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

Monday, 6 July 2009


Lowboy Cover I have not encountered the subject of mental illness very often in literature – films, yes, they're full of deranged individuals. The first time was in Gogol's short story, Diary of a Madman, generally regarded as one of the earliest portrayals of schizophrenia, where we witness the gradual disintegration of Poprishchin, a low-ranking civil servant, who comes to believe he is the king of Spain. The next was Chief Bromden, in Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A relatively minor character in the film, in the book he is the narrator. He has been diagnosed as an incurable paranoid schizophrenic, who pretends to be deaf and dumb, in order to protect himself from the forces of "The Combine", which he believes is a mechanised society intent on usurping freedom and individuality. The next book was the autobiographical novel, The Words to Say It, by Marie Cardinal in which she tells us about the seven years spent in psychoanalysis battling against "The Thing" within her. I'm not sure how much that qualifies me to pass judgement on John Wray's novel, Lowboy, but I thought it best to be up front about this. I've never suffered from schizophrenia myself but then neither has Wray, it seems, so I suspect we're both starting off at a disadvantage.

The question has to be asked if whether Wray's protagonist comes across as believable. In her book Cardinal has this to say about herself:

In the course of my illness, there were moments more intelligent, more lucid, than I had ever known. I have heartrending memories. Without my madness I would never have discovered certain pathways of the mind. I was capable of incredible intellectual ability.

This would not be a bad description of the young man we meet on an underground train in New York on 11th November. But it's not a crazy person that comes to mind when you start to read those opening pages. He looks just as normal as did another mentally ill young man on a train headed to New York back in 1951; that would be Holden Caulfield. Wray willingly acknowledged the similarity:

FW: Lowboy has been likened to Holden Caulfield in some early reviews. What do you think about this comparison?

JW: I don’t object to it, actually. I loved The Catcher in the Rye growing up, and it was an important touchstone while working on Lowboy. The two novels are different enough, in all the self-evident ways, that I don’t feel uncomfortable in Mr. Salinger’s shadow. – Flavorwire, interview with Fernanda Diaz, March 6, 2009

Salinger, however, is not the only shadow that looms over this book. He's in good company with Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March), Dostoyevsky (Notes from the Underground), Kafka (Amerika) and James Joyce (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses) – these are authors Wray freely admits were in his mind as he wrote this novel – and that's not counting the other writers who reviewers say this novel tips its hat to such as the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler.

Yes, they're an odd bunch to get thrown in the mix but it'll make sense in a bit so bear with me. And I've not even got to his filmic influences yet.

Certainly John Wray is a well read (and well read-to) writer:

Wray John Wray, whose mother is Austrian and father is Californian, was born in Washington, D.C., where his parents, both scientists, were employed by the National Institute of Health. He grew up in Buffalo, New York, and in Friesach, a small town in the southern Austrian state of Carinthia. When he was a boy, his mother began reading Penguin Classics at a rate of exactly one per week, as a way to improve her English: one of his fondest childhood memories is of having The Pickwick Papers read to him at far too young an age, and understanding next to nothing, but loving the sound and mood of it regardless. – KQED Arts

And all this great literature has caused him to have ambitions in that direction himself. The critics loved his first two novels. The Right Hand of Sleep, about a tortured friendship in his mother’s Austrian hometown under the growing shadow of Hitler, won him a Whiting Award – a frequent indicator of impending literary success. Two years following the release of his second novel, the violent Canaan’s Tongue, set during the American Civil War, he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. And yet critical acclaim never translated into sales. Perhaps because the books have been labelled 'historical fiction' and subsequently sidelined.

So, what's an ambitious novelist to do? Lowboy is what he did, a contemporary novel that mixes genres. If this guy was a film maker we'd be looking at the next Stanley Kubrick. That sentence would please him I have no doubt because, in a 2008 issue of Esquire, he confessed, “You know, my dream, even when I started out, was to be to fiction something like Stanley Kubrick was to movies.” What he means by that is that he wanted to be an artist whose work isn’t easily classified.

