TBooker’s short-listed 2015 novel His Bloody Project employed a variety of narrative techniques to insist on the truth surrounding a murder in a 19th-century Scottish crofting community. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s concern was not so much who committed the crime, we know from the start, but the moral ambiguity inherent in the allocation of blame. His new novel, Case Study, has a different tone, although the interest in exploring complex psychological dramas through intricate narrative structures takes center stage once again.
One of the key voices in His Bloody Project belongs to the prison doctor, charged with determining whether the accused is mentally fit to stand trial. The narrative focus in the Case Study is on psychiatry itself, and how those who practice it are not always better qualified to make judgments about the sanity or otherwise of those they intend to treat. The novel presents itself as the work of a “GMB”, a writer who has taken an interest in Collins Braithwaite, the enfant terrible of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s. After stumbling across the collection of “lewd, iconoclastic and convincing ”by Braithwaite, Untherapy, in a Glasgow bookstore, GMB plays with the idea of writing his biography. Although the plan receives little enthusiasm from its agent and publisher, GMB’s fascination with Braithwaite is redoubled when a certain Martin Gray contacts him and offers him six notebooks containing the diary of his cousin, whom Gray claims that he was a patient from Braithwaite. The notebooks contain “certain allegations” that you are sure GMB will find of interest.
The notebooks are presented in their entirety, interspersed with GMB’s biographical commentary. After leaving his studies at Oxford, Braithwaite spends a brief period working with RD Laing before going his own less orthodox path, later accusing his mentor of stealing his ideas. Against Laing’s success and undeserved celebrity, Braithwaite settles in practice near Primrose Hill, north London, a company that seems doomed until a chance encounter with Dirk Bogarde brings him a growing list of famous clients. However, Braithwaite’s success will not last, as his increasingly outrageous behavior and monstrous selfishness put him on a collision course with the law.
The six “gray” notebooks offer the first-person account of an anonymous narrator, a young woman from a comfortable middle-class background whose older sister, Veronica, recently committed suicide. She believes that the ultimate blame for Veronica’s death must lie with her psychotherapist, the famous “charlatan” Collins Braithwaite. Under the name Rebecca Smyth, the young woman reserves a consultation with Braithwaite, determined to discover the truth.
In its preface to the main text, GMB presents certain minor inaccuracies in the notebooks as a basis for questioning their authenticity and, as readers, we are advised to be equally suspicious. Those already familiar with Burnet’s writing have known GMB before, not only as the writer and researcher who claims to be distantly related to teenage killer Roddy Macrae on His Bloody Project, but also as the translator of the two crime novels. Burnet’s “Raymond Brunet.” The defining essence of Burnet’s work to date is found in this kind of literary play knack, a kind of metatextuality that seeks both to exploit the possibilities of novel form and to blur the boundaries between appearance and reality. . By casting doubt on which (and more crucially whose) story we are supposed to be following, Burnet encourages us to take a closer look at the inherent instability of fiction itself. The carefully assembled and predominantly mimetic fiction of the 19th century has taught us to trust the author; Burnet has always delighted in undermining such easy assumptions, and in the case study he raises the stakes even further, providing a veritable cake of layers of possible realities to get lost in.
“Rebecca Smyth” tells us that in his sessions with Braithwaite he constantly questions her account of things, accusing her not only of inventing entire sections of her past, but of presenting her with an identity that is itself a construction. We know that in this at least Braithwaite is correct, but with only the fictitious word from GMB to continue that Braithwaite exists, it would be foolish for us to rely on their suggestions or analysis. The more we pull on Burnet’s narrative strings, the more Veronica, her sister, and even Braithwaite himself begin to look like different aspects of an unstable unit.
In his interpretation of the six notebooks, Burnet has cited the vast amount of research he has done, looking at women’s magazines and newspapers from the 1950s and 1960s for authenticity. While these posts may well reflect the moral tone and social attitudes of the time, they are not necessarily an accurate representation of how young women thought and felt in post-war England. If we take the notebooks at face value, their superficiality and internalized misogyny quickly become irritating and unconvincing. If we choose to see them as satire, as part of the novel’s plot in a broader sense, they turn into something quite different.
As the notebooks progress, their anonymous narrator becomes more and more confused about her own identity. Wishing to be more like his made-up alter ego, he begins to see Rebecca almost literally as a separate person, a strange sham that can usurp his position and control his behavior. In the biographical segments, GMB augments this with some interesting discussions on doubles in the literature and Kierkegaard’s inflected Braithwaite theories about the self. As the narrator of the notebooks progresses toward dissociation and depression, the Case Study finally turns into a genuinely poignant speech about mental health, the gulf between social expectations and inner reality.
In stark contrast to the harsh real-crime environment of His Bloody Project, Case Study is above all a very funny book, an ironic look at the 1960s counterculture in which Burnet’s inventions rub shoulders with real personalities. But as much as Braithwaite’s flamboyant demeanor and performative rudeness may elicit a knowing grin, his theories about identity and individuality, appearance, and reality are never as crazy as we pretend they are. If Burnet’s goal in writing the case study was to force us to confront the contradictions of our conflicting selves, he has surely succeeded. This is a novel that is entertaining and self-absorbing in equal measure.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism