Published by Saraband only at the start of October – precisely on the anniversary of the birth of the Scottish countercultural psychiatrist, RD Laing, no less – Case Study jumped (for a number of reasons) straight to the left hand side of my to-read shelf. Remarkably therefore, I find myself in the position of delivering a review of a book not only in the month of its publication but while the author himself is still out and about in promotional activity for it. Probably I need to decide whether being this far ahead of my usual self – even if not quite ahead of the curve – is a comfortable place to be.
A word first of all, however, for the cover. Dan Gray has done a mesmerising job, hitting the spot with a design which summarises the core of the novel’s content: the 1960s and swinging London; psychiatry; and handwritten notes dividing the otherwise steady gaze of a woman who is, therefore, very much at the centre of the novel.
Rebecca Smyth is the name of this woman, from a well-to-do background and with a role as a ‘Girl Friday’ at a theatrical agency in Soho, who consults a radical, charismatic anti-psychiatrist, Collins Braithwaite. Or, rather this is the name she uses since she sets up her consultations with him having come to the belief – on finding a book of his case studies – that therapy sessions with him had driven her sister, Veronica, to death by suicide; we never actually find out her real name. Written in the belief that she may be putting herself in danger as a result of her interactions with Braithwaite, the notebooks are her own handwritten records of her series of consultations, alongside other notes she also makes about her life. These notebooks – five in all – form the bulk of the book and these are interspersed with chronologically-ordered biographical details of Collins Braithwaite’s immensely controversial and volatile life and work as drawn by the author – ‘GMB’ – whose initials will be familiar, being those of the writer researching his grandfather in His Bloody Project and who comes across the materials presented there about Roddy Macrae, as well as the translator of Burnet’s Inspector Gorski novels. The notebooks are sent to ‘GMB’ by Martin Grey, who found them when clearing out the house of his uncle (the father of Veronica and her sister) and who did so in response to a blog post ‘GMB’ had written about psychiatry.
Burnet’s interest in psychiatry, and the extent to which the material presented in case studies is objective or scientific, is genuine. Furthermore, that blog post (dating from 2019) does exist and is also given added impetus by a comment at the start of this year which draws a response from Burnet that his next book ‘very much inhabits this terrain’. And there we have the set up – or, of course, the question is whether it us that is being set up. Fans of Burnet can already see from this post what to expect – Alphonse Maeder is real; Braithwaite a work of Burnet’s own fiction – and Case Study absolutely doesn’t disappoint. Mixing fact and fiction, real people with walk-on parts (including RD Laing himself) and author-drawn characters, reality and fantasy, truths and alternative truths, the reader is thus invited to participate in the novel and in the world created by Burnet not least by cross-checking the existence of people and places; or, in my case, electronically wandering up and down the roads around Primrose Hill in London and Darlington and the North Yorkshire Moors in the steps of those who populate the novel. The blurred lines that are created between fiction and true life extend the form of the modern novel – did it happen or was it made up? – and openly encourage the reader, by joining the dots between the material in the notebooks and the results of ‘GMB’s own research about Braithwaite, into self-reflection about the nature of identity and sanity.
Burnet says that he doesn’t set out to manipulate readers and that his books don’t start with the intention of writing about a theme; both emerge as a consequence of the novel’s natural development and the life it comes to take on during the process of being written, giving space to the reader to come to a thus unchained, or unanchored, text in their own, equally valid way; and that themes emerge and characters develop in ways that sometimes surprise the writer. Nevertheless, being played is part of the experience the reader has in reading Burnet’s work, and this is true once more of Case Study whose narration features a range of story-telling devices with Burnet firmly locating his work in line with Barthes’s essay on the ‘death of the author’.
