What constitutes a really great work of fiction?

We have all done it, set down eagerly to read a new book and come away disappointed after the first few pages. It is not easy to create a gripping tale, but when an author gets it right, the result is priceless. This got me thinking about the characteristics that are actually found in a really great book, one that keeps you on the edge of your comfortable seat and reduces your ability to do anything else with your day.

I would argue that the mark of a great novel is that it entertains you from the first page. It grabs hold of your imagination and reels you in with every word, not letting go until the last sentence. As a writer, this is not something that you can easily learn how to do, but is rather a skill that comes naturally, like being able to read people’s reactions in partypoker and seeing through their bluffs. When a writer is able to grab your attention, you will get that type of rush that is often quite hard to find.

A great work of fiction should also be able to surprise you. You don’t want to be reading something that is predictable and boring, as it will lose its entertainment value. So a good few twists and turns that will keep readers interested is ideal.

Also important in a good page-turner is the ability to talk about it with friends. First of all, it should give you something to talk about, such as interesting new ideas or a controversial event. The more it makes you want to talk about it, the better it is at capturing your attention. It is the books that we share with others that have truly made it into our minds.

Storytails

Nick will be reading an extract from his novel, Love and Mayhem, at Storytails on Sunday 26th June 2011.

Storytails is a free event featuring readings of short fictional stories from some professional, and some not-quite-so professional writers. Storytails is held on the last Sunday of every month from 3pm at The Drop, beneath The Three Crowns pub on the corner of Stoke Newington Church St, London N16 0LH.

The aim of the event is to give those who enjoy writing short stories the opportunity to share original tales in a relaxed and friendly environment.

For more information please visit: http://www.storytails.org/

Roof – The Broken-Hearted

Roof, Shelter’s magazine, September/October 2006

The plight of the homeless first really dawned on me when I was twenty-one and living in America. My friend, Justin, and I were fast running out of money and needed work: we’d prepaid the rent on a short-term let – a poky studio flat just big enough to swing a cat in – and had just a few weeks remaining before we were out in the cold. Well, at least we were in Los Angeles, we told ourselves, the sun nearly always out in southern California. But, thankfully, work came in the nick of time.

We were hired by a pushy, blonde and busty LA girl – yes, the bosoms had, of course, been surgically enhanced – who was willing to take a chance on two young Brits (I doubt she would have hired us were we Mexicans), with no work permits, who needed money. However, it must be made clear that her motives were not entirely philanthropic: she knew she could pay us bugger all because we were working illegally, and it wasn’t as if we could throw the worker’s rights book at her. We had no rights … we were ‘aliens’ (according to the US Immigration and Nationality Act)! She also happened to have a bit of a soft spot for Justin: she couldn’t resist the English accent.

And so it was that we came to work for Balloon Celebrations, a business that made its money from selling latex, albeit latex balloons rather than condoms. The company was housed in a small retail complex that consisted of several shop units, and there was a common area at the rear which provided access to a large parking lot. It was there that I first met Lennie.

He was the very antithesis of the person I was working for. Not only was he not busty and blonde but also was someone who would have refused point-blank to cater for the excessive and ostentatious whims of the wealthy, and this was not just on account of his socialist principles. We had customers who spent tens of thousands of dollars on their own birthday party, and this was just the cost of the damn balloons! Lennie, rather, was someone of modest and humble disposition who lived a life on the streets, and had done for many years.

I heard him before I saw him, a man with a gravelly voice reciting John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. His recital immediately piqued my interest, not least because it was strange to hear the words of a nineteenth century English poet being spoken by a tough-sounding American guy in an ugly car park – though I’m not sure there is such a thing as a beautiful one – against a noisy backdrop of slamming doors, honking cars and moaning dump trucks.

Immediately I went looking for the source of this recitation, and with the closing words, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ I finally came upon a man in his mid-fifties with a mass of wild grey hair and a thick beard with streaks of grey in it, slender, and of average height it appeared, though I could not be sure as he was sitting down, leaning against the side of a dumpster. He wore a threadbare jacket, check shirt and a grubby pair of trousers. By his bare feet there was a plastic bag full of old books and magazines.

The first thing I did was to offer him money, a dollar bill, which he refused with a gentle shake of his head. Had he not been homeless then I surely would have done something else first, perhaps said hello, introduced myself, asked his name. But no, on account of his appearance I assumed he wanted money and nothing more. He smiled, his eyes a radiant blue, then said, ‘I don’t want your money, but if you’ve finished with that sandwich in your hand then I’ll have the rest of it.’

I promptly gave it to him, and so it was that I came to know a little of the life of Lennie.

In many respects he was a man of great dignity, and such a quality does not come easy when you’re sleeping rough, when your clothes are ragged and filthy, your body foul-smelling and dirty.

Lennie had taught English literature at Penn State University. He had married late, to a woman he loved very much, and expected to spend the rest of his life with her. However, she had died suddenly, in the blink of an eye, in a car accident: the driver who hit her had been drunk.

During the months following her death, torn apart by grief, Lennie found it increasingly difficult to cope: he struggled to hold down his job, struggled to find a reason to get up in the morning. In the end his mental collapse was swift. One day he was simply unable to get out of bed, and just lay there in a fetal position. He spent three days like that until he finally summoned the will to call for an ambulance: he was immediately hospitalized.

His story was familiar to me – I had also suffered a mental collapse, though not on account of grief – but I had been fortunate enough to have someone there to pick up the pieces. And once I had got through the initial period of crisis, where the symptoms of anxiety and depression were most acute, I had the benefit of continued support: a roof over my head, free health care, someone to talk to. But Lennie, after he was discharged from hospital, had none of these things: he was simply bundled out of the door with a few pills in his pocket, some Prozac (an antidepressant) and Xanax (an anxiolytic).

It was a broken-heart that had rendered him homeless, that had changed the course of his life irrevocably, and I only discovered for myself what a broken-heart could do a few years later when a relationship I was in with a woman I loved very much fell apart.

