In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.
It’s not often that I finish a book, especially one I really liked, where I have nothing to say. I tend to be able to situate it somewhere in my mind, somewhere among the various books of various types that I’ve sat down with, be it cultures or subcultures of literature, genre fiction, mass-market texts, or theory. Typically, I’m able to find some angle to enter with. But this book, Maud Casey’s The Man Who Walked Away, is not exactly typical. Let me explain.
Set in 19th century France during the dawn of psychiatry, this novel tells the story of Albert, a man who, again and again, wakes to find himself walking across Europe (from Paris to Constantinople and everywhere in between), pathologically walking, blacking out, masturbating, and walking some more, until one day, he walks himself back to his hometown and is placed in an asylum and under the care of the Doctor. But this isn’t exactly the story. The novel also tells the story of the Doctor, a man who’s unsatisfied with the current psychiatric suggestion that mental illness is neurological, who, in his own trauma, sees something in the newly arrived Albert and begins, in equal parts professional care-giving and obsession, to help Albert uncover if not the story of his illness, the source of it, the “invisible lesion” that set him walking in the first place.
Though that’s not exactly right either. The novel also sets out to tell the story of telling stories from pieces, of how to make coherence (and even something larger, art) arise from one man’s story with an unremembered plot, another man’s obsession whose motivations are similarly psychologically inaccessible, and from the voices of a handful of other patients at the asylum, each with their own invisible lesions, their own traumas that fail to cohere, become too large for them to bear, and which Casey consciously avoids fleshing out. In other words, this is not a psychological mystery during which we, with the help of the Doctor, piece back together anyone’s broken story as a way of healing, of getting over things. Instead, we get the pieces, the voices, the gaps in story and sense, and the story of using those gaps to create, in Casey’s words, “astonishment,” but that of a very particular, almost Stein-ien kind.
I really can’t help but recall the beginning of the “Objects” section in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons:
A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
Reading Stein, to me, produces the same kind of astonishment as The Man Who Walked Away. While not nearly so experimental in her prose style (of which we’re all, I think, eternally grateful), Casey’s mode—of alternating chapters centering around Albert and the Doctor, of italicized refrains of “Listen” and “He returns”, of different pieces of a fable in which a boy grows up with one arm a bird-wing—creates a calculated confusion that, combined with her sure-footed writing style, comes across as ethereal, otherworldly, as if the novel were written with a different set of rules in which story doesn’t matter (though I assure you that there’s a classical plot guiding everything), information is everywhere, and psychological access to anyone is next to impossible. We get the characters’ problems, their stories, but never their pathologies; pathology, in a way, becomes synonymous with astonishment and is always just out of reach, just beyond sense, but which, for us as readers trained to psychologize as a part of reading and for the patients and doctors desperate to cure and be cured, hangs just outside what’s written, demanding to be discovered.
In many ways, the novel works as similar to one of the text’s recurring tropes: the vase. In various places the asylum is referred to as a vase, the body a vase, the mind making sense of experience a vase. For Casey, the idea of a vase, fundamentally, is not a place to display dead flowers but a container that makes sense of difference, that creates and maintains a kind of homeostasis by gathering and displaying together everything it’s gathered. This becomes synonymous with well-being; not the discarding of dead flowers or the fertilizing of the water but the simple fact of everything being held together, everything able to be acknowledged, to fit in a single container. Disturbance (which only receives positive or negative value when the experiencer acknowledges or fails to grasp his/her “vase”), then, is a vase overflowing, a too-much-ness in which one is unable to account for every piece inside the container; instead, there’s an excess/access problem in which something overwhelming is just a bit out of reach, whether it be coherence, a moment forgotten, an unknown cause; something known but not quite grasped which, nevertheless, acts and causes action. To put it another way, Casey’s astonishment is created by being comfortably contained while experiencing an excess while the text’s illness/pathology is created by lacking a sense of containment while still being overwhelmed by the surety that there’s even more one can’t see.
So when I say that this is an astonishing novel, please do not misunderstand me as using a praise-y abstraction to avoid getting to the meat of the text. This is a book that, on the sentence-level, the chapter-level, and the book-level, creates a sense of coherence, of stability and story and pleasure while simultaneously disorienting, overwhelming with stories and moments and juxtapositions. While never out of control, the text is always, and assuredly so, too much, at any moment, to think or speak. This book is as simple and complex, accessible and inaccessible, as we are, and that, achievement enough, is astonishing.
Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.