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Literature : Interview

Patrick McGrath

by Lynne Tillman

McGrath and Tillman discuss the deferral of trauma across generations and the choice to tell one story from two perspectives in his new novel Constance.


McGrath by Basso Cannarsa.

The word compelling comes to mind whenever I think about Patrick McGrath’s novels and stories. It’s nearly impossible to put a book of his down. As a reader, writer, and friend, I have followed Patrick’s work since his first book, a collection of stories, Blood and Water and Other Tales, to his current novel, Constance. His wonderfully tight sentences, elegant language, and absorbing lines of inquiry have kept me up many nights.

McGrath’s work has also, from its beginnings, addressed a dogged literary issue: What is it a reader reads for, or wants? His work engages important questions in narrative, to which he finds different approaches with each book. Actually, I don’t think that there’s a narrative device he hasn’t considered or used. Through his writing, I recognized the merits of the Gothic, which conspires with Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. McGrath has now mostly left the genre, exploring other scintillations that entice readers into the mystery of being human.

In Constance, McGrath has, for the first time, written a novel from two points of view, husband’s and wife’s. Though the title suggests it’s about one woman called Constance, it’s really about two women called Constance. One Constance is a woman who narrates her own story, the other is a woman narrated by her husband. The clash of two Constances is a thrilling tour de force.

Lynne Tillman Your last two books have used New York City as a location – more, as ethos and atmosphere. They were written after 9/11. Did that event influence what you wrote?

Patrick McGrath My desire was to locate my stories in the city where I was actually living rather than continuing to set them in an England I had long ago lost touch with. Ghost Town was most closely connected to 9/11. The last story in the trilogy, “Ground Zero,” was set in Manhattan in the days after the attacks.

LT In Trauma, the city seems to be in a duet with the protagonist, who becomes increasingly lost in his own confusion.

PM That was the happy accident: In the period starting from 1963, to around 1983, when I came to New York, the city was in state of real decline. Conditions like that have always had a certain resonance for me as my stories invariably involve characters in states of psychological or spiritual decay. So it was irresistible to find the city mirroring the state of my characters.

LT For readers who haven’t yet read your latest novel, Constance, how would you describe the book, without telling the story?

PM Constance is about a fragile and disturbed woman who is unable to find what she needs in order to make herself whole, and her attempts only to create greater problems for her.

LT Constance marries a man called Sidney. He’s almost 20 years older. This is the first time you’ve written a novel from two points of view, his and hers. To me, they are both protagonists. Sidney appears to be telling her story, she telling her story, but Sidney is also telling his story. I wondered why you decided to work with two points of view.

PM I wanted to show Constance from within her own experience, and from outside of it too. To show the impression she made on others, in particular Sidney, her husband. There were times I thought I was writing a study of marriage. I thought that to convey the nature of marriage you need to see it from both perspectives, which often means that each partner views the same event with a very different attitude and even reconstructs it quite differently.

LT Sidney’s attitude toward her is paternalistic. But Constance is a woman of her time, which is shortly before the women’s movement began. She has a job, needs to work, but isn’t engaged in her work. She marries Sidney because he can teach her, he has authority. The characters’ attitudes represent the period, the early '60s. Constance fascinates me because of that. The dynamic between Constance and Sidney is very dark. What’s significant in this novel is that these two are supposed to be people who are sane, as compared with some of your previous novels where insanity is an issue, say, in Asylum or Spider. These are supposed to be normal people.

PM They would certainly both pass as normal, but of course nothing is quite what it seems. Constance is an aloof, disdainful, rather proud woman, who is in point of fact, damaged and very weak. Sidney, who is paternalistic, also carries unconsciously the patriarchal outlook of a man of his time. He is exerting forms of power he is not altogether aware of, and which he is resisting. So a bitter fight is going on, not always on the surface of the relationship. Their marriage is at root in a state of turmoil.

LT I don’t think it’s too big a statement to say that she has a terrible father problem and I don’t want to give the story away but Sidney in some ways wants to take that role. Early on he tells her that he can in some sense give her a happy life, he can in a way shape her life. She’s 25, and she welcomes his guidance initially.

PM Initially. He sees nothing inappropriate with what he is attempting to do. It seems to him to be perfectly normal for an older man to be a teacher and guide, and Constance clearly is to a large extent immature. So he doesn’t see why she would resist allowing him to play that role. What he hasn’t understood is the very real difficulty she has had in her childhood with her father.

LT What he doesn’t understand is that he can be wrong; he makes assumptions all the time that are incorrect.

PM I’m sure he does. I may be less angry with him than you are. I like the seriousness with which he takes his own moral responsibilities and—

LT I’m not angry with him. I think he is as much a problem as she is. He presumes to understand her in ways that are incorrect. He isn’t as enlightened as he thinks he is.

