Narratives of Disorder - Disorders of Narrative

by Bent Sřrensen

August 27, 2006


What is order, what is disorder? Consecution of temporal events and causality are normally regarded as prerequisites for understanding narratives. What happens when narratives become disorderly by violating the principles of consecution? One approach might be to look at narratives about disorder, or narratives where protagonists or narrators suffer from disorders. Amnesia, attention deficiencies, involuntary tics and compulsions (such as Tourette Syndrome symptoms), and other perception and communication related disorders, such as autism/Asperger's syndrome or certain forms of schizophrenia all pose challenges to narratives: interruptions, lacunae, disruptions, inversions, surpluses can all become narrative manifestations of these disorders. A proposition would be that by reading both fictional and non-fictional disorder narratives, we might gain insights into both the orders and disorders of brains and psyches and the workings of narratives as a medium of carrying meaning.


What is order, what is disorder? Consecution of temporal events (things happen in sequences which are easy to follow, flashbacks and -forwards are clearly marked, the end is marked as a specific type of event or closure, clearly distinct from beginnings and middles, etc.) and causality (cause precedes effect) are normally regarded as prerequisites for designing, following and understanding/interpreting narratives. But increasingly literary criticism has become interested in what happens when narratives become disorderly by violating the principles of consecution and causality. This paper continues this general research interest, but perhaps in a more context-fixated manner, rather like reinventing the wheel before one takes one’s Corvette for a spin. . .

     One approach to the complex of interpreting narratives that violate schemata of consecution and causality might be, rather than fixating narrowly on plot, to look at narratives about disorder (theme/action), or narratives where protagonists or narrators suffer from disorders (character). Such disorders as amnesia, attention deficiencies, involuntary tics and compulsions (such as Tourette Syndrome symptoms), and other perception and communication related disorders, such as autism/Asperger’s syndrome, and to some extent certain forms of schizophrenia and personality disorders all pose challenges to narratives: interruptions, lacunae, disruptions, inversions, surpluses can all become narrative and thematic manifestations of these disorders. Can non-sufferers of these disorders still decode such disturbed narratives? If so, why and how is that the case? Certainly I would claim that the increasing proliferation and popularity of those narratives must indicate an affirmative answer to those questions. Can we, then, maybe learn things from them that we cannot learn from more orderly narratives?

     A proposition would be that by reading both fictional and non-fictional disorder narratives, we might gain insights into both the orders and disorders of brains and psyches, and the workings of narratives as a medium of carrying meaning. This project has been an on-going concern of mine for some years now, as it offers a field of study that is both literary and cultural, as well as an in-road into the study of human psychology and its use of narratives as construction of self. It therefore suits my preferences for studying texts culturally and cultures in their textual manifestations.

     What I therefore wish to offer in this presentation is an initial charting of this terrain in its interdisciplinary form. It would be useful to have a history of disorder construction, both within the field of psychiatric and neurological diagnostics, and within the field of textual representation of such disorders. I cannot hope to give such an overview but I will give a sketch of some of the trends in such a double history and at least attempt to explain how we have come to the stage I claimed above that we find ourselves at, where a) there are more disorders than ever before and where b) certain cognitive implications of disorders seem to predominate over other, older symptom manifestations.

     Following those first historical and terrain clearing remarks I wish to propose linkages between the more recent propositions of narratology (and specifically theories that attempt to bridge cognition studies to theories on the functions of narratives) and disorders and their narratives and narration. This will hopefully allow us to engage with some of the larger questions I allowed myself to pose in my abstract. I should however emphasize that any answers I might provide will be based strictly on specific case-based analyses of those disorder narratives that I have placed in my corpus of works that manifest disorder on both levels: of narrated events and characters embedded in the plots of these narratives. This corpus focuses on very recent fictional texts from with the last ten years, i.e. late 1990s and early 21st century specimens. They are predominantly American texts, and five of the six novels I have chosen to comment on today are American although other Anglophone works of this type exist as well.

