Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review of Mike Barnes's Lily Pond

The current issue of Q&Q has a review of Mike Barnes's just released memoir of 30 years of bi-polar disorder, The Lily Pond. It's a thoughtful review by Mark Callanan, someone I'd expect no less of. I've not yet seen the new Q&Q yet, having let me subscription lapse, though a thoughtful person, knowing it would warm my heart, sent it along last eve. So I'll copy it below.

I think this book by Mike an important and brave one. Having a tendency to wallow in the dark waters a touch myself, I've read a lot of these memoirs, and I think it ranks up there with the best of them. This is more Styron than Jamieson, offering no pat solutions or self-congratulatory survivalisms; it is, as Callanan points out, as much as anything an act of recollection, reconstruction, remembering. It's a memoir about memory as much as anything else: despite appearances to the contrary, most are not. It is about the proverbial power of art, the narrative-life-line of mythology.

This spring, when we were putting the finishing editorial touches on The Lily Pond, we received word through our sales manager that if we changed the title to include a direct reference to bi-polar disorder we might be able to swing the all-important table placement at Indigo. I talked this over with mike, who, though leaving it to me, made a very strong case why we should not do so; he'd rather, he argued, stick to the more diaphanous concept of madness. It's a more human, less clinical term. Madness, with all of its varied associations, positive and negative, more closely and humanely captures a life lived with mental illness, with its consequences for the sufferer, the ones who care for him, and those he cares for.

So though The Lily Pond may not be facing you on a table when you enter the local Indigo, it will be on the bookshelves there, and on any other bookstore shelf worthy of the name. So, please, go search it out. In a season that seems swamped with memoirs and novels dealing with bi-polar disorder and mental illness, I think this will be one of the most affecting and important.

The Q&Q review:

Though "oblivion, and states approaching it" may, as Mike Barnes writes in the first of four lengthy essays that make up The Lily Pond, "slide away most determinedly from the very conscious act of writing," they can be apprehended by those diligent (or obsessive) enough to attempt to capture them. Barnes's own protracted state of near-oblivion–some 30 years of fighting bipolar affective disorder, originally misdiagnosed as schizophrenia–is the subject of this, his seventh book.

Barnes, a novelist and short story writer as well as a poet, is adept at moving between the purely narrative–the what and how of his own mental decline (which includes, among other low points, a particularly gruesome suicide attempt)–and the intense imagery of his prose, which is both poetically compelling and evocative of the physical world. The neuroleptic drug Mellaril, for instance, makes his arms swell up into "clubs. Bland bats: long, smooth, round, heavy." Pulling his jeans over swollen thighs means "pushing as if at cart wheels stuck in mud."

Famous artworks provide another means for Barnes to express the workings of his mind. A deeply depressive state is a Turner painting "with walls of solid-seeming whitish or grayish vapor shifting sluggishly, and only the vaguest hint here and there...of what might be a bridge, boat, sun." The "implacable" hunters of Brueghel's Hunters in the Snow embody the author's own figurative trek. Likewise, the numerous underworld narratives of Greek myth inform Barnes's struggle against oblivion–they are a powerful current that runs, like the river Styx, throughout this memoir.

Given Barnes's "general amnesia"–likely the cumulative effect of electroconvulsive therapy, years of debilitating drug courses, and mental illness–The Lily Pond is the ultimate act of recollection. Barnes has imposed continuity on the fragments of his life, and done so in a way that is neither over-determined nor self-satisfied. Perhaps his greatest feat of perception is in recognizing that his struggle is ongoing: he has not been plucked from the underworld river; he has simply discovered–by torturous process of trial and error–how to tread water.

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