It was with this experience and with Lennie in mind that I began work on my first novel, Love and Mayhem, a book about love and what can happen when it is lost.

Lennie’s story is sadly typical of many who live on the street. He wasn’t a drunk, he wasn’t a junkie, and he wasn’t just plain lazy – far from it in fact, he walked miles every day and was an avid reader (an activity which often requires significant thought, concentration and diligence, that is unless you’re reading The Sun newspaper) – but he had suffered a mental collapse, had then not been given the necessary care to help him back to work, back to mainstream society, and so had been left to muddle along on its fringes, in the shadows, behind dumpsters or in shop doorways.

Marginalized, life on the street had slowly become a way of life for him, and by the time I met Lennie he was almost committed to this renegade existence. And why not, part of me thought. If this life he now led gave him some measure of peace and happiness after years of pain and heartache, then why not just let him be.

Writing about Lennie makes me think of the plight of someone closer to home, Anne Naysmith, who lived for three decades, until 2002, in an old beat-up Ford Consul parked on a wealthy residential street in Chiswick, west London. A former concert pianist, she had suffered a nervous breakdown after a failed love affair. She subsequently took to living in her car, and had become quite content there. However, an argument slowly began to rage between the street’s residents until those who were most concerned simply about how her presence might affect the value of their homes finally won the day: they promptly had the council remove the car, and she was forced into public housing.

It does seem, when it comes to people like Lennie and Anne, that we are often too quick to force others to live as we do, and struggle when they cannot or will not conform. Perhaps we would sometimes do better to merely listen, to remind ourselves of what a broken-heart feels like. Or maybe it is just that our heart is yet to be truly broken?

A Descent Into Darkness

It was the beginning of 2007 and life ambled along until the darkness struck, creeping up on me like a dense black cloud and then raining down on me, upon which my world was turned upside down for good.

I was thirty-four years old, still single, and wondered whether I was destined to be a lifelong bachelor: I had not been in a committed relationship for a number of years. My writing provided me with the rationale to be alone. Were I in a relationship, I would write less, be less productive. Were I married, I would be a negligent husband, in love with my work instead of my wife. Were I a father, I would be absent, forever tucked away in my ivory tower, consumed by the next book rather than my child’s well-being. It seems we are able to justify anything to ourselves, even if what we justify is self-destructive, is detrimental to our happiness.

I had written two novels and was working on my third, a sombre tale about a boy soldier who is forced to kill. In the midst of research, I was trawling through numerous accounts of child soldiers, which made for shocking reading. Boys no more than nine, ten and eleven years old described how, after an initial period of indoctrination where they were bullied and brutalized – it made clear to them that they would be killed should they not carry out orders – then went on to kill, first with horror and regret, but later without compunction, with relish. The most violent species on the planet, and one which is utterly dominant, we humans descend swiftly into brutality.

Though I anticipated the effect that such accounts might have on my psyche – they would likely darken it, blacken my view of human nature – I did not limit my reading of them, rather read them, the ones I had, then sought out others, scouring libraries and the internet like a fanatic in search of the most grisly, the most horrific. Why did I do this? I might have contempt for the tabloid editor who feeds the base appetites of his readers with countless sensationalist stories of sex and murder, yet here I was, the willing reader, intoxicated by endless accounts of violence and mayhem. My hypocrisy was clear.

However, beyond this need to gratify my abject and morbid desires, I was also driven by a determination – no more than this, a near missionary zeal – to confront, rather than to shy away from, the very worst that humankind has to offer. This pursuit was destructive – it made me increasingly introspective and morose – though was driven also by intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and moral purpose. I was desperate to get to the heart of humanity.

Had I had romantic love in my life – a woman beside me whose warmth and care ensured that I retained a necessary amount of hope and optimism in spite of all I was being confronted with – I would not have descended into darkness. But I did not. I was desperately alone. Hemingway was right about men without women: they are more prone to violence and despair.

My violence did not manifest itself outwardly, thank God. I did not feel compelled to commit some of the awful acts I had read about which now haunted me, be it the Congolese boy soldier who became a serial rapist of young girls or his rebel commander who went even further and butchered the women he came across like livestock, though only after he’d raped and sodomized them first. No, rather my violence expressed itself inwardly, atrocious thoughts and impulses ruling and tormenting my consciousness day and night.

It got to the point where their frequency and intensity made me first wonder, second worry, and third be sure that I would act on them, commit a gross act of violence. Why else why would they consume me as they did? I must possess an elemental cruelty like Hitler, a sadistic nature like Marquis de Sade. I must be predisposed to violence. There is evil lurking within me. I shall finally explode and wreak havoc on the world, in the manner of a serial or mass killer.

This barrage of questions, thoughts and impulses whirled around inside my head like an endless carousel, the search for answers to them, or some comfort from them, also without end. Yet I simply had to know. And why? Well, to be sure that I was not cruel, violent or evil. This need for certainty was as persistent as the doubts which plagued my mind. Was I, Nick Taussig, not a kind and decent person after all? Had I not shown myself to be moral and loving?!

What I was experiencing was ego-dystonic, my questions, thoughts and impulses feeling repugnant, distressing, unacceptable and inconsistent with the rest of my personality. However, perhaps my ego was simply unable to accommodate my darker side, and so had skewed my self-image, forcing me to view myself as kinder and more decent than I actually was.

Ultimately, the doubt slowly crippled me, rendering me increasingly helpless and desperate. Days working from home became long and arduous as I struggled to focus on what I was reading and writing, my concentration span becoming shorter and shorter until it was comparable with that of a gnat’s. Sadly, I was distracted less by the promise of laughter that a radio sitcom would offer or the experience of joy that a collection of jazz music would bring – such playful and nurturing diversions would have done me the world of good – rather more by the opportunity for further dark and aberrant rumination when I happened to read or hear another piece of news about a killer on the loose or a rapist who had struck again. Did I, beneath my veneer of gentility and goodness, want to do the same? Could I become that man, these men? This was my mind’s default position now, brooding endlessly on violence, murder and mayhem.

