Playthings by Alex Pheby

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Reviewed by Anne Goodwin

“Nothing to be concerned about” Daniel Paul Schreber reassures himself in the opening paragraph of Alex Pheby’s second novel. Just an ordinary day in a middle-class Dresden household as they prepare for an evening party, so why is he so disturbed about the sounds and smells of activity? Why is he so nervous about interrupting his wife? But with his past experience of psychosis, the retired High Court judge is not only anxious, but anxious about his anxiety, and with good reason, as these feelings are the precursors of bizarre thoughts and behaviours which will result in his being incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for several years.

“The Schreber case” is of paramount importance in psychoanalytic circles since both Freud and Lacan published interpretations of his illness based on readings of his memoir published in 1903. Although not the first novelisation of his account, Playthings is certainly a moving and thought-provoking one, exploring the experience of severe mental illness, its potential causes and treatment, in a manner not only of historical interest but pertinent to the societal response to mental disturbance in the present day.

How to represent that disturbance on the page; how to reflect an experience that is largely beyond words without confounding the reader? By writing in the close third person, Alex Pheby invites the reader into Schreber’s mind with just enough distance for us to question what we find there. In the early chapters, we witness his confusion as, beginning with the shock of finding his wife lying in an unnatural position following a stroke, he “discovers” that the familiar people and landmarks have been replaced by imposters (p10-11):

She would not let herself become like this. She was a rock. A mighty fortress … A Plaything of the Lower God? … this thing cradled in his arms, this grinning mannequin. Its skin was stretched pale and taut over the bones of the skull, taking on the appearance of wax, like dressmaker’s dummy. It was like a sculpture modelled on his wife’s form, but without her soul.

While the doctor arranges to take her to the surgery, Schreber rushes out into the street to look for her. As his daughter tries to persuade him home, he seems about to find sanctuary, until he looks to where his house should be and finds it isn’t there. The reader can’t help but empathise with his quest for safety, even as we despair at how he jeopardises his chances of finding it.

When we meet him later in the asylum, he seems more lucid. His doctor, Rössler, and the attendant, Müller, seem neglectful in their dismissal of his requests to return home. However, Schreber’s illness is now manifest less in his preoccupations, than in the gaps between the periods of clarity. More time has elapsed between these scenes than either Schreber or the reader first imagines, so that he’s still wondering about whether he will be allowed home for Christmas in the middle of June. The asylum staff and his occasional visitors, if we can trust them, suggest far more alarming behaviours than Schreber himself can acknowledge, emphasising the loneliness of a reality no-one else shares.

Interspersed with the here and now of Schreber’s tragic existence within the asylum, memories of his childhood, prompted by Alexander “the Jew”, provide a possible psychological explanation for his inability to live with himself. His father was a harsh disciplinarian, punishing the boy for any signs of supposedly effeminate sensitivity, who believed that his sadistic methods would enable his children to thrive (p119):

If he was stern then it was through love, hadn’t he said so a hundred times? Like a general is stern with his men, in their best interest, to make strength in them that might one day save their lives. He was no less loving of his children, so that whatever he did, however they imagined they suffered, this was a loving kindness.

How terrifying it must have been for those children when, after an iron ladder falls on his head, their strong and powerful father is weakened by migrainous episodes in which he struggles even to climb the stairs. While Müller might taunt him about the harshness of his judicial decisions in his former career, for Schreber it is the oedipal sins against his father that disturb him most (p178):

he knew that he was stained, as a man is always stained, and no office or garment could stand between him and his own judgement. It was not those small things of which he was accused, the deaths he had personally ordered, or the weeping, or the misery, but a much greater crime: a crime of the soul, to have lived when his father had died, when his brother had died, to have exceeded his proper authority.

The characters of Müller and Alexander the Jew point to the social context of Schreber’s illness, in the anti-Semitism and class inequalities of the time, to the extent of a slum being cleared for him to build his house. In the asylum too there’s murk hidden underneath in the dark (and presumably madness-exacerbating) cells where the hopeless cases languish.

Along with the references to buried secrets, there are several possible interpretations of the “playthings” of the title. The inmates are the playthings of the staff who arrogantly experiment with various improbable remedies without effecting a cure. The Schreber children are similarly toyed with by their father whose regime robs them of the freedom to play as children should. The strangely-altered figures of Schreber’s incipient psychosis are like puppets, as are his stillborn children, while his emasculated father is as a mobile as a statue. Yet in his deluded grandiosity, Schreber has perceived his entire community as his playground, to do with as he wished.

My only reservation is the (very) occasional diversion from Schreber’s point of view into Müller’s; otherwise Playthings is a highly engaging novel about individual and societal psychosis.

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Anne Goodwin is a former clinical psychologist who blogs about reading and writing with a peppering of psychology at Annecdotal, including a series on fictional therapists.

Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was reviewed by Victoria here.

Alex Pheby, Playthings (Galley Beggar: Norwich, 2015). 978-1-910296-47-9, 235pp., paperback.

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