Works of the imagination that deal with mental illness or deficiency seem few and far between. In fact, although I read widely and often, the principal artistic avenue by which I felt I was entering the world of the schizophrenic has, for a long while been these cat pictures
by Louis Wain, a British artist who thus documented his journey into an alternative mental world. Four samples of these remarkable works are reproduced here. (I find the last picture truly horrifying; I would not be inflicting it on you if I did not feel it was important to our understanding of about 1 percent of the population living with schizophrenia.)
But now, along with Louis Wain’s visual testimony, I also have Patrick McGrath’s novel Spider (1990). This is my first McGrath; his style reportedly runs in the Gothic vein, not always my favorite mode, but here totally appropriate to its subject matter.
“Spider” is the nickname (based on his appearance) of Dennis Cleg, whom we initially meet in a halfway house for the mentally disturbed. He tries to clarify his past by writing a journal (which is actually the substance of the novel). He relates his childhood, during which he seemed to have experienced a horrible act of
violence committed within his family. But somewhat like Poe’s narrator in “The Tell Tale Heart” who avers that he is not mad, Cleg is perhaps not the most reliable of narrators, so the real truth (if it is indeed the truth) takes a while to emerge …
As with the last cat picture above, you will have to endure some ghastly imagery if you delve into this novel … such as
“I was very attentive to sensations from the [imagined] empty space in my torso, for I now had reason to think it infested with spiders. I pictured webby constructions glistening in the darkness, damp silk traplines flung from breastbone to backbone, pelvis to rib. Scuttling creatures, weaving and spinning inside me—”
But you will be rewarded with a persuasive (I think) portrait of a human being in the throes of schizophrenia. And I believe that fiction can give you a more visceral sense of this terrible condition than a clinical description ever could.
ADDENDUM: The book might make one think that persons with schizophrenia tend to be violent. I think this is far from the case … and is an example of a writer taking liberties with fact for the sake of a compelling tale.