I was no longer able to appreciate anything joyful. I longed for peace, for my mind not to be consumed by deathly feelings, though the only peace I got was when I closed my eyes and fell asleep. It was a serenity I only experienced unconsciously. And I would never sleep for long, no more than four hours, from eleven at night till three in the morning, and when I woke I would be wide awake – as if I’d just had a massive line of coke – staring wide-eyed and blankly at the ceiling, in silent dread of what was to come: the unrelenting spew and flurry of my thoughts. I never got myself up – this is what I should have done – instead lay there consumed by rumination, until when I eventually did, some four hours later, I was exhausted and felt like I had not slept at all. Every day felt like the last.

It got to the point where I was unable to live on my own anymore: I needed help. I was fortunate enough to be able to call on my mother. Crucially, I was in need of someone whom I could confide in like no other, someone I was able to share my awful thoughts with and yet who’d love me all the same. I could confide in my psychiatrist, I thought – he proved a crucial pillar of support for me in the subsequent weeks and months – yet he did not love me as my mother did, and still does.

When I telephoned her and told her I was falling apart, there was no judgment in her voice, only care and concern. And when I told her that I needed to come and stay, she did not hesitate, despite the clear burden of a thirty-four year old son on the brink of emotional collapse, but instead welcomed me with open arms.

The first few weeks with her were awful. She was not awful, quite the opposite in fact, full of tenderness and compassion. Rather, what I went through was. I entered my own private hell.

I immediately began to smoke again, despite having given up for several years, and smoked like I’d never stopped, getting through at least forty a day. I puffed like a patient on a psychiatric ward – where I would have been had it not been for my mother’s love – chain-smoking, needing something to do, to focus on, to occupy me, other than my troubled mind. I ceased eating, food becoming anathema to me – rare because I have a hearty appetite – my only sustenance cigarettes. I’d lost some weight already – in the few weeks before I left my flat – but now I began to lose more. Within a fortnight, I’d shed two stone. My mother urged me to eat, even though I didn’t want to.

Depression had set in, this was clear, my anger and violence turning inward. The depressed mind literally attacks its keeper. It will starve it, make it thirst, dirty it, rob it of sleep. It is not dissimilar from the starving body, which, once it has run out of food will ravage, cannibalise itself. When I got up every morning, I saw little reason to wash, to brush my teeth. Standing in the bathroom staring blankly at my reflection in the mirror I did not experience a healthy desire to care for my face and body, to look after them, instead felt the antithesis of this: I wanted to neglect them, even harm them. And so I did not wash, did not brush my teeth. Then downstairs in the kitchen, I would have a morning cup of tea. I did not enjoy this, as I would have done before. It served only one purpose – to lubricate my dry throat and enable me to resume smoking. A few hours later I’d manage a banana, at best a piece of toast, and this I would similarly take no pleasure from. Again, I ate principally to quell the queasiness that was building in my empty stomach after the first six or seven cigarettes of the day.

My mother, though she was busy with work, with other family members and with her daily chores, would sit patiently with me at the breakfast table as I stared into space chain-smoking. My mother, as a student nurse, had trained in a psychiatric hospital – mandatory for all young nurses of her era – and my behaviour surely reminded her of this placement, the troubled patient unable to engage with the world, lost in the frenzy and sadness of his own soul, though in this instance the patient was unfortunately her own son. Her mere presence would open me up, encourage me to speak, to voice what was troubling me. I uttered no more than a few words at first, non-sequiturs, which most likely made little sense even to her, who knows me better than anyone. But as the days and weeks went by, I said more, a lot more.

The specific psychiatric disorder I was suffering from, obsessive bad thoughts, a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, is perhaps best articulated by Herman Melville, who wrote, “One trembles to think of that mysterious thing in the soul, which seems to acknowledge no human jurisdiction, but in spite of the individual’s own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts.” This trembling I experienced every time I had a perverse or repugnant thought of a violent or sexual nature, and what immediately followed was a sense of horror with myself, followed by shame and self-contempt. How can I think this? I am a bad person. I am a danger to others. Perhaps I should kill myself. Fearful of my thoughts and of myself, and eager to protect others from what I feared I might do to them, I had become a prisoner. Imprisoned by the contents of my mind, I had subsequently imprisoned myself.

The worst night came after a change in antidepressant medication, from seroxat to prozac (which my psychiatrist judged might be more effective), and the prescription of sleeping pills, which though getting me off to sleep still left me waking after four hours more exhausted than before as I now had to also contend with the effects of pharmacologically-induced fatigue. I had fallen asleep early, at ten o’ clock, and woke at two o’clock in the morning. In spite of the grog of zoplicone, the non-benzodiazepine hypnotic I was being prescribed, I was feeling restless. Gazing at the bookshelf beside the bed – my parents’ home is full of books and could surely service the whole village they live in – amidst countless histories of Central and East European countries and other books on political and economic theory (all my father’s books here), I spotted a biography of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, a book which I had read when first published in 1993. In it, the author, Brian Masters, attempts to understand what drove this man to rape, torture, murder, dismember and, in some cases, eat young men and boys between 1978 and 1991. In light of my fragile emotional state and the disorder I was suffering from, perhaps the last thing I should have done is pick up this book, and yet I did. I was seduced by the “imp of the perverse,” this phrase coined by Edgar Allen Poe, which Dr. Lee Baer explores in his important and compassionate work on obsessive bad thoughts, The Imp of the Mind.

In Poe’s words, “We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss – we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees  our sickness, and dizziness, and horror, become merged in the cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genie in the Arabian nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genie, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall – this rushing annihilation – for the very reason that involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination – for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the more impetuously approach it…”

It is this very paradoxical impulse that drove me to read the book from cover to cover in three hours. I read it frantically and urgently, barely pausing for breath, smoking incessantly as I did, convinced that it would provide a definitive explanation of a human being’s descent into evil, and that I, once in possession of this knowledge, would never succumb to evil. I was also eager to assure myself that I could never become this man because I was different in kind: I was essentially good, not bad. And yet once I had finished I did not find myself reassured and comforted, as neither did the author offer a conclusive answer as to why Jeffrey Dahmer did what he did nor did he confirm that I was different in kind from his subject, that I could never do what he had done. Rather he offered me the truth.

This truth was difficult to stomach because it did not provide the certainty that I wanted and needed. According to Brian Masters, there were many contributing factors which drove Jeffrey Dahmer to kill again and again, and these included his parents’ divorce, their neglect of him, his alcoholism, his clinical depression, his repressed homosexuality, his frequent loneliness, his lack of success in holding down a job, his inability to moderate his sexual desires and violent fantasies, his failure to seek treatment and take responsibility for his actions, amongst many others. Likewise Masters concluded that the difference between his subject and the average man was one of degree not kind. In his view, any one of us could descend to the depths of Jeffrey Dahmer’s behaviour if circumstance, character and environment misaligned and conspired to bring out the very worst in us, and if we, like him, did not show the necessary willingness, remorse, resolve and moral obligation to confront what we were becoming, and change what we were doing.

Riddled with even more doubt, I closed the book and sat on the edge of bed, twitching and longing for sunrise. For I had had enough of the night. The pressure of my thoughts, the intensity of my doubt, I was no longer able to tolerate. The suffering became so great that I suddenly imagined I was in the grip of an abominable nightmare and would wake at any moment to find that the last few weeks and months had been nothing more than the working of my troubled unconscious. And yet I was wide awake, I was conscious, and still my mind played havoc with my soul. I listened to the wind whipping through the trees outside, the rattle of the old sash windows in the bedroom, the patter of branches on their glass, and wished that the night would simply carry me away. But it did not.

I waited there on the edge of the bed for an hour praying for the sun to finally rise, sitting on my hands like an anxious and distraught child in need of its mother, unable to smoke anymore since my mouth and throat were so dry – incapable, it seems, of standing up and walking the few small steps around the bed to the little sink in the corner of the room where I could fill my empty glass with water and drink. And when the sun at last began to rise, I took myself upstairs to my parents’ room, standing there and hoping that they’d wake and offer me some comfort after a hellish night of fear and anguish. As a boy I used to suffer from nightmares, and would escape the dark and quiet of my bedroom and tiptoe downstairs to the lowest landing of the staircase from where I could hear my parents talking in the kitchen, this offering me sufficient relief and consolation, and there I would fall asleep until either my mother or father found me and carried me back upstairs to bed. And though they did not carry me now – I doubt they would have been able to – they provided me with the very same support and reassurance.

From this dreadful night, the light slowly returned. My mother showed her extraordinary quiet strength, possessing the composure, benevolence and resilience of a priest taking confession, as I talked about my troubles and fears: her work as a psychotherapist put her in good stead here, imbued with sufficient patience and wisdom. These confessionals then moved beyond the gruesome and unpleasant material of obsessive bad thoughts to my life in general, which, in spite of my professional success, desperately lacked something – a woman in my life and the prospect of a family, a child or children of my own. I had a string of romantic relationships behind me which had not worked, and I wondered whether, after several years without one, I had simply become too accustomed to living alone.

It seems my mother’s love for her son enabled her to both refrain from judgement where necessary and to absorb much of my distress, permitting my pain to become her own. She also encouraged me to eat once more, to regain my strength after many weeks of malnourishment, and also to wash, to care for my body after much neglect. As my strength grew, so did my conviction that I was a worthy human being, in spite of my occasional grisly thoughts, and that I was worthy of love.

Romantic love did not come right away, but when it showed its face, in the form of Klara, I could see it very clearly. For she possessed some of the same qualities of my mother, a deep and boundless heart, and a willingness to confront the human soul in all its ugliness and beauty, misery and happiness. With her love came a calmer mind, a mind more willing to be still, less reliant on reason and intellect, and more, on feeling and intuition; a wiser mind, more willing to live with doubt, uncertainty, the unknowable; and crucially, a more loving mind.

I Aspire to Be Downwardly Mobile!

William Styron, in his wonderful short story, Shadrach, describes how his young ten-year-old protagonist loved the Dabneys because they were happy to bask in “casual squalor”, possessing a total absence “of the bourgeois aspirations and gentility which were my own inheritance.” This inheritance is ours also, every Briton’s, Thatcher’s free market crusade and promotion of rampant individualism creating a foul breed of Daily Mail reader still obsessed with family values and the defense of conservative interests, who pervades our culture like a sick, daft, populist bigot, convinced that happiness lies solely in material gain and social mobility. Behold this rag’s coverage of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The ordinary girl has made it into the aristocracy and been crowned a Duchess – isn’t this wonderful! – just as the grocer’s daughter, Margaret, clambered her way, with relentless guile, to the top of the ruling class and was appointed P.M. Like Styron’s boy hero, I despise such socially mobile aspirations, which are judged solely according to the amount of wealth and power obtained. I’d rather languish in a dead-end job with Styron’s book in one hand and a whisky in the other than marry into the royal family or rule the country. For it is better to be alone, with one’s soul intact, than to spend one’s life in bad company, the company of a Daily Mail reader, hero or heroine.

What Does it Mean to be a Man Today?

I’m due to become a father soon, and the following question is becoming increasingly pertinent in my mind: what does it mean to be a man today?

As a young boy, I imagined that I’d make myself into a man by being rational, analytical, controlled, steadfast and independent. I would exercise these uniquely male characteristics in my various roles as a father, husband and breadwinner. But in reality, though at times I might display these qualities to my wife and employer, I also display their opposite: I can be unreasonable, emotional, whimsical and needy.

It would seem that my childhood forecast of masculinity has not been fully realised, that I’m some way off its fulfilment. Can this solely be attributed to my own weaknesses and inadequacies, or is my failure representative of all men? My hunch is that I’m not alone, that there are other men out there feeling the very same, looking over their shoulders and crying out, “Look at these women!”

