TThe novel His Bloody Project, shortlisted by Booker in 2015, used a range of storytelling techniques to uncover the truth surrounding a murder in a 19th-century Scottish crofting community. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s concern was not so much who had committed the crime – we have known from the start – but the moral ambiguity inherent in the attribution of blame. His new novel, Case Study, has a different tone, although interest in exploring complex psychological dramas through complex narrative structures is once again taking center stage.
One of the key voices in His Bloody Project is with the prison doctor, responsible for determining whether the accused is mentally fit to stand trial. The narrative spotlight in Case Study focuses on psychiatry itself and how those who practice it are not always best qualified to pass judgment on the mental health or otherwise of those they claim to treat. The novel is presented as the work of a “GMB”, a writer who took an interest in Collins Braithwaite, the enfant terrible of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s. After stumbling across the collection of case studies Braithwaite’s “salacious, iconoclastic and compelling”, Untherapy, at a Glasgow bookstore, GMB is having fun with the idea of writing his biography. Although the plan meets with little enthusiasm from its agent and editor, GMB’s fascination with Braithwaite is heightened when contacted by a certain Mr. Martin Gray, offering him six notebooks containing his cousin’s diary, that Gray claims to be a patient of Braithwaite. The notebooks contain “certain allegations”, it is certain that GMB will find interest.
The notebooks are presented in their entirety, interspersed with GMB’s biographical commentary. After dropping out of school at Oxford, Braithwaite spent a brief period working under RD Laing before pursuing his own more unorthodox path, later accusing his mentor of stealing his ideas. Opposing Laing’s success and undeserved fame, Braithwaite settled near Primrose Hill, north London, a business that seemed doomed until a chance meeting with Dirk Bogarde brought him an ever-growing list of famous clients. Braithwaite’s success won’t last, however, as his increasingly outrageous demeanor and monstrous selfishness put him on a collision course with the law.
The six “gray” notebooks offer the first-person account of an anonymous narrator, a young woman from a wealthy middle-class background whose older sister, Veronica, recently committed suicide. She believes that the ultimate responsibility for Veronica’s death must lie with her psychotherapist, the notorious “charlatan” Collins Braithwaite. Under the name of Rebecca Smyth, the young woman reserves a consultation with Braithwaite, determined to find out the truth.
In its preface to the main text, GMB highlights some minor inaccuracies in the notebooks as grounds for questioning their authenticity, and as readers we would be urged to be just as wary. Those familiar with Burnet’s handwriting have met GMB before, not only as a writer and researcher who claims a distant kinship with teenage murderer Roddy Macrae in His Bloody Project, but also as the translator of the two mystery novels ” Raymond Brunet ”from Burnet. The defining essence of Burnet’s work to date is found in this genre of literary play, a mark of metatextuality that is as much about exploiting the possibilities of the Roman form as it is about blurring the lines between appearance and reality. By casting doubt on the story we are meant to follow, and more specifically the one we are meant to follow, Burnet encourages us to take a closer look at the instability inherent in fiction itself. The painstakingly assembled and predominantly mimetic fiction of the 19th century has trained us to trust the author; Burnet has always taken pleasure in undermining such simple assumptions, and in Case Study he raises the stakes even higher, providing a veritable layer cake of possible realities in which to get lost.
“Rebecca Smyth” tells us that in his sessions with Braithwaite, he constantly questions her narrative, accusing her not only of inventing whole swathes of her past, but of presenting her with an identity that is itself a construction. We know that in this at least Braithwaite is right, but with only the fictitious GMB word to continue Braithwaite to exist, it would be foolish of us to trust his suggestions or analysis. The more we pull on Burnet’s narrative threads, the more Veronica, her sister, and even Braithwaite himself begin to resemble different aspects of an unstable unit.
In his interpretation of the six notebooks, Burnet cited the extensive research he undertook, turning to women’s magazines and newspapers of the 1950s and 1960s in search of authenticity. While such posts may well reflect the moral tone and societal attitudes of the time, they are not necessarily an accurate representation of how young women in postwar England thought and felt. If we take notebooks at face value, their superficiality and internalized misogyny quickly become irritating and unconvincing. If we choose to see them as satire, as part of the plot of the larger novel, they become something quite different.
As the notebooks progress, their anonymous narrator becomes more and more confused as to his own identity. Wishing that she was more like her invented alter ego, she begins to see Rebecca almost literally as a separate person, a strange sham who can usurp her position and control her behavior. In the biographical segments, GMB adds to this some interesting discussions of doubles in the literature and Kierkegaard’s inflected Braithwaite theories on the self. As the notebooks narrator slips further into dissociation and depression, Case Study finally becomes a truly touching discourse on mental health, the divide between societal expectations and inner reality.
Contrasting with the rocky atmosphere of real crime of His Bloody Project, Case Study is above all a very funny book, an ironic return to the counter-culture of the 60s where Burnet’s inventions rub shoulders with real personalities. But while Braithwaite’s odd demeanor and performative rudeness may elicit a knowing smile, his theories about identity and individuality, appearance and reality are never as bonkers as we claim. If Burnet’s goal in writing Case Study was to force us to confront the contradictions of our conflicting selves, he certainly succeeded. It is a novel that is both entertaining and captivating.