, but often I am left wondering whether an eight year old boy would really put sentences together in the way that they are in this book. – Jingle

The thing is I have seen that style before, a book called The Way The Family Got Away by Michael Kimball where the narrator is younger than Burt and nowhere near as bright and that book also received similar love-it or loathe-it reviews. All I can say is that whereas I struggled with that book I did not with When I Was Five I Killed Myself and I suspect that the only way any reader will be able to judge the book is by reading it themselves.

I struggled a bit trying to establish the year in which the book was set. It’s not terribly important but I had a suspicion that it wasn’t set in the eighties when the book was written. On further investigation I discovered that the book has since been turned into a film set in 1962 which would have made John F Kennedy president so I suspect the president in the book is actually Eisenhower (1953-61). The film is in French (Quand j'avais cinq ans, je m'ai tue) but for some reason they change Burt’s name to Gilbert, Gil for short. Why do they do that? It’s also been produced as a play in France. I guess they must have really loved that book. In the interview at the end of this review Buten only talks about it being in the fifties.

The book was first published in the States in 1981 under the not-very-inviting title, Burt, and quietly flopped. It has since been re-released and one can only hope the book-buying public discover it. It is a little gem.

I’ve seen the book compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in which the narrator is a fifteen year-old autistic boy. I’ve also seen Burt described by one reviewer as “an autistic spectrum child” but he is not and all you have to do is read the introduction to Buten’s book Through the Glass Wall where he describes his first encounter with autism to know that he knows the difference.

In that respect the book has more in common with bears comparison with One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest; McMurphy is not crazy but what he experiences and witnesses of psychiatric ‘care’ makes him mad as hell. Burt does meet an autistic boy called Carl while in the Centre but the whole crux of the book for me hinges on the fact that Burt is normal and it’s his normalcy that gets him in bother. Here I differentiate normalcy from conformity: doing what comes naturally is totally different from doing what is expected. What I’m saying here is that there is an important message to this book and one that should put aside any minor quibbles about the accuracy of Buten’s dialogue-writing skills and listen to that message.

Howard Buten, Ph.D., the author of eight novels published in France, is also a performing artist known as Buffo the clown, who has played opera houses around the world. A clinical psychologist (a ground- breaking researcher in therapies for autistic children) he divides his time between Paris and New York. He is the founding director of the Adam Shelton Centre in Paris, a noted clinic for the treatment of autism, a field in which he has worked since 1974.

If you click here you can listen to a fascinating interview with the author recorded by CBC in Quebec which covers his three separate lives. You'll need to have RealPlayer installed for it to play.


tashabud said...

Hi Jim,
This is a long post to read, and I'm having double visions from not having slept yet. But I'll be back to read and comment sometime tomorrow.

Just want to let you know that I have finally rewritten and posted the latest chapter of my blog novel, if you'd like to check it out. I'm always open for suggestions, too. If the rewrite still needs tweaking, just let me know.


gingatao said...

Cool, you talked me into Jim. And book with such a fascinating history has to be looked at. The book can be bought from Amazon. I got a second hand copy for five bucks. Intriguing review, I'll let you know what I think when I've read the book. Here's the link to the book at Amazon

Susan Sonnen said...

This was a fascinating post! I will definitely be ordering this book (but only after I have yours).

I always appreciate your candor.

I hope that you and yours are well. :)

Parvez Ahmed said...

How can I buy the book? I'm from India.

Jim Murdoch said...

Tasha, sorry to hear about the double vision. It's something my wife suffers from so I can sympathise. I'll try and remember to have a look at your chapter later. I'm quite behind on my blog reading at the moment in fact I've just written a post where I moan a bit about how much there is to read – all good stuff, of course – but here's a good example of how one can get too much of a good thing.

Paul, thanks for the Amazon link. I have seen other prints of this book but there is something quite nice about my weer-than-normal copy.

Susan, I'm glad you appreciated my review and, talking about candour, where have you been of late? There's tumbleweed blowing all over the place on your blog.

And, Parvez, I thought the whole point of us living in a global village is that it doesn't matter where you live you can access the same stuff? Paul left the Amazon link but you could also try Rediff Books which have copies for Rs.765/- + Rs.30 shipping.