In intellectual development, social adjustment, professional achievement and personal happiness, women are surpassing men at an alarming rate. How have men responded to this challenge to their dominance, their loss of control? Well, by doing what us men do best … being destructive! In Britain, men perpetrate over 90% of convicted acts of violence. Around 90% of school children with behavioural problems are male. Men carry out most sexual abuse. Jails are crammed full of men. In  2010, three times as many young men killed themselves as young women. We’re not responding well to the challenge of the post-feminist world. Drink and drugs will not save us. We’re sick.

Feminists need not be so vociferous and vengeful anymore. Women are winning, and all the signs are that they are fast becoming the dominant species. Last year, some 25.5% of GCSE exams taken by girls was graded an A* or A compared with just 19.5% of qualifications sat by boys – a gap of 6%. In the European Union, there are now 20% more female graduates than male, and their prospects of employment far exceed men’s. And most significant of all, an increasing number of women are choosing to conceive and rear a child on their own. Man’s role is being reduced to a petri dish, God forbid! Even for the most deluded of men, in a state of perpetual denial, this picture of male decline in the new millenium is strikingly clear.

Radical feminist thinkers insist that women scare the man in me, threaten me, and make me defensive in female company. According to them, I look at women as impersonal objects to be impregnated, and nothing more. I feel that I must control them at all times, since they have a tendency to be hysterical, dependent, irrational, ambiguous and weak – all these uniquely feminine characteristics.

Now, different arguments have been put forward as to why men fear women. Freud thought it was the fear of castration. A man looks at a woman’s genitalia and sees with horror, and disgust, the absence of a penis – a woman is a kind of mutilated man, sick and inadequate. But is there not something exquisitely beautiful about the female genitalia, and is it not male genitalia which inspires horror, in Sylvia Plath’s words “a turkey neck and gizzards.” Then there are the attachment theorists who believe that a boy’s separation from his mother is a terribly painful experience, which he never fully recovers from. With this loss comes the realisation that he can no longer possess his mother orally, and that he will never control her genitally. Thus, he mustn’t allow himself ever again to completely trust a woman, be so dependent on one. He can never again feel so weak and helpless, out of his mother’s arms. And so he grows up into a man who hates all women as whores, and wants to be sadistic and cruel to them. It is no mere coincidence that men, when they are violent towards women, often rape them. For this is where they feel they can exercise most control. And last of all, there is the fact that the fulfilment of a heterosexual man’s desires is utterly dependent on a willing woman. All men have an ever-present itch that they need to scratch, perpetually driven by their incorrigible sex drive. They produce 25 times more testosterone per day than women. They fantasise about having a woman who is always sexually available to them. And when they can’t get what they want, well … then they want to destroy it. Modern man is in love with pornography. It relieves the itch – it’s quick relief, impersonal, controlled and contained in the realms of fantasy. He gets excited, masturbates, and then ejaculates. Steve Biddulph, the author of Manhood, remarked that “the sex-sell in this country is incredible. It’s amazing that young British men can think straight. They’re taught that they want one thing and they believe it.” Today, men define themselves by their genitals – the size of their prick and how hard it can get.

Men are violent. Yes we are. For men who have lost someone or something, who have failed to express themselves in other ways, and who are preoccupied with control, violence is their final desperate mark on the world. I have been an angry young man who thought the whole world was shit. Restless and aggressive, I had to put my rage and frustration somewhere. Those feelings could only go one of two ways, either inside or outside myself. A violent man is either reduced to a depressive state, curled up like a child in his bed, with no will to eat let alone get up, or he is locked up in a prison cell after harming someone else. But in both instances, the man commits violence, be it against himself or someone else. In his bed or in his cell, he feels the same – hopeless, ashamed, humiliated, angry and alienated. Suicidal and homicidal tendencies go hand in hand. When I was depressed, I fluctuated wildly between self-destruction and the destruction of others. Thankfully, I never hurt anyone. But I could have done. The point I am trying to make is that violence against oneself or someone else comes from the same place. This reality – for it is precisely that – does not justify or pardon the actions of a violent man, but crucially explains them as a complex web of interacting factors. Let’s forget John Major’s call after the murder of James Bulger for “less understanding and more condemnation.” And let’s not label a violent man a “monster” or “devil”. It is no longer appropriate to explain his actions as the product of the innate evil in his character. Such a populist or monistic religious view is untrue. A moral judgment must be made, but not so as we can suspend our horror at the painful truth of our own accountability and blame. For then how would man ever learn to tame his aggression, to learn the language of non-violence? He never would.

I have painted a rather bleak picture of the sate of modern man. What about modern woman? Mustn’t she be held accountable for some of the trouble with us men? Can it really be our entire fault? Have we let ourselves be emasculated? Are there not violent and cruel women as well as men? We only have to look at the organisation of AMEN, an Irish group helping male victims of domestic violence, to testify to this fact. According to one recent study, half of spouse murder victims were found to be alcoholic or psychotic and had played a significant part in their own death. And then there is Erin Prizzey, founder of the first women’s refuge for battered women, who declared that battered women were themselves violent by nature, much to the dismay of certain feminists. However, men’s violence still far exceeds women’s. Far more men hurt women than women hurt men. This fact cannot be ignored.

The psychiatrist Anthony Clare, in his book, On Men: Masculinity in Crisis, states that “phallic man, authoritative, dominant, assertive … is starting to die.” But he believes that a new man can emerge in his place. This man will no longer be reticent about his emotional life and relentless in his desire to control women. Rather, he’ll harness his propensity to dominate and express himself through words and tears rather than threats and punches. It does seem that man must now reinvent himself in a new image. Guns and viagra are firing blanks, the final death throes of a dwindling phallus. Good luck to us all. We need it.

