ASYLUM PIECE by Anna Kavan (BOOK REVIEW)
“What’s the good of appealing to senseless machinery? The cogs are moving, the engines are slowly gathering momentum, a low humming noise is perceptible even now. How well I recognise every sound, every tremor of the laborious start. The loathsome familiarity of the routine is almost the worst part of it, intolerable and inescapable at the same time, like a sickness inside the blood. This morning it drives me to rebellion, to madness; I want to batter my head on the walls, to shatter my head with bullets to beat the machines into pulp, into powder, along with my skull.”
Writer Helen Ferguson had published six books before her marriage ended, she attempted suicide and was admitted to a clinic. On emerging, she changed her name to Anna Kavan, the protagonist of her previous novels Let Me Alone (1930) and A Stranger Still (1995), died her hair blonde and started writing some of the most powerful and disturbing experimental fiction ever written. Asylum Piece (1940) was her first book published under her new name, and introduced the world to her new writing style. It is a set of linked short stories, partially inspired by her time in the clinic and her lifelong struggles with mental illness, depression, and heroin addiction. But Kavan’s biography should not obscure her incredible talent and originality. The stories that make up Asylum Piece are elliptical works of fiction, tinged with the Weird and the uncanny and filled with a haunting despair. Kavan explores loneliness, depression and alienation with a unique power, and the way she elides the boundaries between the real and the mythic, the waking world and the dream world, makes her stories all the more viscerally haunting and disturbing. Reading too many of her books at once is probably a bad idea, but her work is truly like no one else’s, and her hallucinatory, nightmarish stories are impossible to come away from unchanged.
Asylum Piece is comprised of 19 short stories. Together they weave a loose narrative thread about the unnamed narrator, a woman who, under the pressures of a labyrinthine and malevolent bureaucracy, bizarre coincidences and haunting experiences, or maybe just the strain of modern life, is slowly losing her grip on reality. Is the narrator being persecuted by an implacable enemy, or are they suffering from a progressive paranoid delusion? Either way, she winds up incarcerated in an asylum, an experience explored through eight interlocking stories each titled ‘Asylum Piece’ towards the end of the book. But this is far more than a simple document of Helen Ferguson’s stay at the clinic. Kavan’s stories play games with their unreliable narrator, placing the reader in a mindset where they are uncertain of what is reality and what is delusion, what is being experienced and what is just a dream. By placing the reader directly in the perspective of her troubled character, Kavan forces the reader to viscerally experience the depression, isolation and paranoia that she’s writing about. Her stories feel like grappling with insanity. In this way, her books are perhaps the most successful destabilisation of the reader’s consensus reality outside of the works of Philip K. Dick.
Asylum Piece’s stories are individually beautiful, as delicate as crystal and as cold as ice. Frequently short and abstract, it is remarkable the depth of the impression they create. In ‘The Birthmark’, a sinister encounter in a tour of a castle reminds the narrator of her childhood friend. In ‘The Birds’, she is haunted by a beautiful vision that demands all her attention, one that no one else can see. But it doesn’t take long for things to get worse for our narrator. She feels she is being persecuted by a devious enemy who is plotting her destruction whilst masquerading as her friend. She inadvertently violates some obscure social taboo in ‘Going Up In The World’, which causes her rich sponsors to cast her out. Soon, she feels the wheels of the state’s intractable bureaucracy turning against her, and is unable to trust the advisor assigned to her any more than anyone else. Kavan’s writing is frequently compared to Kafka, and like Kafka she shares a fascination with the inhuman mechanisms of bureaucracy and how they can unwittingly destroy people. But Kavan is far more elliptical than Kafka. Touches of the surreal and the fantastic illuminate these stories. The luxurious apartment in ‘Going Up In The World’ is metaphorically and physically set above the dreary fog that consumes the world of the working class that the narrator belongs to. In ‘At Night’ and ‘Machines In The Head’, the narrator is tormented by obscure and frightening torture devices, which are all the more menacing for their strangeness and unfamiliarity. In ‘A Changed Situation’, the narrator reflects on the eccentric house in which she lives, which is made up of an older section that wasn’t there when she moved in, and a more recent construction that’s always been there. Time, place and perspective refuse to stay still. The world remains defiantly undefinable, the people impossible to understand.
The dark heart of the book is certainly the ‘Asylum Piece’ sequence itself, set inside the asylum after the narrator’s enemies – or reality – have succeeded in driving her insane. If the stories set outside the asylum feel alienated and depressed, Kavan enters a new stage in these stories. The narrator almost completely disappears as a character, describing the interactions between the tragic inmates and their custodians with a frighteningly detached, dispassionate eye. Kavan conveys the horrors of incarceration by exploring its deadening effect on the soul. Whilst in the asylum, the narrator witnesses the abuse of a young wife who is being gaslit by her husband, the fragile friendships and alliances, the extent to which the doctors and nurses who genuinely care for the patients are still complicit in their patients’ suffering. All this is so powerful precisely because Kavan is so detached and dispassionate – rather than railing against the system and its failings, she captures with clarity and focus the dehumanising treatment of the patients.
Asylum Piece is haunting, strange, and disturbing. As the first outing for Kavan’s new voice and persona, it perfectly captures the bold, experimental direction she wanted to take her work in, and demonstrates her skill at capturing emotions and powerfully conveying them to the reader. With its intentional destabilisation of consensus reality, and the way it powerfully evokes a paranoid depressive perspective, it is a challenging but powerful read. Kavan’s pushing at the edges of reality, her insistence at pulling the threads of her reader’s reality and exploring extreme states of mind, makes her a powerful practitioner of the Weird and the uncanny. Though her work is hard to categorise, its engagement with the uncanny and the strange make it compelling reading for fans of Weird fiction, speculative fiction and slipstream literature.