Cracking up, David Cohen

Taming the Tiger: A Personal Encounter with Manic Depression
Michael Morrissey
Polygraphia, $39.00,
ISBN 9781877332968


Sing No Sad Songs
Sandra Arnold
Canterbury University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781927145067


Michael Morrissey’s account of his long encounter with mental affliction begins with an event both unremarkable and unbearable. His wife’s brother had just died. The two men had never been all that close. Still, the news was sufficiently unsettling to interfere with his sleep the night before he was scheduled to fly out to the funeral. The following morning, bone-heavy with tiredness, he reached for a pep pill. Then he popped another. “This,” he recalls drily, “proved to be a mistake.”

At the time, in 1999, he was teaching a small writing class at the University of Auckland. Up until this point his professional life seemed fine. Morrissey, then in his 57th year, had a solid reputation as a writer of stories and poems, with stints as writer-in-residence at the University of Canterbury, in 1979, and the University of Iowa’s international writing class to show for it. He was, or tried to be, happily married to Ann.

Suddenly, however, he found himself cracking up: spraying the classroom air with insults, inflicting still worse verbal violence on Ann (unbidden, he admits to an extramarital dalliance), all the while being seized with the conviction that he might be dying of Aids. The self-diagnosis proved incorrect, but the actual news wasn’t all that better. Morrissey had just kicked off a journey, typically embarked on much earlier in life, into the Slough of Despond, cycling ever faster between mania and depression, riding the lunatic tiger way, way down. His eventual experience would include a brief stint in a psychiatric ward (and another one shortly after the draft was completed), a disastrous sojourn to Southeast Asia and much else besides, the details of which are spread out here across 277 generally hyper-talkative pages.

Mania may be the common cold among creative types, but the presented evidence suggests Morrissey came down with a very heavy dose. The depressive phase of bipolar disorder can include persistent feelings of sadness, guilt, anxiety, anger and heaven knows what else. How, then, is one to respond to somebody who writes with confidence about suffering all of the above, and remains on medication to this day? It’s probably a wonder that  Morrissey can do anything at all, much less produce 46 staccato-like chapters crafted to give the reader a creative experience of the subject, and anyone with any feeling for the subject ought to start first with a deep bow in his direction.

Taming the Tiger is Morrissey’s 20th book, and his first full-blown attempt at a sustained work of non-fiction – but readers should not expect any recognisably journalistic or even strictly linear narrative. Objective accounts are few and far between. Morrissey’s approach, rather, fits the growing sub-genre of what Joyce Carol Oates memorably and accurately defined more than 20 years ago as pathography, whose motifs are almost wholly ”dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct”, and there’s plenty of all of that (save perhaps the boozing) to go around here in what might otherwise be more politely described as a disability memoir.

Thus, a typical passage, plucked out almost at random, has Morrissey dabbling in a kind of numerology as he riffs on the 33 individuals who, he writes, have been important in his life. That tally is then multiplied by two with 10 pages apiece for each eminence to perform, and, hey, that’s 666 pages. Which is to say: the number of the Anti-Christ. From there it’s on to snatches of poetry and rock music in a kind of free-association that one would presumably make with manic depression. Thus, the kicker lines about his Malaysian-Chinese spouse: “All I had to do was to learn to acquit myself in seven kinds of everyday Chinese silence and the dialogue could begin. 206 languages babbled in China meant 206 types of Chinese silence. And Chinese history is noisy with silence.”

What does all this actually mean? I have no idea, and neither perhaps does Morrissey, which may be the point ‒ or perhaps not. Sometimes it’s as if Morrissey is trying to approximate a very, very long Jerry Garcia guitar solo performed in a very, very dark auditorium before an audience of one. Yet even in that worst-case literary scenario, there’s a method to the madness: this is depression writ large by a child of the 60s, a vigorous attempt to wrench the unspeakable facts of a mysterious turmoil into something that is compatible with language and even, I would guess, music.

The big problem in any such approach is the tension between the old rule of muscular writing – show, don’t tell – and the equally strong need for a chronicler to impart factual detail. Often, Morrissey opts for the third way of distracting whatever he’s trying to impart into comparisons, to wit:

A dozen lean young guys were surfing in wet suits, sleek as ebony sex toys … . On the flat grey water, a long sliver of light like white-hot metal, more radiant than a laser, failed to lift my spirits. I trudged on like a leper who’d forgotten his Prozac.

These similes are neither especially bad nor notably good. But there are way too many of them, and such a paragraph (and many others like it) could easily have survived without them.

Still, one can’t lose sight of what has survived the telling of this story: the author. The simple, wrenching act of writing Taming the Tiger, and writing it hard, has been a triumph of sorts. Morrissey need not panic again over his reputation as a writer of considerable nerve and verve.

Sandra Arnold, another local writer with academic connections, need not panic over her reputation, either. On the other hand, she might not really care about it all that much.

Ten years ago, her youngest daughter, Rebecca, 23, died of a rare appendix cancer. The bereaved mother, who teaches English as a second language at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, was left to learn grief as a first language, before rendering it as English again in the work that is Sing No Sad Songs.

As any sensitive parent will appreciate, it is difficult to review a book such as this, a memoir of both the quick and dead, in any disinterested sense. Our children may be born with many problems. They may be autistic or have Down syndrome or begin life in great pain. They may go on to experience many other afflictions during the turbulence of adolescence and young adulthood. But still, always, the tree of life remains.

The one thing no parent is hard-wired to cope with is the death of an offspring – the ultimate rebellion against the natural order of things ‒ much less one snatched in the first full bloom of mature life. It is intolerable. But written language, so often a virus, can also be a balm, and Arnold has fashioned her own devastating experience into this book, which doubled as part of her PhD in creative writing from Central Queensland University. She is, in my opinion, a heroic individual.

Arnold’s interrogation of the facts and emotion of Rebecca’s passing is less a standard memoir of a parental quest for “answers” than a detailed attempt to chronicle loss and preserve what memories remain. At times, unavoidably, the reader sits as an outsider beholding arcane family moments, even while appreciating the invitation to share in them. Surprisingly, and gratifyingly, when the moment of death comes, it’s just a matter of fact. We live. We breathe. We create. We sigh and turn over, and that part of the story is gone. The devastation, as Arnold convincingly suggests, is in everything else, although the narrative here does end on a warm enough note.

There are wry touches applied to the telling, too. Arnold recounts, for instance, attending a death and dying seminar at an old colonial residence. One of the speakers claimed to be channeling an ancient entity named Tabassah. What was more, he explained, his listeners should not be surprised to find that Tabassah even had a sense of humour when he spoke through his chosen vessel about the stages of dying and the survival of the spirit. “I stifled a sigh,” Arnold recalls, “and wondered how quickly I could leave.” Happily, as ever throughout her odyssey of grief, she remembered to keep a mental pen and notepad close by.


David Cohen’s Little Criminals was reviewed in our Spring 2012 issue.


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Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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