Many years ago, I heard a sociologist tell an anecdote about being the only undergraduate at a faculty party. After a short while, he realized that somebody was watching him from a distance. Worse still, wherever he went, there his mysterious observer followed. Understandably anxious, he finally cornered one of his professors to find out what on earth was going on. "Oh, that's Erving," his professor sighed. "He's always on." The Erving in question was Erving Goffman, the author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). I kept flashing back to this anecdote while reading Patrick McGrath's Trauma, and not just because the protagonist's ex-wife is a sociologist clearly indebted to Goffman (110). McGrath's speaker, psychiatrist Charlie Weir, is always on.
McGrath's narrators are reliably unreliable. Charlie, however, posits that unreliability is the norm: "This falsification of memory--the adjustment, abbreviation, invention, even omission of everyday experience--is common to us all, it is the business of psychic life, and I was never seriously upset about it" (46). I'd suggest that with this novel, McGrath deliberately revisits previous narrative territory. Charlie's profession links him to Peter Cleave, the manipulative psychoanalyst of Asylum; his self-consciousness about unreliability and his fixation on a single formative moment also echo Gin, the narrator of McGrath's last full-length novel, Port Mungo (2005). Like Cleave, Charlie specializes in taming the most terrifying passions through speech. Unlike Cleave, however, Charlie emphasizes storytelling instead of diagnosis: with his clinical partner, Sam Pike, Charlie writes a book on PTSD, focusing on "the creation of the trauma story, the detailed narrative of the emotion, the context and the meaning of trauma" (116). Similarly, like Gin, Charlie's life has been shaped by a forbidden, if only partially glimpsed, sight. But unlike Gin, Charlie cannot remember that moment at all. To the reader's no great surprise, Charlie tells us at the beginning that he "guide[s]" his patients "toward what I believe to be the true core and substance of your problem" (5), but he proves incapable of identifying the "true core" of his own trauma. It doesn't help that Charlie may have precipitated the suicide of his ex-wife Agnes' brother, that he isn't especially successful with another of his male patients, and that he certainly has no luck with the women in his life.
And yet, although the novel drives towards the revelation that ought to solve Charlie's problem, it holds back. The revelation arrives in a tale told by his disliked older brother, Walt, and there is no sign that Charlie himself manages to remember the traumatic event "correctly." This non-solution hints at the difficulties posed by Charlie's own psychiatric practice, in which the psychiatrist prods the patient to arrive at the psychiatrist's understanding of the truth: the traumatic moment, supposedly the origin of the patient's pathology, takes form only in retrospect. Nor is it always clear that the trauma is the trauma; for example, Agnes' sister, Maureen, remarks that "it was obvious that Danny [their brother] would die young" (145), and Agnes similarly has to admit that the suicide "would've happened anyway" (157). In other words, even in cases of horrific trauma, the patient's ability to resolve trauma into a story--or not--rests on something anterior to that initial, shattering event. The psychiatrist's tale is frequently missing its head. Moreover, these tales aren't "reliable" so much as they are psychologically useful fictions, solutions that may or may not have real-world referents. It's telling that McGrath leaves so many plot points unresolved.
As a narrator, Charlie exemplifies the Victorian dramatic monologue in (updated) action. The speaker in a dramatic monologue often fantasizes that s/he has complete command over language, supposedly reducing all communication to the level of perfectly transparent intent. Much of the drama then derives from the fractures in the speaker's fantasy, which reveal what has purportedly been kept silent. Charlie, as I said in the beginning, is always on, so much so that when Agnes tells him to "[s]top thinking," he admits that he can't even begin to imagine such a thing: "I knew Agnes knew she was being unreasonable by refusing to disclose any motive or explanation, but I also knew she knew my curiosity would not be bound by the normal parameters, that in this regard I was not a normal man: I was a psychiatrist" (49). There is nothing that Charlie cannot diagnose, analyze, and dissect. His paragraphs are dominated by this affectless "I," which makes frequent claims to some masterful, all-seeing knowledge--but which also advertises the impenetrable subjectivism of his narrative. Unlike Peter Cleave, Charlie remains painfully aware that his diagnoses are subjective, a form of "art," not science (5). By the same token, Charlie knows that he must be silently editing his own memories; he just doesn't know what those memories are. The numbing incursion of "I," "me," "my," and "mine" into what seems like every sentence may imply self-consciousness...but, in the end, it also suggests that Charlie repeats the pronouns in order to conceal the lack of self behind them. His "presentation of self" turns out to be all, but it certainly isn't enough.