The Readers

My wife, an artist, took me to a performance of The Readers in Hackney the other night, an avant-garde performance art group led by two contemporary artists Ramon Salgado-Touzon and Jones Tensini. “What do they do?” I asked her dismissively, on the way to the venue. “Well, it’s hard to explain,” she replied. “They’re specialists in keynote, foreground and electro-acoustic sounds, which in English means they play and perform music quite like you’ve never heard and seen before.” I judged this to be a euphemism for “obscure, abstract, nonsensical arty bullshit!” But hell, I was wrong. What I heard and saw that night was wonderful, extraordinary. Think the minimalism of Phillip Glass but rife with even more sounds – a cornet, a harp, a bell, a glockenspiel, a vocoder, a human scream, a musical saw, the list of instruments does not end here. Think the melancholic, haunting voice of Billie Holiday but from a contra tenor dressed in a striking dress and corset, and wearing high heels. I lost myself in the performance and music, the group’s mantra ringing in my ears: “The Readers want to free you from your need to consume.” Why was I so moved, entranced? Well, my work as a film producer and novelist is predominantly hard-nosed and commercial: I want people to consume what I create. The end product might inspire artistic feeling in the viewing and reading public, yet the making and selling of it rarely does. Today, a producer, even a novelist if truth be told (writers have to get out there now like everyone else does and flog their work), hustles and pushes all the way, money driving the process, creativity typically way down the list of priorities. And here, in The Readers, was art for art’s sake, crucial and precious in a world which commodifies everything. Go see them, lose yourself in them, and learn to value real art once more.

Go to The Readers

The Limitations of Lying on the Couch

Human Givens, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer 2002

I want to recount my experience of psychoanalysis in the hope that I can determine exactly how effective and therapeutic it was for me. Did it alleviate my mental distress? Did it make me feel less miserable? Did it make me happier? I do not conduct this inquiry solely in the spirit of a former patient’s rebellion against his analyst. I am not just writing to make trouble with him and the psychoanalytic institution. Rather I make this examination because I believe that this psychological process, like any other, ought to be scrutinized and contemplated. It should be able to withstand the critic’s eye, and even the contrarian’s challenge.

If I conclude that psychoanalysis did not help me, then I would hope that its practitioners – some of who might be reading this – would ask the crucial question: does psychoanalysis, as a psychological approach and method, contain flaws both in its understanding of mental functioning and its treatment of mental disturbance?

In this article, I propose that psychoanalysis is intellectually aloof, that it demands a near-religious dogmatism from its practitioners, that it is too concerned with the self rather than the rest of the world. Personal knowledge and insight are not everything. The world goes on around us irrespective of our mastery of our unconscious selves.

The powerful establishment of psychoanalysis, with all its intellectual pomposity – if only it were as clever as it considered itself to be – must be held to account if it provides ineffective treatment for its patients (as opposed to ‘clients’), and even worse, if it actually increases the suffering of these individuals.

Entering analysis
I was in psychoanalysis for three years. I entered analysis (or ‘psychoanalytical psychotherapy’, as some refer to it in its less intense incarnation) when I was 26. After the break-up of a relationship both my anxiety and my depression became more and more unmanageable. They started to interfere with my day-to-day life, my ability to work and to socialize. Then they began to affect my personal relationships.

It became increasingly painful and difficult to spend time with the people I care for, the people I love. I went on to lose my appetite for food and my ability to sleep. I started to wake early, at half past four in the morning, and lay there tossing and turning, full of dread at the prospect of getting up and going out. Before long I was permanently confined to my bed, in a desperate state.

I saw my GP and was prescribed anti-depressant and anxiolytic medication. To compliment the drug treatment she referred me to a counsellor who worked for the practice. The NHS provided a weekly one-hour session for ten weeks, after which time I could decide whether I wanted to continue treatment with another practitioner. The counsellor introduced me to the various different psychotherapies, offering me a brief outline of how each one worked, and finally referred me to a psychoanalyst. After consultation with my GP, I stopped taking medication and entered analysis.

The psychoanalytic process
Freud offered, for the study of the mind, a concatenated model – id, ego, superego – which facilitated systematic study of causes and symptoms, symptoms and causes. Through this psychological process I hoped to rid myself of the anxiety and depression, which caused me so much pain and distress. I would enter into an intense relationship with the analyst, and become very dependent on him. He would guide me as I penetrated my unconscious and dug deep inside it. He would help me remember and identify specific earlier traumas, which had been repressed. He would encourage me to re-live them and he would interpret them. And through this painful and rigorous process, of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, I would gain a new understanding and insight, which would put an end to my ‘neurotic symptoms’, as Freud would have me call them. In short, this method of digging up and unraveling my past experiences would make me better.

So where was I after the first nine months of therapy? Was I less depressed and less anxious? Well, not exactly. In fact, not at all. Far from making a recovery, I had another mental collapse: I was in a state of crisis again. My then relationship suffered terribly during this time. My GP referred me to a psychiatrist, who was not so concerned with my symptoms’ aetiology, but rather with their prognosis and containment. He diagnosed depression and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), and prescribed a combination of medication (paroxetine, commonly known as Seroxat) and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). I only had three sessions of CBT, and now wish that I’d had more.

Throughout this period of crisis I continued to see my analyst. Unfortunately, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that I can appreciate how ill-equipped psychoanalysis is when it comes to dealing with serious emotional distress. Freud always maintained that his would-be science responded best to neurosis, the less serious forms of emotional suffering. Well, he was right about this. ‘Some neurotics have remained so infantile that in analysis… they can only be treated as children,’ he’d remarked. Perhaps I was such an infantile patient? God only knows what criteria he applied to make the value judgement of ‘infantile’. His definition seems nothing more than an act of pedagogic discipline. According to him, it would seem that anyone is weak and puerile if they do not respond, as they should, to the therapeutic powers of his method, and sicker still, if they challenge his will and his method.

The purity of analysis
I was reluctant to come off the medication again until I felt ready. I recently read an article in The Observer newspaper in which Lewis Wolpert, the Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London and author of Malignant Sadness: the Anatomy of Depression said, ‘People say to me, “Is the Seroxat helping you now?” But how the hell can I know? I stick with it because I’m too nervous to stop.’ Like him, I was terrified of the return of another depressive episode. My analyst agreed to continue seeing me, but we would work towards me coming off anti-depressants.

