Review: Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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Nadia Martin reviews Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Glasgow: Saraband 2021)

1960s London. Driven by deep suspicion of the charlatan psychiatrist her sister frequented before her suicide, a young woman decides to visit him herself, under the guise of an alter ego. The psychiatrist in question, Collins Braithwaite, is a notorious celebrity quack, famed for his unconventional methods. In seeking the truth, she finds that even the nature of truth is uncertain.

Graeme Macrae Burnet opens Case Study with a preface detailing how he received a bundle of notebooks from the cousin of a young woman who had been a former patient of the very psychiatrist Burnet had already been researching. Despite Burnet’s suspicions of these notebooks being a hoax or a devious attempt at literary exposure, he decided, in any event, that this would be a great story to tell.

I came to Case Study with a prior familiarity with Burnet’s talent for fiction presented as non-fiction, having read His Bloody Project (2016). To newcomers of Burnet’s work, one might read the faux-serious preface and feel slight discomfort as to the ambiguity of whether this is a work of fiction or a work of non-fiction; slight discomfort, or sheer curiosity. Burnet thrives on making his readers work things out for themselves; and, contrary to the end result feeling like a frustrating wind up, Case Study is a wonderful rollicking wild ride through the minds of two highly engaging and intriguing characters; genuine or not.

The story is told through two complementary and dramatically intertwined viewpoints: the contents of five ‘lightly edited’ notebooks written by Braithwaite’s young patient and a biography of Braithwaite himself.

Through the use of ‘real’ notebooks written by the protagonist, interspersed with Burnet’s purported ‘research’ into the life of the little-known psychotherapist, Arthur Collins Braithwaite, themes of identity, self and the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis are examined through two different viewpoints. The protagonist, a young woman, tells us in first person her direct experiences, her thoughts and feelings, and why she decided to visit Braithwaite. The biography segments show us Braithwaite through a decidedly more objective lens, though additional quotes from friends, lovers, contemporaries and rivals add character, gravity and depth.

Collins Braithwaite, the swashbuckling pioneer of ‘the new psychology’ is an egotistical, unfettered and ideologically liberal man with an outrageous temper and a predilection for erratic and impulsive behaviour. He is also, by many accounts, an incredibly insightful man whose techniques, though controversial, are roundly admired and sought after by London’s bohemian elite. In his ‘publication’, “My Self and Other Strangers,” Braithwaite describes the actor as the perfect example of this duality (the ‘real’ self, co-existing alongside the ‘fake’ self). Thus, to be held to authenticity through either, becomes Braithwaite’s succinct and insightful professional counterpoint to how we as readers experience the main character’s dual presentation in her own life.

Despite these peripheral doubts as to truth, do not be mistaken: these do not detract from the book’s ability to draw in the reader completely. Burnet’s intelligent, skilful and imaginative creation and handling of fictional documents as if they were genuine is still finely tuned fiction; and their clever and playful use makes for an undeniably absorbing and compelling read.

The deliciously arch tone of Rebecca Smyth’s first-person accounts is a comedic delight. Her opinions are strong and well-grounded in practicality, as well as exposing her vulnerability and sometime dismissiveness of her social encounters. The juxtaposition of this 1960s character’s external social expectations, butting up against her very real and honest inner reactions is akin to being in on the joke, and creates a strong empathic response from the reader. Burnet’s well-chosen vocabulary is reminiscent of Jerome K Jerome or PG Wodehouse; the quintessentially British stiff upper lip humour is stylistically suited to the socially restrictive world she inhabits. Contrasting this gentle phrasing with abrasive and witty insults makes for a raucously funny read.

The language, particularly the protagonist’s vernacular, is very much of its time. Burnet has skilfully tapped into the colloquialisms of 1960s London, which he achieved by studying old issues of Woman’s Journal, a popular women’s magazine of the era. Archaic terms of insult such as ‘ninny’, ‘mendicant’ and the chaste ‘nocturnal shenanigans’ lend a real sense of the language of the time in which Burnet is immersing us, and it feels very authentic. It becomes entertainingly apparent to us how much fun Burnet must have had creating this upper class, repressed character, torn between propriety and her inner ‘Jezebel’. The protagonist is articulate with a beautifully dry and dismissive sense of humour; her insults are a joy to read. Her caustic and dismissive wit renders her vulnerable moments all the more affecting.

