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Patrick McGrath's 'Trauma' hits the gut, not the heart

Although Trauma is billed as a psychological thriller about a man plummeting into madness, Patrick McGrath's first-person narrator is much too chilly to do his job.

Instead of grabbing the reader by the throat and pouring out his story, psychiatrist Charlie Weir details his life like a lepidopterist describing a butterfly pinned to a board for a little too long.

It's too bad, because the raw materials are interesting enough — early trauma, the mental hospital, backstory hinted at and gradually revealed — but even the big moments seem to happen offstage. At no time does the reader feel threatened or worried about Charlie or, indeed, the least bit anxious to find out what becomes of him.

Brought up in a Manhattan apartment with a depressive mother, Charlie obsesses about his outgoing and madly successful big brother, about his busted marriage and about the fact that he lost a patient when his wife's brother committed suicide. His mysterious girlfriend is never quite real.

Psychosis, menace and discovery are McGrath's raw materials. Charlie met his wife when her brother came to a support group he conducted for Vietnam veterans scarred by experiences on the front line. Now, this should have resonance for contemporary readers, who can flash forward to the fiasco in Iraq, but like everything else that doesn't quite happen in this short novel, the writer keeps the veteran's meltdown at arm's length.

There is some smart writing. Charlie describes a woman he meets: "She was wearing a sheepskin coat that made her look fiercer than usual, like some lost Hun who'd wandered down from Westchester in error."

It's not enough. Instead of immersing us in Charlie's problems, dragging us relentlessly to his ultimate discovery, McGrath writes so flatly that it's hard to care. It's as though the author is writing about another person who is telling a not-very-interesting story about something that happened to a third party somewhere far, far away.

Novelist Kit Reed is a frequent reviewer for the Times.

Trauma

By Patrick McGrath

Knopf, 224 pages, $24.95

Patrick McGrath's 'Trauma' hits the gut, not the heart 04/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 10:38am]
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