Friday 19 August 2016

Playthings by Alex Pheby

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: 

As the stark, black cover suggests, the innocent-sounding title, Playthings, hides a dark and troubled history.

It refers to a statement by Daniel Paul Schreber, an early 20th Century German judge who documented his own psychotic breakdown, that those around him were not real, but merely ‘playthings of a lower God.’ Schreber’s account of his breakdown was used by Freud in the early development of psychoanalysis.

Playthings is the Pheby’s fictional account of Schreber’s third and final breakdown, and his incarceration, under increasingly disturbing conditions, in an asylum.

What we experience, through reading the book, is Schreber’s comparatively lucid moments, with little idea of how much time has passed between episodes. To begin with, we are inclined to believe his protestations that he is perfectly well again and should be allowed to go home. But then the sense of dislocation and loss of control intensifies. Is the mysterious figure called Alexander, who follows him round the asylum, a distillation of Schreber’s fears and fancies, or a projection of his own guilt? And what about the orderly, Muller? He seems solid enough to begin with, but then that line, too, begins to blur.

Pheby’s writing creates moments of intense focus, as Schreber’s senses home in on some trivial detail in his environment.

“The pattern of the blanket came toward him in ever closer magnification the longer he stared. Grids of red and green entwined like the mesh of the ether, intersections picked out in gold thread, and below that motif, the brown webbing around which each fibre was woven.”

Pheby uses the type of chapter headings that were common in 19th and early 20th C novels, that flag what is about to happen in the chapter. At first this seems like a device to make the books seem as if written contemporarily with the setting. But read them carefully and they have a more unsettling effect. At times they provide context that you’d miss if you skipped over them, allowing you to take a step back from Schreber’s direct experience.

Playthings’ historical setting adds other dimensions to the story. We see the early, faltering and ultimately failing attempts at enlightened treatment of mental illness. And we observe its social background – the hypermasculinity of Prussian society and its intolerance of those who fail to fit its mould, its growing anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiment.

A fascinating and unsettling read.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall; Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White

Avoid If You Dislike: Exploring mental illness at close quarters

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of brandy in a darkened room

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon

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