Dave King said...

I so enjoyed this review that I'm not sure the book will be able to live up to it, which I know is not what you would want me to be saying. I do believe I am going to sport out my £5-something, though. I get the impression that it is a children's book at heart, but like all the best children's books a darn good read for adults.

Jim Murdoch said...

If I led you to believe this was a children's book, Dave, then I do apologise. I do think that older children would appreciate it however. I suspect that this guy has simply written his book, told his story and left it up to the rest of us to decide who it's target audience might be. Like all my reviews, I write it as I see it. I'm just pleased that over the last year of so I've run across a few books like this that have a bit of magic about them.

Jena Isle said...

Hi Jim,

I am always curious about unique looking books or unique titles. Thanks for sharing .an 8 yr old boy. Seems likened to my 12 yr old- boy - story. lol...

Thanks for sharing.

Jim Murdoch said...

It's important to remember in this book, Jena, the boy is precocious. It's partly what causes some of his problems.

BCT said...

There's a Reclam edition of 'When I was Five I killed myself'?
Reclam books are fantastic, they usually do foreign language texts...never found them doing anything else.

I am sure I have read this, I remember the title and the author but the story escapes me, which is obviously not a good thing...I shall attempt to find a reclam copy and re-read


Jim Murdoch said...

Bethan, thanks for dropping by. I have to say I think this is a book like Catcher in the Rye, in that it's something to reread every ten years or so to gauge who you are. It's actually about fifteen years since I read Catcher in the Rye last so I'm due to have another go. I'm pretty sure it won't excite me nearly as much now.

BCT said...

I'm going to be shamed in my peasantry and say I've yet to read
Catcher in the Rye but a copy does exist somewhere in my bookmountain so I should probably retrieve it!

Jim Murdoch said...

Oh, God, yes, Bethan, you're probably still young enough for it's magic to reach you.

BCT said...

Haha I should hope so. I'm aiming to remain 21 for the rest of time.

Thanks for the recommendation Jim !

Jen said...

I was looking for a book and now I must read this and reread Catcher in the Rye again. Thanks for the review.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad to be of assistance, Jen and thanks for the comment.

Sorlil said...

Well the title certainly grabbed my attention and I like the cover and I like little books!
However I was never that keen on The Catcher and the Rye, it bored me to be honest. I can see how it would have been groundbreaking in its time but I didn't get much out of it.

Ken Armstrong said...

Good review Jim. 'Catcher in the Rye' remains the only book which made me pretend I was sick so that I could leave work and go home and finish it. I think it is simply a 'must read' book and I would be most interested to hear how you might react to it now you are fifteen years away from your last visit.

Perhaps it's a post for next year?

Conda V. Douglas said...

Boy, Jim, Buten seems like he could be an intriguing and complex character in a novel himself. Intriguing and well written review. I adore reviews that let me know why I want to read a book. Not as easy as it sounds.

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorlil, I wouldn't assume that you wouldn't like this book simply because you failed to get in touch with your inner Catcher, the books are as different as they are similar; in the same vein it's nothing like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest but there are common themes.

As for what I'd make of Catcher in the Rye now, Ken, yes, that would be an interesting blog and I may take you up on that.

And, Conda, I think a biography of Buten would make a fascinating read.

Rachel Fox said...

You're right about the new title...very your review made me want to read it, whatever the title partly because there's nothing like a book (or writer) misunderstood by mainstream critics! As I read in 'The Secret Life of Trees' only this morning "fashion is a poor guide to truth".

I read 'Catcher' back at school and did enjoy it but can now remember absolutely nothing about it! When I get through the trees and the huge pile of to-read books by my bed I might reread that too!

Jim Murdoch said...

What gets me about this one, Rachel, is that after all the fuss the French made of the book no one cottoned onto the idea of maybe giving it a bit of a second push in the United States. And I'm the same, I popped out this morning to pick up a Xmas present and came back with a book of short stories from Oxfam to add to all the other books I'm not reading plus I couldn't resist buying a chapbook yesterday and that arrived through the post this morning. And the worst thing is, I'm really struggling to read at the moment.

