It's a MAD world
Books, like human beings, can be extremely vulnerable. They venture into a world that's crowded with competitors for space, attention, love and money. Some of those competitors are old hands at the game: crafty, aggressive, well connected or simply beautiful. Newcomers may find it tough to survive.
The book's opening lines - "I'm not being funny, but you can't blame me for what happened. All I done was try and help Poppy out" - seem straight from the formulaic world of Young Adult fiction, that morass of self-consciously slangy first-person narratives recycling Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn ad infinitum. But soon it becomes evident that N's voice doesn't conform to the linguistic rules of any slang we know, and that we have landed in a literary universe where all language is subject to gleeful derangement. "Weren't nobody else in the world ... not no one at all, alive or dead or both or neither, known as much about dribbling as I did," N boasts, before ushering us, and Poppy, into her nightmare. It's hard to tell whether the narrative is supposed to be taken as exaggerated truth or unfettered satirical fantasy. What are we to make of N's claim that the hospital stretches up through the clouds and is "so tall if you got to the top you'd see right around the world"?
After a while, we stop worrying and allow ourselves to be swept along by N's hyperbolic sense of humour.
N is an outrageously untrustworthy guide, but her bravado conceals disturbing truths about this hospital where nobody seems to get any better: "If you gone up to the eighth floor you never come back, just disappeared like crap up the hose of a hoover."
The way Poppy Shakespeare tells it, mental health provision in Britain is a sordid farce. Doctors are rarely glimpsed. Patients queue up to see the entrepreneurial Banker Bill, clutching unswallowed medication in their sweaty palms, hoping to swap their mushy tablets for cigarette butts. The anorexics exchange their nutri-drinks for appetite suppressants. The labyrinthine bureaucracy of health care is, in itself, a major cause of insanity. When Poppy is finally informed that her application for an allowance from the Ministry for the Advancement of the Deranged has been refused, we recognise the illusory helpfulness and sham clarity of modern officialese: "Please keep this letter safe. It is proof that you are NOT entitled to MAD money."
Alas, Allan's novel, like an inmate of the Dorothy Fish, is at continual risk of misunderstanding and negative assessment. Allan deliberately avoids the heartstring-tugging childhood flashbacks that make misery memoirs such as David Pelzer's so phenomenally successful. Part of her point is that psychiatric institutionalisation condemns the sufferer to an endless, vacuous, trivial present. The past ceases to exist in any meaningful sense. Much as we may crave deeper insight into the circumstances that made N what she is, she never spills her guts. We must wait, like mental patients eyeing the floor for cigarette butts, until we catch one of N's rare, offhand recollections.
Allan also makes the hazardous decision to keep her subsidiary characters securely locked inside their reductive nicknames (Astrid Arsewipe, Canteen Coral, Brian the Butcher), never allowing the reader to catch a glimpse of who these people might be "underneath". Again, this serves Allan's undiluted message: if you want rounded characters, there's no point looking for them in a human context where individuals are reduced to living caricatures.
Most riskily of all, Poppy Shakespeare is the sort of book that gains its full power only in retrospect, once the ending has sunk in. Rereading it, some of the things that frustrated me first time round are revealed to be an integral part of its design.
In promoting Poppy Shakespeare, Bloomsbury and the booksellers will no doubt invoke, among other books, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Poppy Shakespeare lacks the tragic halo of Ken Kesey's classic, but it would be a cruel irony if some readers criticised it as overly artificial by comparison, given that Kesey observed mental illness from the outside, as a staff member while Allan was a patient, swallowed up for 10 years by institutions very like the one she satirises.
Poppy Shakespeare is a distinctive and powerful debut, full of brave experiments that generate unexpectedly fierce emotional heat. In a literary scene whose established stars milk tragedies such as the Holocaust or 9/11 for precious little reason beyond their own artistic vanity, Allan has given us something indigestibly, potently true.
Source: Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
(R) thedailystar.net 2006