Graeme Macrae Burnet.
Biblioasis. 2022. 288 pp.
I read the first quarter of Graeme Macrae Burnet's Case Study in Lake Forrest, Illinois, after misreading a train schedule and missing the 1:19 PM back to Chicago. Time to kill, I found what seemed like an agreeable novel in a bookshop near the station. Check the back cover: 1960s London, charismatic and possibly dangerous psychiatrist, suicide and alter-egos, the adjectives "slippery" and "riveting." Seemed up my alley.
It's up a lot of people's alleys. The book has netted positive reviews and award nominations. Most celebrated is the idea the book is more than a standard pot boiler, "upmarket" literary fiction in industry parlance. That's true, but what struck me is Case Study wants to be even more. It wants to be a novel of ideas.
What does this mean? Ask eight readers, get twelve answers. For this reader, the novel of ideas relies not on traditional plot-driven devices—with their heavy exposition, measurable rising/falling action, and denouements—but on philosophical concepts articulated through inner-dialogue, stream-of-consciousness, chatty characters, or long-winded, omniscient narrators. Allegedly a modern (in the sense of Modernism) practice, examples go further back to Tristram Shandy, War and Peace, and Moby-Dick, to name a few.
That's a pretty simple explanation, but let's go with it.
Case Study is a novel of ideas. But that's actually not saying much, as it's my contention that just about all novels are concerned with ideas. Of course, there are ideas and there are IDEAS. Case Study's ideas aren't small or facile, but for all the praise the book is getting for its convention busting, they're actually fairly common.
Attempt to summarize the book: A guy with the initials GMB (same as the author) is contacted by someone claiming to have journals from a woman who sought psychiatric treatment from Braithwaite, a controversial shrink back in swinging 1960s London. GMB, being deeply interested in Briathwaite, reads the journals and decides to publish them along with a short biography of the not-so-good doctor, which constitutes almost all of the novel itself. The patient, who adopts Rebecca Smyth as her name, is not concerned with her mental health, even as the book makes it clear she should be, but is seeking out Braithwaite, who may have caused her sister's suicide. To be sure, Braithwaite penned a book called Kill Your Self, a title uncareful readers will misunderstand. Speaking of uncareful readers, who's still with me?
The plot is easily the least interesting aspect of this novel. What is compelling about Case Study is the way it presents old ideas in a fun form. One of these ideas has to do with identity, the personas we carefully construct for ourselves, and the ones we are unable to shed. Braithwaite takes on a false name, as does Smyth, to put distance between him and his true self—whatever that is—for Braithwaite's scholarship is concerned with recognizing the fallacy of fixed identity. That this youthful philosophy falls apart later in age by no means invalidates the bigger idea: we, all of us, everyday recreate ourselves in images suiting our circumstances or desires.
Of course, Burnet isn't the first writer to do this. And that's cool with me—I don't insist every book be wholly original. But I can't help but think of the books Case Study made me want to reread, books that explore slippery identities and abandon conventions and aim to challenge readers just enough to get them to think without sending them away. Not just big classics like The Sound and the Fury or Ulysses; House of Leaves and The Secret History will do just fine, thank you.
If Case Study seeks to skewer or play with the idea of fixed identity, it's a success. But this idea of unfixed and multiple identities is, again, not new. What else does it have going for it? Frame narration? Cool, but hardly original. I'm sure someone will praise the book for its repurposing of old philosophical and technical ground, but what exactly is a novel to do? Well, no one said ideas had to be original so long as they are enchanting, engaging, even provoking.
I have mixed feelings about Case Study. Neither a masterpiece nor a flop, the book is solid, a lot of fun... but will I remember it in six months? Maybe, but, true to an effectively rendered novel of ideas, I will more likely retain its big picture thinking than the book itself.
Example: Caledonian Antisyzygy. Go ahead, look it up for yourself, or trust my next sentences. Caledonian Antisyzygy deals with the concept of different, competitive psyches in one individual. The Scottish understand this, being British citizens and yet of a culture unique from the English, their language also being different from the English spoken south of their border. I suppose anyone in a similar bicultural position, or anyone raised in the wake of British colonialism, understands this conflict of internal opposites, but the Scottish have used this in some of their most celebrated texts, from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and directly from there to Case Study. Duality. Good and bad. One person; multiple identities.
The Scottish have not cornered this particular market, but if we accept this is a theme in some Scottish literature, Case Study can be viewed as working in a tradition, which is itself a practice of employing and interrogating, maybe even subverting, an idea. This is what Case Study does best: riffs off the ideas and motifs of past books while giving the reader an unsatisfying ending.
Indeed, Case Study's misstep comes in the final chapter. It resolves what didn't need resolving, almost as if the writer is capitulating to conventions, specifically the one that says novels must resolve. But the ending feels rushed, unnecessary, predictable, bathetic. Or! Or! Or maybe the writer is highlighting the needlessness of plot by leaning into a plot device. If plot is secondary, how does one conclude the novel of ideas? By tacking on an ending partially because it has to end somehow and partially to draw attention to the artifice of the novel.
I may be reaching here, but it's an idea.
Which brings me to the next question: why write a novel when you have ideas? Why not write nonfiction? As the popularity of the digressive, ruminative essay increases, why write a novel of ideas, especially when scores of readers will ignore it for its lack of sexy vampires?
The issue with a novel of ideas is the term itself feels too big. If I have argued Burnet's book fits snuggly in that category, well, I suppose any novel would as well. While the big thinky books—say, The Man Without Qualities—seem like perfect examples, what about Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle? Considerably slimmer, and with more of a plot, but not lacking in ideas. And isn't the novel, the very thing itself, an idea? Even the most basic mystery is predicated on moves dictated by genre and sanctioned over time, all while representing the "hero's quest" Joseph Campbell went on about. What novel is truly bereft of ideas? Even Jon Stone's The Monster at the End of This Book has an idea or two.
I suppose we writers like inventing things, so novels will persist. Good. I like them. And I liked Case Study, even if, ultimately, it made me peruse my bookshelves looking for texts I've read, kept, reread, will reread again. Don't know if I can say as much for Case Study, but I'm damn glad I found it when stranded at the Lake Forrest train station.
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