Dick said...

Absolutely fascinating, Jim. But I feel a little like Dave re. the book matching its review! But, like him, I'm off to the shop with my pocket money committed to a purchase.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, I'm surprised, Dick, at the number of people who've rushed off to buy this thing. I suppose I should be flattered. I just hope the book lives up to people's expectations after all this.

tashabud said...

Sorry, it took me longer to return than what I've written here.

I definitely like the catchy title of that little book. However, I don't like the idea of the author misleading readers, either. From what I could discern from your post, the title is misleading.

Thanks for sharing this book with us.


Jim Murdoch said...

I have to defend Buten's choice of title, Tasha. The line he uses as a title appears in the book, in fact it is the first line. It is written in the past tense so we know we're going to be dealing with an older boy and that this is going to be a book of recollections. That the vast majority of them don't go back as far as when he was five is neither here nor there. There are so many books out there all vying for attention that an author cannot be blamed for using whatever trick is up his sleeve to get potential buyers to pick the thing up. And it works. I checked my stats for yesterday and I had 511 extra visitors from Stumbleupon alone all of whose interest will have been piqued by the title. That's a good title but no one buys a book based solely on a title.

Tiffany said...

This sounds like an incredible book and I plan to check it out from the library over my Christmas break. Thanks for sharing your insightful review.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your feedback, Tiffany. If your library doesn't have a copy I'm sure you'll have no problem picking up an inexpensive copy online.

Sandra said...

I really enjoyed this novel when I read it a couple of years ago. I don't think I ever convinced anyone else to read it, the title threw people off to start with. But it was their loss. Thanks for the in-depth review and bio notes. I knew that the author was considered one of France's top autism specialists, thus I figured he'd get a kid right, and he did, (though this boy is not autistic).
I didn't know about the clown aspects of his life but I wouldn't have cared. He's written an original story and it does deserve a wider audience.

Callista said...

Wow that was an amazing review! I wish I could write fiction reviews like that! The book sounds VERY interesting and will be put on my TBR list for sure. In fact I'll be featuring it in my friday finds post on friday.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad to find someone else who's read the book, Sandra, and I'm also delighted that you can underline my opinion of it. It pleases me no end when I discover a gem like this and can promote it not that I get huge audiences but a review like this doesn't go off and it'll be available online for a long time for people to blunder into.

And, Callista, it's not hard to write a review of something you are passionate about and I'm in a fortunate position here in that a) I can review whatever the hell I want to and b) I am not limited to so few words that all I can present in a pencil sketch of the book.

Beth F said...

Amazing review. Thanks so much for putting this book on my radar. Not sure yet if I'll be reading it, but I will be coming back to your blog.

Karen said...

Wow, what a review, what a book title! I'm going to add this to my reading list. Thank you for going s deep with the review - it has been ages since I read Catcher in the Rye - you have successfully tempted me to read this book! How interesting about the footnotes and size too!

Jim Murdoch said...

Beth F, Karen - glad I managed to pique your interests. I do hope you'll both decide to give it a go.

Deb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deb said...

I thought I would post a little note here to explain why your version of this book is so small in trim size and why it has German footnotes.

The publishing company, Reclam, specializes foreign-language books for native GERMAN speakers, particularly Germans who are learning English or French. The small trim size serves two functions: 1) If you're a student, it's easy to carry around, even in a pocket; 2) These little books can be offered at a much lower price than standard trade printings. The Reclam printing of this book is around 3 euros, whereas the trade edition is around 14. Massive price difference.

I'm an English teacher in Germany, and I use a lot of Reclam books with my students. I must have around a hundred of these books, and I also find them useful for expanding and improving my German.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Deb. I have to say I never thought to check out any other Reclaim titles but I really enjoyed the feel of the book and so I think I might.

Kate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Kate. I actually find writing reviews very helpful. It forces me to read properly. When I was younger I was too keen to get a book read and basically all I was doing was turning pages not reading. Knowing I'm going to have to explain myself and perhaps even defend myself is all the motivation I need. This particular post has been hugely popular, surprisingly so for a little book like this. I guess it's the odd title that catches people's eyes.

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