There are some analysts who refuse to see patients who are either on medication or receiving behavioural therapy. According to them drug treatment and behavioural therapy act as a smoke screen. They dampen down the emotions of the patient, and hence hinder him or her getting to the root of the problem. According to analytic theory neuroses need to be uprooted at the core. Painful experiences must be remembered, reflected upon and interpreted. Only then is significant characterological change possible. Implicit in this ‘hypothesis’ – let us give it its proper status as an assumption or proposition rather than a scientific truth – is the idea that the patient’s symptoms such as depression, severe anxiety or obsessional behaviour are the ‘expressions of highly charged conflicting impulses and fears’. Man is viewed in rather bleak terms as a cesspit of seething affect and sexual drives. If these are confronted and understood – revealed and ‘confessed’ to the analyst – then the patient shall ‘thereby [gain] relief and enrichment in [his or her] personal and intellectual life’. The patient must give himself over to the process. The patient must work hard and be rigorous with him or her self. Only then shall the patient gain relief, and become the true master of his unconscious. These are the rather dogmatic and educative rules of the psychoanalytic game: to make the unconscious conscious. All emotional conflict is interpersonal or person-centred, to use modern terminology. The rest of the world is not so important. Hence, genetic, biological, gender, environmental, economic, cultural, religious and racial concerns do not figure at the roots of mental distress. One need look no further than oneself and one’s own mother and father.

In search of a non-deterministic view
I must question this theoretical assertion and practice, particularly in light of recent advances in neuroscience. Depression and anxiety disorders have recently been attributed to low serotonin (one of several neurotransmitter chemicals that nerve cells in the brain use in communicating with one another). Anti-depressant medication works by slowing the reuptake of serotonin by the transmitting cell, thus making it more available to the receiving cell and prolonging its effect on the brain. Hence, if someone is biologically predisposed to depression and/or anxiety, rooting about in their past will not reverse this chemical imbalance, their inherent brain chemistry. Likewise, if someone is subjected to serious racial abuse and discrimination in the area in which they live, what will help this person is not a lengthy process of self-reflection and analysis but rather a change of environment or an appeal to the police. Only the abuser can change his or her own behaviour. That is unless he or she is forced to by the rule of law. No amount of personal knowledge and insight by the victim will halt the perpetrator’s abuse. These biological, hereditary, racial and environmental explanations of the causes of mental distress demonstrate the narrow scope and limited perspective of psychoanalytic theory. Trouble also comes from the real world, not just from within.

I spent the next year and a half in analysis building up to the point where I felt confident about coming off the medication. I hoped that the psychoanalytic process of rooting about in my unconscious would provide me with the inner resources to handle another depressive episode if, God forbid, another one crept up on me. My increased insight would give me the necessary strength. But it did not.

Biological madness
When I came off the medication I felt myself spiraling out of control. Self-knowledge didn’t seem enough. However, my analyst assured me that courage was required to avoid medication again, and that my current mental distress could be worked through. But I felt the chemistry going, that I was crossing the line into madness. My anxiety and depression had their own force and momentum, and I could not halt their relentless course. I yearned for practical coping strategies and tools to manage the anxiety. I desperately tried to recall what I had learnt in my few sessions of CBT. These practical behavioural approaches ran contrary to the ideas of psychoanalysis. My analyst perceived these methods as just ‘bloody management’, which fail to get to the root of the problem. They are temporary, shallow and artificial devices that do not set out to ‘cure’ and ‘heal’, but rather to ‘dampen down’ and to ‘manage’. Eventually I returned to my psychiatrist, who prescribed medication again.

Andrew Solomon, in his book The Noonday Demon, refers to his depressive breakdown as the point where ‘once you cross over, the rules all change. Everything that had been written in English is now in Chinese’. After nearly three years of lying on the couch, I might have possessed a greater intellectual understanding of the aetiology of my mental distress, but my symptoms still persisted, and with the same vigour and menace. I lay on the couch, in the midst of a panic attack and feeling suicidal, and sadly, all my analyst could offer me in terms of support was yet another interpretation. ‘You must examine again your early relationship with your mother.’ He said this with conviction, as if it provided the answer to all my distress, as if this insight would relieve me of my suffering. And at that moment I knew that analysis could not offer me anything else.

The impossibility of closure
When I announced that I wanted to terminate my therapy I was accused of being unwilling to fully commit myself to the process. My failure to completely let go, to fully trust in the analyst and his methodology, to open up, to expose all of myself, to relinquish my ego – I could go on – meant that my distressing symptoms would persist. My analyst cited that when I was particularly anxious, I used to charge straight into the toilet as soon as I entered the building and empty my bowels. Quite literally, I couldn’t contain myself. Now frustrated and angry, he declared that I unconsciously wished I could shit on him – according to his interpretation, this was my ultimate fantasy. If my anger were not repressed, if I were bolder, then I could speak instead of shit, I could confront him with words rather than faeces. According to this hypothesis, my depression was a kind of internalized violence. When my legitimate anger against others could not express itself, well … then it turned inwards, to self-contempt and self-destruction. This was his interpretation of my distress, which he assumed to be the root cause of my anxiety and depression, and he applied it rigorously. He knew what my shit really meant, and he told me so.

There was indeed some truth in my analyst’s explanation. I did feel angry. But I also felt very sad and confused. And these two feelings prevailed as my anger subsided. I asked myself, ‘How would this challenge to his dominance help me? Would it lift me out of my despair, just to enter into a conflict with him, to feel powerful?’ According to the rather brutal, pessimistic dog-eat-dog worldview of psychoanalytic theory, it would. This reminds me of the school bully, who having spent years being bullied himself, finally gets to the position where he can dominate others, where he can become the bully. And he takes up this role with relish. The analysand becomes the analyst. Now it’s his turn to be tough with his patients.

But when I did challenge his interpretation and deny the therapeutic value of his interpretation, my objection was not taken as a statement of truth but rather as a projection of my fantasy, an act of denial. The analyst alone, sitting aloof in his chair and looking down at his patient, can see the truth. He can be counted on to tell the patient what he or she really means. He is the best judge of what the patient is really thinking and feeling.