A disorder/syndrome chronology—work in progress

While it seems that in the early stages of psychoanalysis building its body of narratives about disorders of the mind, the overwhelming preference of diagnosis tended towards labels such as neurosis and hysteria, we rarely hear these terms offered in the same way in the 21st century. Hysteria has in fact lapsed almost completely out of the professional diagnostic vocabulary, perhaps reflecting its parallel entry into the everyday vocabulary of derogatory (usually gendered) folk or pop-psychology labelling. Alongside that we seem culturally inured against the notion of neurosis to the extent that we are more worried if we feel un-neurotic than if we can prop ourselves up with a layman’s diagnosis of cultural neurosis, which can easily be regarded as a healthy response to the acceleration of everyday life everyone seems to agree on observing in the late 20th and early 21st century.

     However not all disorder labels undergo an equally smooth dissemination and familiariza­tion/incorporation process. Sometimes this is due to a re-labelling of the same or similar conditions (as also in the case of hysteria). One case in point is the diagnosis ‘shell shock’, which we now recognise as a specialised form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and ascribe to external factors overloading the sensory and cognitive system, resulting in spectacular repetitive tics and afflictions of verbal behaviour, either manifesting itself as loss or surplus of vocalization abilities. Thus, shell shock slips entirely out of the general cultural disorder vocabulary, whereas the wider term PTSD gains huge coinage in self- and other-diagnostication by professionals and lay-persons alike. The case of New York and much of the USA in the immediate post-911 moths illustrates this point. Never have so many suffered so much from PTSD as a result of a (strictly numerically speaking) relatively minor event in terms of purely physical damage and death. The overwhelming dissemination of 911 PTSD is of course due to the cultural texts created by the event itself, as well as those spurred by it and produced in the media-created aftermath of the event.

     The disorder chronology of the 20th century would certainly have to plot in the peaks of PTSD that have occurred in the years following major military engagements the US has involved itself in (two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and two Gulf Wars to mention just the most significant ones), as well as externally or internally afflicted traumatic events such as presidential and other public figure assassinations (Martin Luther King, John Lennon), disasters (the Challenger explosion) and terrorism (Oklahoma bombings, 911). The responses to such events cannot however all be lumped together under the otherwise broad heading of PTSD. Similar peaks in diagnoses and narratives of paranoia, psychosis and to some extent schizophrenia could presumably also be postulated and hopefully documented. It would lead too far on this occasion to pursue this claim much further, so suffice it to say that a cultural reading of the 1950s and 60s would seem to lend support to the claim. Paranoia has certainly been a favourite causal explanation for phenomena as formative of the American psyche as the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the 50s and the rebellion against it that can be labelled the Beat generation and its sequel: the rainbow of oppositional thinking and living known as the 1960s counterculture. In fact it is possible to claim that the counterculture performs a bricolage of the cultural phenomenon of paranoia, taking the paranoia of anti-communism and the desire on the part of the state to purge itself of foreign infiltration (thematized in numerous s-f and other alien invasion narratives in the 1950s) and by turning it on its head, creating a new narrative where paranoia, and ultimately schizophrenia (madness in general, in fact) are seen as healthy responses to society’s rejection of change and non-conformist behaviour, re. sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. A prime example of such narratives from the 1950s would of course be Jack Kerouac’s On the Road ("the only people for me are the mad ones"), whereas an early 1960s example (revitalised by its movie adaptation in the late 60s) would be Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The latter narrative further can be seen to ride the wave of Laing inspired anti-psychiatric discourse in the period, combined with sociological critiques (Marcuse, building on Riesman and others) that began to see society as an alienating force, in effect creating mental disorders in order to shore up its own normalcy narratives and exclude undesirable oppositional elements with this diagnostic tool.