Throughout the book, the protagonist makes a number of references to Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca. The protagonist’s alter ego is named after the dead titular character, and a comparison is made between the grand and beautiful mansion at Manderley and the psychiatric facility at which her sister temporarily resided. This parallel is spot on: the overriding theme of Rebecca is that the new wife of the charming Max de Winter is relentlessly made to feel inferior to Rebecca, his illustrious, dead first wife. Our protagonist feels just as inferior to her illustrious, dead sister. Further, as a kind of last blow, though the protagonist of Case Study was indeed not as accomplished as her sister, she compares her late sister to the less attractive Mrs Danvers in Du Maurier’s book, as opposed to the impossibly beautiful, glamorous and accomplished Rebecca herself.

Presenting herself as the fictitious alter ego ‘Rebecca Smyth (with a y)’ lets the reader in on how she wishes to be perceived, which in turn gives us insight into the protagonist herself. She is full of contradiction, and her monologues, delivered on Braithwaite’s couch, are inventive, witty and colourful. Full of detail and her own inner thoughts, these monologues about moments in her life are swiftly turned on their head when, in the present moment, Braithwaite questions their veracity. He insists, however, that the truth doesn’t matter so much as the stories she chose to tell, and thus have merit. This idea recurs throughout the book, both for the characters, and for the reader. The metafictional flavour of the narrative lends the story multiple layers of meaning, and as we wonder about the truth of the characters, and discover their humour and humanity through personal crises, the conclusions we draw become intrinsic to our processing of a story whose basic premise, down to its very structure and composition, is the unreliable nature of truth.

As is Burnet’s trademark style, the veracity of each point of view is riddled with possible unreliability, and that he chose these two narrative forms harmonises poetically with the novel’s subject matter: the fluidity of ideas surrounding identity and self, leaning into Braithwaite’s claim that the multi-faceted ‘schizoid’ model is the self’s most natural expression; that several selves must be allowed equal standing, rather than insisting upon just one. Case Study is itself a literary expression of these ideas, through its use of contrary and unreliable narrators.

Regarding the inherent sense that these first-person notebook accounts are untrue; they remain an oblique window into character, and that is the key. Just as in life, lies shed as much light on character as truth, and this is the basis of a compelling character. The adage ‘show don’t tell’ is applied by Burnet with such playful and mischievous skill, that the reader can have a great time reading between his lines. We know this innately as human beings – that a character is as much defined by what he chooses to tell us, by virtue only of his choosing.

That we are involved with unreliable narrators creates angles of interest throughout, including the officious tone of the Braithwaite biography. Essentially non-fiction in style, elements of comedy still creep into those passages, and though it could be said the overall style becomes slightly disrupted (a nice touch: Braithwaite himself is a nonconformist in the field of conventional psychoanalysis), I found those humorous beats and turns of phrase lightened the tone, brought comedy to a scene and created punches of light relief inside a text format that is traditionally po-faced. Burnet can spot opportunities for absurdity to such a degree that I was primed with anticipation for the next wry observation. The biography segments work well in casting a relatively authoritative stance when set against the ponderous and subjective retellings of the protagonist’s first-person narrative.

If Case Study is about psychological relationships and the discovery of the true self versus multiple selves, then what Burnet has also created is his own case study in the cross-arts of fiction and non-fiction, into metafiction. If non-fiction is the mask of this novel, fiction is its true self. As claimed by the incorrigible Braithwaite himself (in one of his quasi-genuine publications), why ‘be yourself,’ when you can ‘be several’?

Nadia Martin is a writer and pharmacy professional from the east end of London. She is currently working on her first comedy novel, ‘Sforzando!’, and is in her first year of the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck.  

29 November 2023