A psychiatrist treating soldiers has his own problems

The reader is put into the unpleasant vantage point of the doctor’s mind.

The Listener: A NovelTHE LISTENER. Shira Nayman. Scribner. 305 pages. $25.

With U.S. involvement in Afghanistan ramping up, examining the effects of war on the psyche has never seemed more important. Shira Nayman churns up past complications of both World Wars in her new novel, as seen through the distorted lens of English expatriate psychiatrist Dr. Henry Harrison. She purposely blurs the line between sanity and insanity not only to engage readers in solving the plot’s mysteries but also to underscore that when war is involved, the line is always blurry.

Like Harrison, this methodical novel is almost exclusively ensconced on the woodland grounds of New York’s Shadowbrook asylum. There Harrison is charged with implementing the then-new “talking cure” to heal World War II soldiers suffering battle fatigue, only to deliver them back to the front and later on to real life. The endeavor is at once in line with Harrison’s service as a medic in World War I — he describes his mental state at the time as “suspended in a disturbing netherworld, alive, yes, but dormant,'” — but from the soldiers’ points of view, a sort of war crime.

Utilizing Harrison’s first-person narration, Nayman puts us directly inside the unpleasant vantage point of his mind. A former opium addict, Harrison sneaks alcohol throughout the workday and mentally cheats on his wife Ursula. He’s self-absorbed, always analyzing, complaining and mired in self-pity, but he is not self-aware. Yet he craves connection, perpetually feeling like he’s “enclosed in a separate sphere, unable to make contact with the people and things around me.” Soon he slowly unravels on a spool of “screeching loneliness,” “aching emptiness,” “terrible, grinding loneliness” until “the final, heavy emptiness” descends.

Though firmly anchored to a dual spine of intrigue and love triangle, the narrative is largely plodding and gloomy. Harrison is stumped by a crafty patient, Bertram, who feels “more like a colleague than a patient” and seems to know Harrison’s deepest secret. Both men are enamored of the nurse Matilda, who also served in the war.

Imprisonment in Harrison’s irrelevant dreams, conversations and imaginings can be maddening, yet by locking us inside his occluded perspective, Nayman forces a vicarious experience of his psychological damage. For a psychologist like Nayman, who once worked in psychiatric hospitals, examining everything in detail is part of the “cure” and must be inherently fascinating; it also may be why the book goes too deep into psychiatric theory and practice specifics. Indeed, reading the novel is much like observing a prolonged therapy session, and in some places one tires of this unwavering analysis.

But the reader must ultimately become Harrison’s psychiatrist — questioning his sanity and what is real and true — and in so doing ponder a central query humanity has left unanswered: How do we heal from war and trauma?

At the end of The Listener‘s cold, lonely tale, one can’t help but feel relieved to finally be released. Yet the reminder that we too are afflicted with the same human condition as Harrison and his soldiers — even if we know not the cause nor have the cure — is inescapable.

Originally published 1.5.10 in the Miami Herald