     The disorder chronology would however be incomplete if it did not comment on disorders that emphasise loss rather than excess as well. Forms of apathy and depression also flourished in diagnostic climates in the 1930s and 50s, and they can be seen to make a massive comeback in new guises in the 1980s where body related disorders with psychological components flourish. The case I find most striking is the boom in eating related disorders in that decade, continuing into the 1990s, which gave popular familiarization to diagnoses such as anorexia and bulimia which where hitherto completely unknown outside narrow professional discourses, but which seemed to become almost contagious, gendered narratives of suffering and disorder in the mid-80s and onwards. The 80s not incidentally were the decade where the apparently unrelated label from the field of cultural studies and literary theory, postmodernism, reached a wide dissemination. As it turns out the two labels quickly began to travel together in the same much wider discourse spheres, and the disorders of the 1980s and 90s, I would claim, have attached themselves to the cultural label of postmodernism and become symptoms of the postmodern condition which first and foremost is a free space of identity construction with the individual human being at the centre as the constructing agent of his/her own story. Therefore the latest trend in disorders, namely the numerous highly specialised disorders of loss (of memory, of speech of cohesion, of culture) fits the glove of postmodernism so well, rife as it is with a celebration of fragmentation, loss of faith, history, telos, God etc.

     I thus propose that a symptomology of disorders cannot be isolated from a history of disorder representations, and that both these intertwined accounts must be read as cultural texts in that they have a dialectic relation to one another and to the period they arise out of and reflect if we interpret them accordingly.

But what can Narratology do for me?

First I would like to propose that narratology can and must be made operational in the understanding of disorder narratives. A consequence of that might be that consecution and causality would need to be redefined. One could start out by making two related claims:

  1. Time progresses linearly but can easily be told in non-linear fashions, backwards, in flash-backs or flash-forwards, fragmentarily, out of sequence, circularly, spirally etc.
  2. Causality may be suspended or withheld deliberately, may be negated entirely, or flaunted as a meta-effect during the narration process

Both of these manipulation types strain our reading of such narratives, but do not disable it completely. There are people who prefer the straight linear progression of both time and motivation (if you have acquaintances whose favourite David Lynch movie is The Straight Story I am thinking of just such individuals), but overwhelmingly humans seem to also enjoy having their interpretation and patterning skills exercised. Thus in an abstract sense disorder narratives can offer rewards in the form of the pleasure of reading for the plot as Peter Brooks has termed it or reading for the end resolution of a puzzle. Both forepleasure and release of pent up interpretative libido are at stake in the economy of reading. But by way of listing some of the very basic assumptions of narratology we may be able to better formulate at least two further functions that narratives in general, and disorder narratives in particular, can be said to have for contemporary human beings.

Some basic assumptions of narratology:

  1. Narratives are omnipresent, not just in the ‘arts’ but in our everyday existence (Cognitive narratologists such as Theodore Roemer and Richard Kearney agree that humans do not function in the world without relating to narrative schemata that help our cognition of events and often teach us how to navigate set situations such as falling in love, departing from home etc.)
  2. We produce narratives all the time, from childhood onwards (at least from the age of four children produce mini-narratives when their ability to create sentences with subordinate temporal and causal clauses becomes developed)
  3. Narratives can be simple or complex, but they all share similar or identical building blocks: characters/agents, actions/events: sequenced in time (Porter Abbott documents this in his textbook The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative where he develops a child’s rendition of falling down and scraping her knee into a full Bildungsroman using only the simplest of narrative techniques, speeding up and slowing down told time through simple telling devices)
  4. Narratives are containers and transmitters of knowledge (this incidentally tallies with Lyotard’s symptomology of the forms of knowledge and knowledge transmission in postmodernity: despite the death of the grand narratives the replacement local narratives carry memory and learnt knowledge that we use to live by as individuals unattached to any teleological, meliorist narrative of God, society etc.)
  5. The presence of narratives transcends genres—even permeates otherwise ‘static’ art forms, conventionally labelled ‘non-narrative’ such as lyric poetry, painting, photos etc. (the flip-side of this is that we incorporate such texts in our own life-narratives with the greatest of ease, see also assumption 7)
  6. Narrative is the basic organization of time and our understanding thereof (there is a dialectic relation between the construction of clock time and narrative time, wherein narrative time is much more versatile, fluid, and malleable than clock time)
  7. We actively impose narratives on our experiences and perceptions—also of visual input
  8. Texts/images can resist narrativization in various ways: jamming etc. (despite such jamming and other impediments, for instance narrative overload of details etc. (a favourite feature of postmodern literature is its listy-ness) we eventually will succeed in narativizing the world to the extent that we have access to it)
  9. Narrative is intimately linked with both memory and communication of knowledge (cf. gna (Sanskrit) being the root of both gnorus (knowing) and narratio (I tell) in Latin)
  10. Rather than ‘do, or die’ our motto should therefore be ‘tell, or die’, as we only ‘do’ by telling (non-narrated events are narratives waiting to happen)