[T]here's this thing that's kind of a curse on fiction in the 20th century, I don't know who it was in what writer's workshop who first thought of this "finding your voice" notion. I think it's destructive. … Kids in creative writing programs are told that there's a single, genuine voice inside them, only one, and that they have to find it. And I think you can really give a kid a complex with that. The truth is you are starting out your career and you have this whole spectrum. You can choose what you want and it'll be your book no matter what. And you can do that again with your next book or you can do something totally fucking different if you want. – Gothamist, interview with Hugh Merwin, May 5, 2009

I suspect this might cause him problems in the long run but I'm only really interested in what he's done with Lowboy today. The book's marketers, realising that the same fate could befall this book as befell his first two, have – wisely I suspect, knowing that the public like their thinking done for them – opted to market this book as more of a psychological thriller than anything else; it's a bit of a stretch but if it gets the book into people's hands then why not? The thing is, it's not really a thriller. The story revolves around a routine operation, tracking down a missing kid, and that is what happens; no subplots, no twists. There are a lot of things missing. It's simply not a thriller in the same way as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a thriller. Nathan Englander, author of Ministry of Special Cases, described Lowboy as a “psychotic, subterranean, environmentally conscious, coming-of-age novel" and that pretty much works for me. It may not rack up the tension but it will keep your interest.

16-year-old William Heller has been released from the Bellavista Psychiatric Institution (a definite nod to Bellevue Hospital there) and heads Subway to the subway. The book's opening paragraph seems simple enough however it contains important information that you won't realise it till later on:

On November 11 Lowboy ran to catch a train. People were in his way but he was careful not to touch them. He ran up the platform’s corrugated yellow lip and kept his eyes on the train’s cab, commanding it to wait. The doors had closed already but they opened when he kicked them. He couldn’t help but take that as a sign.

For some reason hot on his tail are "Skull & Bones", I'm guessing two orderlies from the hospital, who he manages to evade by page 2. He seats himself beside an elderly Sikh and strikes up an odd conversation. "People call me Lowboy," he tells him, "because I get moody ... also because I like trains." It's not a name he chose for himself. One of the inmates, likely one called Baby, gave it to him. Needless to say 'Baby' is not his real name any more than the orderlies are called 'Skull' or 'Bones'. Names are important in this book. Most people have more than one. All apart from Emily which I think must be significant; I don't see Wray as the kind of guy who leaves things like that to chance.

Oh, and I should have mentioned that William's off his meds. How he manages to get released and then chased I'm a bit vague about; perhaps I missed something. It's not hugely important.

Since I've brought up Emily we may as well take this opportunity to go through all the major players.

  • Ali Lateef (given name Rufus Lamarck White) is an African American New York City detective whose expertise is in "Special Category Missings". It's his job to locate William before he harms himself or someone else. In a few deft strokes Wray describes him for us: "His anger and his reticence made Lateef a man of solitary pleasures. His tastes ran to 78-rpm records, statesmen's autobiographies, and single-malt Scotch, preferably from the Highlands; the women he knew referred to him, sometimes dismissively, sometimes wistfully, as Old Professor White." He's an interesting cocktail of a character. I could see him getting his own TV series.
  • Yda Heller - known to Will as "Violet" - has been devoted to her son and yet appears incapable of helping him. Indeed she may even have been the source of his troubles. She is Austrian although the detective struggles placing her accent for the longest time. It doesn't help that she's idiomatically-challenged (e.g. "all the tea in China" instead of "all the time in the world").

This mismatched pair head off onto the streets of New York to try and find her son. An interesting relationship develops between the two of them; sometimes they read like an old married couple, nit-picking and difficult with each other, at times they're supportive and for some of the time they even flirt. Although Lowboy is a more beguiling character, this first couple are more entertaining than William and Emily prove to be. They are at times the light relief – Lowboy is funny in his own way – but also a sane harbour for the reader especially as the book progresses and William gets worse.

At one point Det. Lateef considers the similarities between mother and son:

He remembered how the boy had looked running. From the back the resemblance to his mother had been absolute. He’d moved differently, of course – in a loose, disjointed way that called attention to his sickness – but that had only emphasized their sameness. His sickness somehow made him more like her. There was a mystery there that Lateef could not enter. Yda and William Heller. Violet and Will. In some way they were interchangeable.

This mystery is finally (and all too easily) revealed towards the end of the novel and it's not that great a revelation; the premise that it exposes is although I wouldn't have felt cheated had we known from page 1. It just makes Lateef out to be less of a detective than he probably is because he senses early on that the mother's holding something back, but he doesn't know what. Neither did Wray as it happens. He was a year into the book before he figured it out.