But how can this be? For what qualifies him to suddenly be in the position of authority. The psychoanalytic institution would respond, ‘Because he has been vigorously analyzed himself.’ But how can analysis be measured? Perhaps by the number of hours, or by the level of intellectual content, or by the number of tears shed? No, the process is too unique, too subjective. Every analysand’s experience is so different. Suffering cannot be universalized.

I was unsure what else I could do in analysis, what else I could gain from the process. I had entered therapy to relieve the burden of my memories and to be happy again. I had carefully reflected on my past experience as the process required. I had listened to the analyst’s interpretations, considered and incorporated them into my present life. I had made a systematic, concerted effort to make my unconscious conscious. According to psychoanalysis, if I took all these steps and pursued them with vigour and commitment, my suffering would be alleviated. And yet after my long and passionate commitment to a process, an ideology, an institution and a practice that I hoped could help me and lift me out of the dark, I was still deeply unhappy. I had put my faith in a psychological process that had failed to help me – though it would probably still maintain, even now, that this was my failure rather than its own.

I left analysis still suffering from bouts of crippling anxiety and depression. I left analysis still feeling emotions that often seemed completely senseless and unmanageable. It was a valuable intellectual exercise in self-awareness, but beyond this internal exploration of my unconscious it did not offer any practical solutions to my mental distress, it did not alleviate my suffering. It was not as therapeutic as it believed itself to be.

Believing in a more compassionate and humble approach
And now, a few months since I ended my analysis, I feel better, a whole lot better. Psychoanalysis insisted it could understand my experience in the format of theory alone. But to its great detriment, it did not meet my basic emotional needs and it did not nurture my built-in resources to help myself. It was unbending about the ultimate truth of its own approach. It was sure that it alone – as opposed to any other therapeutic method, faith, belief system or ideology – possessed the key to unlock the secrets of men’s and women’s hearts. It was blind to any other way of seeing the world. Human experience has shown itself to be too unique, varied, enigmatic and ambiguous. Life, at every corner, seems to resist definition and categorization. Different people need different things. Likewise, different theories and methods work for different people.

Bibliography
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1964
Griffin, Joseph and Tyrrell, Ivan. Psychotherapy and the Human Givens. Human Givens Publishing, 1999
Hayman, Ronald. A Life of Jung. London: Bloomsbury, 1999
Masson, Jeffrey. Against Therapy. London: Harper Collins, 1989
Solomon, Andrew. The Noonday Demon. London: Chatto & Windus, 2001
Wolpert, Lewis. Malignant Sadness: the Anatomy of Depression. New York: Free Press, 1999

Love and Mayhem, from Chapter 3

The bus he gets on is packed. He scans the bottom deck for an empty seat, then goes upstairs. As he reaches the top, he glances round and spots a vacant aisle seat two from the back. He sits down and almost immediately finds himself drifting into warm reflections about his time with Catherine in Morocco. The passenger sitting next to him suddenly grasps the seat rail in front with both hands and begins to rock to and fro in his seat. This action is accompanied by a hypnotic hum, as if it is some kind of alcoholic’s mantra; Jack smells the stale stench of beer coming from his mouth. The man is in his mid-fifties, with a mass of wild grey hair and a thick black beard with streaks of grey. He is stocky, thick set, big. He has a rugged, pock-marked and leathery complexion, which looks like it has suffered years of abuse and neglect as a result of heavy drinking and exposure to the winter elements. He wears an old threadbare tweed jacket, a check shirt and a grubby pair of trousers. There is a plastic bag full of books and newspaper cuttings between his legs.

Jack has encountered this man a few times before; he is difficult to miss. The last time was a few months ago, in Notting Hill not Shepherd’s Bush: Jack was getting off the bus as he was getting on. He remembers this because the man almost knocked him over. Jack had to grab hold of his shoulder to stop himself falling. The man clasped his arm, he had big hands, wore an old gold wedding ring. Jack looked at him closely then, searchingly, but the man did not reciprocate his observation. He just hurried away, as if fleeing the scene of a crime, and Jack was left to wonder how he might have ended up this way, so broken and destitute. He recalled that he talked to Sam about him the night it happened, who typically ridiculed him for his fascination with desperate strangers. It is his ‘little idiosyncrasy’: this is how Sam referred to it. Now, seated next to the man, Jack begins to speculate again about his fate. He finds himself, rather uncomfortably, staring at the man in the frankly curious manner of a small child observing a strange spectacle – an exposure of the tragic side of life, someone condemned to a life of eccentric pursuits and painful neuroses – something he must fathom. The man does not seem conscious of his inquiry as he continues to rock and hum…

View the book Love and Mayhem


Love and Mayhem, Chapter 34

The last few days, Catherine has felt like she is flying: she is happy all the time. And she feels like this now as she squints her eyes, peering through the branches at the blue above her, flying through the sky, over a lush landscape and towards a big city. And suddenly she is in the city, gliding above streets and people. She dives down and then swoops up again, up the side of a very tall building … yes, a skyscraper. Up and up like a bird.

Oh … she, Catherine, can do anything, absolutely anything. The whole world is hers. Everyone is beautiful. She loves them all. She wants to help everyone in need, care for them all. Life has become a daydream, a carnival of magical colours, everything so bright and clear, wherever she looks. Catherine does not know why she feels so elated, so wonderful, powerful: it does not make sense. But she does know she must savour this high while it lasts: she has secretly been longing for it for some time. She stared at herself in the mirror when she got up this morning and did not quite know who she was.

Catherine puts on her headphones now as she looks at the sky again, blue, so blue. She feels like she is going inside the music, feels it so closely she becomes it. Personal identity gone. She is a soprano’s voice. The pluck of a guitar string. She is so free. It feels like an orgasm; it is unstoppable. She is higher than she has ever been before, Catherine thinks. She knows she is flying too high, like Icarus she is too close to the sun. Her fall is inevitable, but she does not care. While she feels this good, may it last as long as it can…

View the book Love and Mayhem