How then do we use narratives in general and disorder narratives in particular?

We can now isolate two further uses to which we put narratives, supplementing the obvious one of gaining pleasure from ordering events temporally and causally, whether we do so as producers or recipients of the narrative (as we shall see later I claim that all recipients of narratives are also co-producers of them performing adaptive readings of them) The first use to which we put disorder narratives is: We mirror ourselves in them: are we like that?—I.e. they play a role in identity construction. We are disorder-, syndrome- and trauma-aware like never before. This greater awareness and label dissemination indicates that a popularisation of trauma terminology has taken place, and that these labels have entered a wider cultural field, undergoing the usual subcultural process of familiarization followed by incorporation (where the subversive or threatening energies of a term are negated by being normalised and commodified and ultimately reified). The reason for this massive dissemination of trauma terminology could be that we now like to mirror ourselves in the various offerings of available trauma images, trying on trauma for size. This is also reflected in the increasing number of popular culture treatments in various media of psychological disabilities, whether it be in books, TV or films (portraits of sufferers of mental disorders are always potential Oscar-winner material for movie actors).

     The second, more general, use of narratives is: We learn from them. Can we understand what it is like to be like that? is the trademark question extreme narratives always ask of us, i.e. they play a role in familiarizing otherness and incorporating it in what cognitivist narratologists and psychologists such as Kenneth Gergen claim are our preferred narrative of redemption and progress. The learning process of narratives is of course not a new invention of mine or narratologists in general, since the debate between whether literature does more good because it is didactic or more damage because it tempts us and shows us vistas we might be better off not knowing, is age-old.

     We now move gradually towards our body of cases of recent disorder tales, but first I would like to address the issues of interpretation, since we hitherto have more or less tacitly assumed that reading is a unitary unproblematic practice, which of course it is not. Still simplifying, I would suggest with Porter Abbott that there are three ways of interpreting narratives, and that disorder narratives call for all of them in particular ways.

3 ways of interpreting narratives:

The three approaches could be labelled in the following manner: a) Intentional readings b) Symptomatic readings c) Adaptive readings

     a) Roughly speaking the intentional approach means reading for what Wayne Booth termed the implied author, an instance embodied in the text, but shaped by the author and decoded by the reader. This complex entity which in essence is interpretation guided by an authorial hand could also be termed the inferred reader if one wishes to privilege the role of the reader over that of the author, as is currently fashionable among poststructuralist approaches that prefer to label novels etc. texts rather than works. Narratives are in such intentional readings implicitly seen as wholes with unified meaning structures (as opposed to non-unitary interpretations, or what Bakhtin terms heteroglossia, etc.) The urge towards wholeness can be seen as a psychological phenomenon—a drive to interpret (We don’t want to exclaim at the end: "Is that it?") This reading has its long roots in Biblical exegesis: The perfect work embodying the word of God (what deconstructivists famously has dismissed as pure logocentrism)