The core theme that emerges in the sessions between ‘Rebecca’ and Braithwaite is not so much that the reader is unsure of who is therapist and who is patient – though how much of ‘Rebecca’s testimonies are real and how much they are developed because that’s either what she wants Braithwaite to hear, or thinks he wants to hear, is a moot point. Either way, putting her at the centre of how the sessions are related to the reader serves a dual purpose: the book becomes about her but it also, at the same time, puts her in control of what the reader sees and of how the dynamics of the encounters with Braithwaite appear. This increases the power of Burnet’s text and is fully in line with ‘GMB’s realisation in his blog post that the presentation of the core material of key psychiatric studies – sometimes as fabricated by the therapist – is likely to say as much about the therapist as about the patient. Or, as Braithwaite himself puts it:
The crimes of psychiatry are legion, but they can mostly be attributed to a single cause: the idea that the therapist knows more than the patient.
Other themes will be familiar to Burnet’s readers: people struggling with themselves in some way and feeling that they don’t fit in may well be an established element of most literature, but the twist, repeated here from His Bloody Project, is of characters who narrate their own stories via written testimonies: a re-assertion of the power of the written word in contradiction of Braithwaite’s (humorous) condemnation of it late in the text. Also featuring here, as in other of his novels, is teenage sexual fumblings told unstintingly and in a fair amount of detail; while alcohol, and heavy drinking, again also play key parts in the novel and in the development of the plot.
In my review of The Accident on the A35, I wondered, somewhat implicitly, whether Burnet had the confidence in his own abilities to ‘write female characters that have as much depth as his male ones’; and that Case Study was likely to prove something of a landmark in this respect. Here indeed we have a woman at the centre of the text and, within the confines of the plot, she is reasonably well-drawn as a woman with 1950s attitudes and clearly unable to participate in the swinging London of the 1960s – which helpfully makes the point that not everyone was able – or wanted – to join in with that. She also has the lion’s share of the book’s many cracking lines and her account is written strongly and assertively, in spite of the domesticity that lies at her core, and with a droll sense of humour. Burnet also deserves credit for taking on the development of a character of a woman of some (family) means rather than the working class characters which have largely inhabited his work so far. On the other hand, she is rather repressed and the lack of her real name (other than ‘Rebecca’) is, not least in this context, problematic. Braithwaite fulfils the role of bluff northerner/angry young man, fitting in well with the iconoclastic breaking of the class divides of the time and the rejection of the old guard. Here we point directly to Colin Wilson (The Outsider) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), while I’d also throw Alan Sillitoe’s northern working class males into the mix there, too. While fulfilling a clearly secondary role to that of the main protagonist, his character is the better drawn, being more rounded. There are clear plot reasons for this but it is somewhat unfortunate. Nevertheless, Burnet brilliantly brings off the challenges of voice presented by the manner of his story-telling: in writing, as a woman, a set of notebooks detailing her character; and, at the same time, conveying the details of ‘GMB’s own incipient biography of the character of Braithwaite. These two aspects of the tale – plus ‘GMB’s own in the novel’s essential Preface and Postscript – never overlap in terms of their voice and the reader is never confused as to where they are in the text.
‘Rebecca’ and Collins Braithwaite present themselves as rather different individuals – ‘Rebecca’ naive, concealing and somewhat other-worldly, and Braithwaite lewd, direct and very worldly – but, ultimately, they share a number of things in common with regard to life experiences that, however unlikely it might seem, do interlink their lives. The outcome is an inventive, entertaining, tautly plotted (here, uniquely, loose ends are few in number) and wryly observed meditation of the gaps in identity, self and sanity and the nature of the lines between how people present to others in different contexts and the different personas they take on and inhabit as a result, and who therefore they truly are. Stripping out the controversy which otherwise surrounded its own author, the novel highlights that there is much to be said for RD Laing’s theories of the Divided Self, which Burnet has spoken of as a ‘stunning and electrifying piece of work’; with such a reference in view, Burnet has produced a rather fine homage to the value that lies in exploring, and accepting, our own contradictions and the varying authenticities of our reality.