  • NationalGeographic-June2007-GlobalW William Heller (a.k.a. Lowboy) is a paranoid schizophrenic who believes that the world will end in ten hours due to a sudden, apocalyptic episode of global warming. Unless he loses his virginity. He thinks of this as releasing "the world inside" him, an idea he's picked up from a National Geographic article on Buddhism. He has mixed up global warming rhetoric with the pharmaceutically induced shifts in his body's temperature. In a letter he writes to his mother in code (Isn't it convenient that ciphers happen to be a hobby of the detective?) he says:



It isn't actually that important who he has sex with it seems, in fact early on in the book he attempts to do just that with an obliging junkie confusing her with a woman he had a conversation with earlier on a station platform. They are interrupted by a policeman who is the first to report back to Det. Lateef the boy's whereabouts. William would prefer to have sex with Emily, his ex-girlfriend, and heads off to try and re-establish contact with her; they have not spoken since he was put away.

  • Emily Wallace is a 17-year-old girl who, though she knows better, might well do anything for the boy she loves. Her character is the least fleshed out of the four but it's clear that she's another misunderstood teen with problems of her own, a father who couldn't care less if she stays out all night for starters. William originally gets in trouble when she tried to hug him and he pushes her onto the subway tracks because he didn't like being touched. But she comes back for more, partly at least because William resembles Brad Pitt. She's convinced that the act was not malicious but she's also well aware that all is not right with William. At one point he says to her: "But I'm not your father," to which she replies, "That's true. You're fucked up in a totally different way."

Why all the dual names though? Even some of the minor characters have them. Wray had this to say:

I'm not sure why the notion of identity, and one's subjective relation to one's name, became so central to this novel in particular. Names have always interested me, but I suppose that's true for every novelist. Maybe I wanted to investigate ways in which the non-schizophrenic characters in the book also find their senses of self bent and/or distorted by the world around them, and they way they find a place for themselves within that misshapen environment. But that's just a guess. – Three Monkeys Online, Interview with Andrew Lawless, April 2009

The inspiration for the book comes from two main sources:

Growing up in Buffalo as John Henderson (Wray is a pen name), the author befriended “an amazing kid” who “seemed magically free of convention,” someone who would skateboard down their high-school hallway shouting, “The Silver Bullet!” as teachers dove for cover. Several years later, the student became schizophrenic and eventually committed suicide. “It was one of the most formative single events of my adolescence,” Wray says. – New York Books, March 1, 2009


Basically, this friend of mine told me about a news article she'd seen. I think in Austria, this middle-aged man's medication was wearing off and there was a manhunt for him. I thought that's a great premise for a thriller, and I think he was on the public transportation there. It just came to me in this package, like a little pellet. – Gothamist, interview with Hugh Merwin, May 5, 2009

I suppose I should mention that Wray's uncle helped to design the Vienna subway system, so he often visited those tunnels when he was growing up. Also he wrote the book while travelling on the subway, something that is evident in the details he slips in here and there:

Trains were easier to consider. There were thousands of them in the tunnel, pushing ghost trains of compressed air ahead of them, and every single one of them had a purpose. The train he was on was bound for Bedford Park Boulevard. Its coat-of-arms was a B in Helvetica type, rampant against a bright orange escutcheon. The train to his grandfather's house had the same colour: the colour of wax fruit, of sunsets painted on velvet, of light through half-closed eyelids at the beach.

The book was not written quickly and it shows. He aimed at 500 words a day. Sometimes he was done in an hour. Sometimes he was at it all day. The result is not a perfect book. It is a good book though and, a bit like Emily does with William, it's easy to forgive its flaws when you look at the whole package. The book mixes genres but it doesn't meld them; you get a slice of one thing and then the other, the odd chapters revolve around Lowboy and Emily, the even chapters focus on the detective and William's mother.

It is not a complicated book, at least the storyline is straightforward and this was deliberate. "Part of what appealed to me about the project," Wray said, "was that it was such a straightforward premise. There's nothing convoluted about the plot or the events. They could be described in a sentence." With a conventional thriller you don't know what's going to jump out of the dark at you next. Yes there were unknown elements in this book: just what's going on with William's mother? In what way might she be responsible for his condition? What will happen when William gets Emily back down to the subway? Is his mother right to believe that he won't hurt anyone? And what does he really expect to happen when he loses his cherry? And if that doesn't happen, then what? So, without making a big fuss about what it isn't what I can tell you is that you will keep turning those pages. I certainly did.

You'll have to decide for yourself if the ending Wray opts for is a surprise to you or a disappointment. Even if you anticipate it you'll still have to decide if you're disappointed by it. There are no real bad guys in this book. William is not going to be the next Hannibal Lecter. Conventional thrillers have bad guys and you know they're going to get their just desserts but what do any of the characters in this book deserve? A happy ending? If Hollywood does get its mitts on this one I'm sure there will be much debate about whether to keep the book's ending. There is no dénouement. You're left with you mouth hanging open. I think any scriptwriter who got this handed to him would at least tag on a scene where everything gets talked about and the audience can catch their breaths before the lights come on.