     But what if language as such actually causes plurality or multiplicity of signification? Saussure, and following him Derrida, sees language as binary, dichotomic and hierarchical in its very signification practice, since the only way we understand one concept ("white") is as it being one pole of a dichotomy and comparing it to an implicit or explicit opposite ("black"). Language thus is inherently dialectic and dialogic in this perception. Poststructuralism therefore questions the uses of intentional readings, challenging us with further questions such as: How does the notion of intertextuality (theorised by Julia Kristeva) embodied in all texts (there is no Urtext) undermine the notions of integrity and wholeness of a work? Can we progress instead with notions of the open work (ideas developed simultaneously by Umberto Eco, Wolfgang Iser and Roland Barthes)?

     Intentional readings are thus problematized by theorists and academic practitioners alike, but still seem to be the intuitive approach we take to our own life narratives as well as most cultural texts we engage with. We can therefore not afford to ignore this reading strategy when attempting to implement an understanding of the functions of disorder narratives. While we can still learn form heteroglossic and semiotically free signification, we may feel that both the didactic value and our pleasure are diminished by a mirror of ourselves that is as distorted and blurred as any found in a funhouse of carnival hall of mirrors.

     b) Academic criticism mostly has advocated symptomatic readings over the last 40 years. Such readings are not grounded in the implied author instance, but are rather readings against the conscious construction of meaning by the author. Symptomatic readings are often practiced in psychoanalytical approaches or engagements with texts that are critical of ideology, in order to unveil the hidden (deeper) layers of meaning of such texts. Such critiques of ideology could have feminist, new historicist, cultural materialist, or postcolonial agendas of analysis. And as mentioned above, not least deconstruction has as its language philosophy base that all texts deconstruct their own bipolar dichotomies of meaning. . .

     So, in symptomatic readings, wholeness is a moot point. However, both a) and b) types of reading share the hermeneutic agenda, looking for depth structures of meaning or signification that the reader/ analyst must reveal, so there may indeed be basic psychological mechanisms that mandate interpretation of narratives. Certainly the didacticism function of tales hinges on interpretation, as does the self analysis by proxy I am suggesting as the mirror function of disorder narratives in identity formation.

     c) Finally, a few words about so-called adaptive readings, which occur when the reader becomes co-creator of the text by countersigning it with his/her own embellishments or hypotheses. This strategy may turn out to be particularly pertinent for disorder narratives, especially as they often need altered endings to conform to Gergen’s rising narrative schemata. Adaptive readings have also explicitly infiltrated academic interpretations: Criticism is after all also a narrative, and we cannot deny that the omnipresent urge to narrativize is also present in interpretation. Likewise the notion of open work or text, invites us as interpretors to claim full visiting rights as co-creators of texts, turning the critic even from parasite into host as J. Hillis Miller once proposed.


Disorder narratives of the late 1990s and early 21st century feature body originating symptoms, signalling their linkage to 1980s syndromes such as anorexia and bulimia. Don Delillo’s short novel The Body Artist from 2001 is perhaps the latest or last such narrative, but it is essentially a hybrid disorder tale, as the twin protagonists, represent a woman (the title character) who treats her body as an extremely malleable entity, producing art as a text via the medium of the contortions and inscriptions her body can perform, whereas the other, not quite human protagonist, Mr. Tuttle, seems to be a ghostly entity, only vocalising mimicry of her late (suicide) husband but otherwise completely suffering from aphasia. The visitation upon the body artist of this strange entity may be taken to mean that she manifests her grief and guilt as a child-like unit she can then take care of and raise in a safe haven so she will not have to endure its loss again.

     Thus Delillo’s book straddles the phase in disorder symptomology that is extremely body fixated and the newer type of account which reads loss of speech and cognition as a cultural symptom of postmodernity. Delillo thus has evolved from producing paranoia accounts in the 1970s and 80s (White Noise, Mao 2) to this new hybrid stage. I start with Delillo because he is the most canonical, or as Bourdieu would have it the most consecrated of the disorder authors in my corpus. Typically the other names I will mention will be much less known often as a result of the disorder novels I discuss being their debut novels.

