Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet review – unstable identities

This wry look at 1960s counterculture focuses on an enfant terrible of the anti-psychiatry movement to explore the gaps between appearance and reality

The Booker-shortlisted 2015 novel His Bloody Project employed a range of narrative techniques to prod at the truth surrounding a murder in a 19th-century Scottish crofting community. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s concern was not so much with who committed the crime – we know that from the outset – but with the moral ambiguity inherent in assigning blame. His new novel, Case Study, is different in tone, though an interest in exploring complex psychological dramas through intricate narrative structures takes centre stage once again.

One of the key voices in His Bloody Project belongs to the prison doctor, charged with determining whether the accused is mentally fit to stand trial. The narrative spotlight in Case Study is focused on psychiatry itself, and how those who practise it are not always best qualified to pass judgment on the sanity or otherwise of those they purport to treat. The novel presents itself as the work of one “GMB”, a writer who has become interested in Collins Braithwaite, enfant terrible of the 1960s anti-psychiatry movement. After stumbling on Braithwaite’s “salacious, iconoclastic and compelling” collection of case studies, Untherapy, in a Glasgow bookshop, GMB toys with the idea of writing his biography. Although the plan meets with little enthusiasm from his agent and publisher, GMB’s fascination with Braithwaite is redoubled when he is contacted by a Mr Martin Grey, offering him six notebooks containing the journal of his cousin, whom Grey claims was a patient of Braithwaite. The notebooks contain “certain allegations” he is sure GMB will find of interest.

The notebooks are presented in full, interspersed with GMB’s biographical commentary. After giving up his studies at Oxford, Braithwaite spends a brief period working under RD Laing before pursuing his own more unorthodox path, later accusing his mentor of stealing his ideas. Railing against Laing’s success and unearned celebrity, Braithwaite sets himself up in practice near Primrose Hill, north London, an enterprise that seems doomed to failure until a chance encounter with Dirk Bogarde brings him an ever-expanding roster of celebrity clients. Braithwaite’s success is not to last, however, as his increasingly outrageous behaviour and monstrous egotism put him on a collision course with the law.

The six “Grey” notebooks offer the first-person account of an unnamed narrator, a young woman from a comfortable middle-class background whose older sister, Veronica, has recently killed herself. She believes the ultimate blame for Veronica’s death must lie with her psychotherapist, notorious “quack” Collins Braithwaite. Under the name Rebecca Smyth, the young woman books herself a consultation with Braithwaite, determined to discover the truth.

In his preface to the main text, GMB puts forward certain minor inaccuracies in the notebooks as grounds for questioning their authenticity, and as readers we would be advised to be equally suspicious. Those already familiar with Burnet’s writing have met GMB before, not only as the writer and researcher who claims distant kinship with the teenage murderer Roddy Macrae in His Bloody Project, but also as the translator of Burnet’s two “Raymond Brunet” crime novels. The defining essence of Burnet’s work to date is to be found in this kind of literary gamesmanship, a brand of metatextuality that is as much about exploiting the possibilities of the novel form as it is about blurring the boundaries between appearance and reality. In throwing us into doubt about which – and more crucially whose – story we are supposed to be following, Burnet encourages us to look more closely at the inherent instability of fiction itself. The painstakingly assembled, predominantly mimetic fiction of the 19th century has trained us to trust the author; Burnet has always delighted in undermining such easy assumptions, and in Case Study he ups the stakes still further, providing a veritable layer cake of possible realities to get lost in.

“Rebecca Smyth” tells us that in her sessions with Braithwaite he constantly questions her account of things, accusing her not only of inventing whole tracts of her past, but presenting him with an identity that is itself a construction. We know that in this at least Braithwaite is right, but with only the fictitious GMB’s word to go on that Braithwaite exists, it would be foolish for us to trust his suggestions or his analysis. The harder we tug on Burnet’s narrative threads, the more Veronica, her sister, and even Braithwaite himself start to look like different aspects of an unsteady unity.

In his rendering of the six notebooks, Burnet has cited the copious amounts of research he has undertaken, looking to the women’s magazines and journals of the 1950s and 60s in search of authenticity. While such publications might 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 the notebooks at face value, their shallowness and internalised misogyny quickly become irritating as well as unconvincing. If we choose to see them as satire, as part of the novel’s plot in a larger sense, they become something rather different.

As the notebooks progress, their unnamed narrator becomes ever more confused about her own identity. In wishing she was more like her invented alter ego, she begins to see Rebecca almost literally as a separate person, an uncanny simulacrum who can usurp her position and control her behaviour. In the biographical segments, GMB augments this with some interesting discursions on doubles in literature and Braithwaite’s Kierkegaard-inflected theories on the self. As the notebooks’ narrator slides further towards dissociation and depression, Case Study finally becomes a genuinely affecting discourse on mental health, the gulf between societal expectations and inward reality.

In pointed contrast to the gritty true-crime ambience of His Bloody Project, Case Study is above all a very funny book, a wry look back at 60s counterculture in which Burnet’s inventions rub shoulders with real personalities. But much as Braithwaite’s outlandish behaviour and performative rudeness might raise a knowing smile, his theories on identity and selfhood, appearance and reality are never as bonkers as we pretend they are. If Burnet’s aim in writing Case Study was to force us up against the contradictions of our conflicted selves, he has surely succeeded. This is a novel that is entertaining and mindfully engrossing in equal measure.

• Case Study is published by Saraband (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Nina Allan

The GuardianTramp

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