Writing about depression is a perilous practice. The temptation in seeking to realistically depict what Macbeth calls “the petty pace” of life for depressed people, the agonizing succession of empty tomorrows, is for the narrative to become mired in the disturbed consciousness of its subjects. The expressionistic writing that results can be slow and excruciating to read. The opposite inclination is for the author to withdraw into complete objectivity, using a brisk, clinical prose that serves more to isolate the reader than to depict the isolation of the characters.
Adam Haslett deftly avoids these pitfalls in his debut collection of short stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, which deals largely with themes of depression, obsession, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. He is a compelling storyteller, moving the plots along with little superfluous detail, and making effective use of widely different kinds of dialogue. But Haslett’s supreme talent is his empathy for these protagonists. Many of the mentally ill characters refuse to take their medicine: various depressive people choose pain over numbness; a schizophrenic woman and a manic man prefer their vivid delusions to tranquil indifference. Haslett looks unflinchingly at the disasters that can ensue from such decisions. Yet he recognizes that pain and delusions are real and significant to those who experience them, however incomprehensible to the non-afflicted. Haslett alternates between first-person and third-person narration, but the perspective is always intimate. There is no commentary, no judgment, no narrative retreat in which we can hold ourselves aloof from the emotional life of the characters.
The first story, “Notes to My Biographer,” immediately plunges us into the mind of manic-depressive Franklin Caldwell Singer: “At seventy-three, I’m not about to change. The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age. I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed twenty-six patents, married three women, survived them all, and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has about as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did of getting his pound of flesh.” The reader barely has time to gasp at this virtuoso opening before being swept along by the frenetic pace of Frank’s awful brilliance.
Although Frank tells his story charismatically, the neat bullet point format of his ideas cannot camouflage his mania. His son Graham is stupefied when his father comes to visit him in California after a silent period of four years in which he thought his father had died. Full of tenderness for his son, Frank is oblivious to the pain and terror his presence and behavior causes for the son who could have followed in his footsteps. Graham, whom Frank calls “my greatest invention” inherited his father’s manic tendencies. But unlike the father whom he no longer understands, Graham has decided to take his pills in order to pay the bills, keep a lover, and attain stability. Haslett shows us the divergent choices of father and son, with sympathy for both. We see the incredible, self-centered isolation of Frank that has permanently wounded Graham, yet we also see the stunning beauty and vitality of the father’s world.
Sometimes family is the source of comfort, as well as pain in these stories. In “Devotion,” Haslett masterfully reveals the intricacies of the bond between a brother and sister, Owen and Hillary, whose mother committed suicide when they were younger. They continue to live together into middle age, although both contemplated leaving the other, and even fell in love with the same man. Though wistful for these lost chances, having suppressed anger and jealousy over this man for many years, Owen and Hillary still need each other’s protection ultimately more than anything or anyone else. Neither can stand the possibility of being left alone, orphaned once more by the risks presented by sexual love.
Haslett also explores the connections between people unrelated by blood or marriage. The title of the collection originates in “War’s End,” in which Paul Lewis, a depressed teacher visiting Scotland with plans of suicide, meets an elderly woman who mysteriously recognizes him and says, “You’re not a stranger here.” A nurse during World War II for hopeless cases, she now leads the desperate Paul to her hopeless, bed-ridden grandson Albert, whose entire body is afflicted and rotten with the open sores of psoriasis. Haslett relies heavily on parallelism and coincidence, devices that almost seem too neat for the messy lives of his character. But it is tremendously affecting to see the affinity between Albert and Paul, who find mutual comfort in the presence of another dying soul.
Perhaps the happiest ending in the book ironically takes place in a graveyard. In “My Father’s Business,” manic-depressive Daniel, burdened by the illness inherited from his bipolar and suicidal father, and unaffected by medication, is doomed by all accounts. He reads the psychiatric records (rather unbelievably having persuaded his psychiatrist to entrust him with them) while traveling back home to visit a sympathetic friend named Kyle, and then throws away his doctors’ descriptions of his past and pronouncements on his future. Daniel understands as well as the reader that the doctors are probably correct, and yet he has achieved so much merely by finding the motivation to take this journey that he astounds the reader along with Kyle, who says with the simplicity of reverence: “you made it.”
The second narrative in the book, “The Good Doctor,” might actually work best at the end; it is a fun-house mirror reflection of all the other stories, and perhaps even a negative self-portrait of its author. Another Frank, this time a psychiatrist, makes a house call on Mrs. Buckholdt, a woman who has suffered a horrific act of violence at the hands of her own son. A doctor with none of the immunity of emotion that allows his colleagues to witness pain with professional detachment, Frank thrives on work that allows him to absorb the misery of others. After hearing Mrs. Buckholdt’s tragic story, “He experienced a familiar comfort being in the presence of another person’s unknowable pain. More than any landscape, this place felt like home.” Yet for all Frank’s compassion, at the age of thirty-two he has never been able to maintain a relationship for longer than six months. His ex-girlfriend comments wryly, “Glad to hear you’re still out saving the world.”
Instead, his masochistic impulse to immerse himself in vicarious sorrows, is a mechanism for distancing himself from emotional involvement in his own life. Yet his receptiveness to other people’s pain has become a matter of pride for him, as well as an addiction: “Never having been a religious person, empathy had taken up the place in him belief might have in others.” Empathy is certainly the guiding faith of You Are Not a Stranger Here, yet Frank has perverted this theme. He does not realize that he has become his own martyr, suffering for humanity not as an unselfish sacrifice, but from a parasitic need. Mrs. Buckholdt disconcerts Frank by asking him personal questions about his own life; she seeks a genuine, mutual connection that his brand of talk therapy cannot provide. She drags herself out of the morass of her own terror and depression through sheer willpower (and some sedatives), but Frank tries to keep her mired in her past for his own self-gratification. Only in this story does Haslett present medication as the individualist route to getting out of bed every day.
Haslett has an almost God-like capacity for clear-sighted understanding and forgiveness towards his creations. John Updike said in a review of Franny and Zooey that J.D. Salinger loved his characters more than God loved them. Updike’s comment condemned authorial excess, but Haslett is nothing if not minimalist in his approach. This narrative restraint only heightens the emotional impact of You Are Not a Stranger Here, which, despite being suffused with stories of depression, compels the reader to feel the life pulsing within people who have almost given themselves up for dead