     Another hybrid account that stands alone in the late 90s corpus is Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel Fight Club from 1996. In this connection the work seems to represent a re-emergence of the schizophrenia narratives of the 60s and 70s, more than the postmodern celebration of fragmentation we might expect of a 90s text. The unnamed narrator of the novel gives us a generationally specific account of how his work life alienates and dehumanizes him in the extreme. He desires nothing more than to feel, and decides that the best way of regaining access to his dulled emotions is through pain. He visits self-help groups for cancer sufferers, thriving on their acceptance and open emotionality, and crying with these other men (who have often lost their testicles) is the only way for him to find release and sleep. As this avenue for emotional connection becomes blocked (by a female character encroaching on this male bonding (the novel is somewhat misogynist)), the narrator further explores physical pain and extreme exertion of violence and self-mutilation as an avenue towards identity reunification. He in fact splits off an id-manifestation into a separate character-entity, named Tyler Durden, who of course is extremely gratification oriented and does everything the narrator himself wants to, but dares not perform. The novel also has a political, anarchist program, which the narrator at the end distances himself from and decides is pathological. He therefore steps back from the suicide his Daredevil Durden persona tempts him with and checks into a psychiatric clinic to become medicated back into an integrated persona. This narrative is therefore reminiscent of classical Bildungstales of the 1950s such as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and the 1960s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The mental institution is paradoxically a necessary stop on the way to enlightenment and fulfilment. This is not a fully postmodern tale by any means, but ultimately a conservative cautionary tale with a moral and didactic message warning against excess. Both these first readings of Palahniuk and Delillo are incidentally intentional readings, tracing out the intended implied author messages of confusing narratives that ultimately wear their disorder symptoms as an outward shield, rather than having it engrained in the very texture of the books’ meaning.

     Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, in many ways tempt the reader into a more symptomatic reading focusing on the bizarre use of Tourette’s Syndrome as a means to create almost slapstick like humour (arguing with Bergson that such humour functions by rendering the human body more like a machine or automaton of tics and verbalisations). Ultimately however, I shall again settle for an intentional reading, simply because Lethem has planted an all too tempting trail of clues to an implied author message in the novel. This reading focuses on the main protagonist’s discovery of self and the transition he experiences from having defined himself exclusively in terms of his syndrome and his status as orphan, towards discovering a possible belonging in a Jewish identity. Encoded in Lionel Essrog’s last name is a kernel of kabalistic, symbolic meaning, which Lionel remains unaware of, but which the reader is invited to detect and develop, as Lionel himself grows more and more confident as a tic’ing, Tourettic detective.

     What Lethem does with the image of the Tourettic detective is very much in line with a portrait of the postmodern condition, such as the one we find in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy of the 1980s. However, Lethem subtly manipulates our impression of Lionel and drops clues that Lionel is unable to process, but which we as readers begin to see as a line of development that potentially promises a future for Lionel which is less chaotic than his previous life has been. It becomes possible to believe that the crisis moment for Lionel has somehow spurred him on to building a more stable form of identity than he has previously had. While he, through his childhood and young adulthood, has seen himself exclusively in terms of lacks and deficiencies: orphaned, and Tourettic - he now works through the trauma of losing his substitute parent (Minna) and surrogate family (The Minna Men), and finds himself not entirely without success with the opposite sex, and not completely without clues as to not only his origin, but also a possible belonging in another set than the all-male, street-smart (or street-dumb) environ of epistemologically unstable and ethically indeterminate group of criminals/detectives he has grown up among.