I mentioned Wray's filmic influences earlier. Here's why Lowboy might not be as enticing a prospect as one might first imagine:

I'm a hopeless film junkie, like a lot of writers I know, and I'm not surprised that bleeds into my writing. I certainly often conceive of scenes and descriptive passages in terms of camera position, depth of frame, tracking shots, and so on. But what's exciting to me about fiction are precisely those qualities – interiority, complexity of mood, subjective colouring – that can't be reproduced by any other medium. And I tend to privilege those elements in my writing, which of course makes my novels difficult to film, to put it mildly. Which doesn't mean I wouldn't love to see somebody try! – Three Monkeys Online, interview with Andrew Lawless, April 2009

ChiefBromden I'm not going to suggest that the book is unfilmable – too many unfilmable books have already been filmed – but a lot will be lost if they do, the better part I would say. I would hate to see William reduced in stature in the same way Chief Bromden was in the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Yes, it was a great film. It was a greater book.

But is Lowboy a great book? In ten years time, if I have to review another book with a schizophrenic protagonist will I be happy to add it to the three I listed in the opening paragraph? Time will tell. I'm not sure. There's a lot of good writing in this book, some beautiful images, like this one – "Just then the uptown B arrived and saved him. Its ghost blew into the station first, a tunnel-shaped clot of air the exact length of the train behind it, hot from its own great compression and speed, whipping the litter up into a cloud." – I mean, that's just lovely, but the detective storyline (not the character) does take away from its claim to greatness. Also anyone who doesn't live in New York will miss a number of subtle side swipes but I don't think the book suffers overly much because of that. I'm glad I read it. I'll be interested to see in what direction Wray heads next. Greatward I would expect.

There is a lot of information about this book online, a lot of reviews and quite a few interviews. Of them all, if you're still swithering, the one I would recommend you have a look at is on Portico's website. There are also a number of YouTube videos: There's an interview here and another in four parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. The podcast of the Bat Segundo Show that I quote from above can be heard here. There's a video of Wray reading part of the first chapter here and an audio file of him reading the entire first chapter here. If you like to do your own reading, though, the first chapter can be found online here too.

What I will leave you with is Wray reading a letter William wrote to Violet. The quality of the camerawork is not the best and the ambient music can be a bit grating but bear with it because his reading is entertaining and, more than anything I've written, this gives you a real taste of how this book feels once it gets into its stride.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of mental illness, this may be an important article for you to look at:

Best regards,

Mariana Soffer said...

In the 19th century there where many literary stories that where related to psychiatric illnesses. Science and art grew together then in lots of ways, and also helped the non scientific person to understand the strange phenomenons that psychiatrist talked about.
This one is a great classic, and a great example:
"The late 19th Century horror classics, Dracula and The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, offer unexpected insights into developments in brain research at the time, and the controversies it provoked. From double brains and literary lobotomies, to brain stems and missing souls - Dracula and Dr Jekyll were as much characters of science as of great literature."
The witters brother was indeed a psychiatrist himself.
There are also many other fantastic stories with this characteristics from that time.
I also wrote some about mental illness being pretty pervasive in all aspects of human culture and life.

Dave King said...

A very thorough treatment of the subject. I can't think off hand of a single major work of literature on the subject that you have not covered. Well crafted, too, in the way you have brought them together. An excellent read.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for leaving that link, Media Mentions. It was quite interesting. I also loved the interface. Very fancy.

Very valid point, Mariana. I'm sure there are many more works of literature that one could cite where mental illness affects one or more of the characters but I can only reference with any confidence books I'm familiar with and I'm afraid my hands on knowledge of 19th century literature is quite poor although I did consider mentioning The Yellow Wallpaper but decided against it because I was trying to focus on schizophrenics.

And, Dave, thank you for your kind words. Have I finally managed a review that you don't feel compelled to go out and buy at once?

Ken Armstrong said...

I actually identify a bit with Chief Bromden as portrayed in the book. He was an enormous person who saw himself as the puniest in the room.

While I am by no means enormous, I often have a similar blind spot for whatever meagre talents I might possess. Perhaps writing this comment will help.

Jim Murdoch said...

That film had a tremendous influence on me the first time I saw it, Ken (although I had read the book). I couldn't hold back the tears at the end. And, like you, I identified strongly with the Chief's mindset. I still do. It's why I fend of compliments like flies.

Ping services