     The reader early on becomes privy to Lionel’s last name, Essrog, and we hear about Lionel’s vague attempts to find a real family of that name which he might belong to or originate from. Lionel calls up all the Essrogs in the Brooklyn phone book, but never speaks to any of the Essrogs answering the phone. These unsuccessful communication attempts are never interpreted any further by Lionel, who never wonders what kind of people these Essrogs might be, but the reader cannot resist being a better detective than Lionel in this area. Using a more wide-ranging equivalent of the Brooklyn phone book, namely the Yahoo search engine, the reader quickly uncovers the presence of real Essrogs, both in Brooklyn and outside, including 7 matches in U.S. Federal Census Records (1790-1930), and 4 matches in Birth, Marriage & Death Records. These Essrogs are quite unambiguously Jewish, and in fact about 50 of the by now roughly 800 hits for "Essrog" (most of which are of course for Lethem’s character), lead to a Baltimore Rabbi named Seymour Essrog. Further investigation into the origin and meaning of the name "Essrog" leads to the Jewish ritual for the celebration for the fall harvest festival of Sukkoth, in which the essrog (the more frequent spelling is "esrog" with a single "s", or even more commonly "etrog") features prominently. It thus seems that Lethem has laid out a trail of clues (including a reference to the Golem of Prague, and a significant Jewish joke about the persistence of Jewish mothers), which the reader can follow to trace a potential identity trajectory for Lionel that can somewhat stabilize his past and set him on a more meaningful future path as well.

     The qualities of the esrog fruit (of the citron family, and considered especially difficult to grow) also bears upon a potential characterization device used by Lethem to clue the reader in to Lionel’s true nature. On Sukkoth four herbs must be bound together, and waved about to ensure blessing. In Kabbalah "the beautiful fruit" (Leviticus 23:40), as the esrog is known, represents a person with both wisdom (Torah learning) and good deeds. The presence of such a person is crucial for the Sukkoth to be effective, and he should be placed next to a person with neither good deeds nor Torah learning, represented in the "Lulav" by the Aravah (willow) which has neither taste nor smell. Another way of looking at the "Lulav" is mentioned in Sefer Bahir, a kabbalistic work almost 2,000 years old. It describes the four species as four parts of a human, with the esrog representing the heart or the seat of our emotions. When again contrasted with the Aravah or willow, which represents the lips, or speech, we see that the kabbalistic reading of Lionel we are invited to engage in, once we have this cultural competence, pictures Lionel as the direct opposite of a freak whose mouth is controlling his personality at the expense of his intelligence and emotions.

     In the novel this reading is possibly sustained by an otherwise inexplicable scene towards the end (in a chapter entitled "Good Sandwiches"), where Lionel expresses a previously unknown craving for kosher kebab, singling out one of the food franchises at JFK airport ("Mushy’s, run by a family of Israelis" (310)) as his new favourite restaurant. This progression from his previous favourite food, White Castle burgers, to kosher kebab could be a teasing final clue to the reader, that the Tourettic detective is about to come home, at least culinarily speaking.

     The fourth disorder narrative I here wish to touch briefly upon, features a much more explicit Jewish setting. Myla Goldberg’s 2001 novel Bee Season, surprises us with a revelation of a long kept secret embedded in its narrative of a Jewish family in transition from being a typical patriarchally run unit with little attention paid to its female child, Eliza, toward a full endorsement on the father’s (Saul, or originally Sal) side of his daughter when she is revealed as a spelling prodigy. Again employing an intentional reading we cannot but feel that the author pulls the rug away from under our feet when it is revealed that the mother of the children, Miriam, has a far more fundamental secret syndrome that has for a long time consumed her being and erased her independent identity. Her obsessive compulsive disorder can be read as one of several forms of rebellion against the way her husband runs the family, culminating in his use or abuse of their daughter to become an acolyte of his Kabalistic logocentric mysticism. The wife herself is a highly intelligent and able lawyer, but the space of recognition her husband affords her seems to rapidly shrink as their daughter takes over from both wife and their male child (Aaron) as the best beloved family member. As she first responds unsuccessfully with carnal desires and is rejected nothing remains for her but to indulge a pathological level of her compulsion for ordering and patterning, a desire that shatters the family as it seemed destined for a trajectory toward greater unity embodied in a rising narrative. As the novel features narrative voices representing all the family members, there is a good deal of puzzling out pleasure to be had from its reading. When ultimately Eliza picks up the pieces of the broken family illusion of happiness and reintegrates what has been lost, we are allowed to perhaps still partake of the meliorist rising pattern Gergen argues we strongly prefer.

     Alan Lightman’s 2000 offering The Diagnosis, uses loss related disorders as a metaphor for the loss of cohesion in a postmodern speedy fragmented world, perceived by many 40-soemthings in the urban professional classes. He thus draws upon the same territory as Lethem did in Motherless Brooklyn, but where Lethem’s book point beyond despair in the postmodern condition and shows reintegration potentials in the local narratives protagonists such as Lionel can produce pertaining to their origins, Lightman writes in a more Kafkaesque, modernist vein where the pessimism triggered by the loss of cognitive cohesion becomes tragicomic as opposed to slapstick. The erasure of the protagonist’s identity proceeds as he forgets the conventionally ‘important’ things from a humanist point of view, such as people’s first names, and it becomes a quest for him to regain a ‘full’ cognitive sense of self. This quest takes him through potential sanctuaries, such as hospitals (places of healing) and ultimately to a church (location of communication with the numinous). None of these locations further his cure, and he is then forced to return to the cradle of humanity the family with his loss still operative. Alienation is ultimately the diagnosis one has to come up with as the causal agent of the numbness of emotion and cognition in The Diagnosis. The novel thus represents a modernist civilization critique that reinvokes Salinger and other moralist critics of modernity’s soul-crushing side effects, making Lightman a throw-back to earlier literary experiments in the use of disorders as social metaphors. I thus have no other recourse than to produce the above mainly symptomatic reading of his novel.

     In interesting counterpoint to Lightman’s book I place the only English work in today’s corpus, Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Many of the same things could be said about this novel as of Lightman’s. The social reality of the protagonist, Christopher’s family life and its disintegration is certainly bleak. His father feels he has to lie to Christopher (who has Asperger’s syndrome) about his mother divorcing him and moving to London. The father chooses to portray the mother as ill, hospitalised and eventually dead, whereas the reality is that she constantly writes letters to her son trying to maintain a tenuous relationship with him. In the process of playing detective (solving the murder of their neighbour’s poodle) the son discovers these letters, is understandably angry with his father, and proceeds to track down his mother on an epic journey made almost impossible by his fears of human touch and contact and his limited ability to make inferences from conversations and social interactions that stem from the symptomatics of his Asperger’s. Chris eventually succeeds in finding his mother, and revealing his father as the murderer of the poodle and he takes the first steps towards understanding the motives of adults behind act of jealousy and rage—a territory he never before had had the capacity to engage with. So, while Asperger’s is not presented as curable, my intentional reading of Haddon’s work shows that we are here again presented with a disorder narrative that points towards a shared learning of protagonist and reader and indicates that even in the most desperate adversity there is hope of redemption of some sort of human shared growth.

Concluding remark

I find that the narratological approach to disorder representations yields promising results. We are forced to relate to whether we read against the grain, symptomatically, or follow the temptation of these narratives to read for the message of goodwill and optimism that most of these narratives embody (except Lightman’s overt cautionary tale and Delillo’s extremely open work), preferably supplemented with an element of the adaptive reading strategy that typically becomes invested in supplying such tales with a future in the form of a resolution of specific sequel. That disorder narratives mandate us toward intentional readings indicates that even disorder tales and disordered tales often hide a strong urge toward order through didacticism on the part of their orders. These desires require their own specific symptomatics of a cultural paradigm shift to explain and that must remain the topic of another paper.




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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Bent Sřrensen "Narratives of Disorder - Disorders of Narrative". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: July 18, 2006, Published: August 27, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Bent Sřrensen