PM It’s true—the big mistake he makes is not taking her seriously enough, and when she begins to explain to him the problems she has always had with her father, he doesn’t really trust her. He thinks her judgment of that relationship is inaccurate because his tendency is to trust the older man, the doctor (which Constance’s father is), with whom he somehow identifies. He infantilizes Constance in the process, as does Daddy.

LT Dr Schuyler and himself. Sidney shouldn’t trust himself.

PM Constance will act out rather dramatically when she realizes that Sidney is in fact on her father’s side and not hers. She feels her father is her enemy, but Sidney will never buy in to the notion that this man, this doctor, this father, would ever really do harm—would mean to do harm—to his daughter.

LT You know what’s a curious absence—Sidney’s parents, and how they treated him.

PM He’s a man of 40 something. His mother does in fact show up at the wedding but I didn’t think that they had much to do at all with Sidney’s relationship to Constance. I wanted Constance to have all of the past, all the history, and to allow Sidney simply to be what he was, his own parenting having been probably good enough but not particularly dramatic one way or the other. We know that he’s been through two marriages already so he is clearly not a perfect man by any stretch.

LT (laughter) Far from perfect.

PM One very problematic parent-child relationship seemed to be enough. I didn’t want the narrative becoming overwrought.

LT In Constance, I found an entrancing if difficult character, because she reminded me of a woman before the newer women’s consciousness. She is suffering from, but not only, a patriarchal situation. It’s the end of the '50s, things are changing, and you feel that part of her discontent mirrors the times just as the destruction of Penn Station says something about the city.

PM Constance is sort of frozen in that moment before all sorts of possibilities of liberation would open up in front of her. It’s about ten minutes before feminism. I mean, her insistence, her absolute refusal to seek any sort of therapeutic help is because of the quite possibly correct assumption that any doctor, any shrink, would be a man, and would probably be on Daddy’s side and on Sidney’s side, so she is a very isolated figure. She reminds me of Spider...

LT Your character Spider from the eponymous novel!

PM My character Spider is schizophrenic, one of the most terribly isolated figures I could have ever imagined, and in talking to my editor, I began to see Constance as being just as isolated. She has some relationship with her sister and her colleagues but she wouldn’t really know where to go other than to a man and she’s had it with men.

LT She doesn’t have any close relationships apart from the one with her sister, but there is a strong ambivalence in that relationship, which is part of a very disturbed family romance, I think. Her sister is called Iris and is younger than Constance. And Constance is in an odd way sort of paternalistic toward her sister...

PM Maternalistic.

LT There’s a twinge of disdain in her behavior toward her sister.

PM Disdain that’s born of resentment. She was her sister’s mother in effect because their mother died when Constance was about 12. So she was responsible for her younger sister during their teenage years, and has that maternal warmth toward her. But at the same time she always resented that her sister got far more affection and love from their father. Their relationship is complicated by the disdain she feels for the way her sister lives, and the resentment of her sister’s relationship with her father, and the protectiveness she felt when her sister was growing up.

LT Yes, yes. I think this novel is dedicated to the problems of a family and to situations or events that happen early on in a family which seem near to being ineradicable.

PM In a way it’s a book about the family secret and the damage a family secret can do. That secret isn’t revealed until very late in the day.

LT There is a sentence in the book: “Secrets make us ill.”

PM Yes.

LT The repressed issues and thoughts that are unable to come to consciousness make one ill, neurotic, according to Freud—our secrets from ourselves, in a way. In psychoanalysis, through talking the secret is meant to come out. But you do a very curious thing in this book. Constance will have nothing to do with that idea of talking, and her husband, Sidney, talks all the time about her, when he himself doesn’t do therapy but he thinks that she should go into therapy. And, he wants her to talk to him; he wants her to confess to him. Nonetheless, when she does confess to him it doesn’t make things better.

PM Well, that’s because what she confesses to him is not what really ails her.

LT That’s not what really ails her?

PM Because what ails her she doesn’t know. The secret that psychoanalysis is intended to unearth cannot be unearthed by Constance because she is not in possession of the secret, not even in the sense that she has repressed it. The secret belongs elsewhere and she is suffering as a result of growing up alongside a repressed secret.

LT Her husband is not an analyst. Telling a friend a problem is different from telling an analyst.

PM Yes.

LT But Sidney imagines that he is doing it all for her which is part of his delusion that she would talk to him and tell him and then all will be well, but he’s implicated, he’s in the relationship with her. He’s not an analyst who has some distance from it and can look at her problem as her problem.

PM When his sexual interests become involved, then he is unable to handle any other sort of conversation, and probably no husband can, and no wife can. It’s the hardest thing a couple can do. That’s why one has an analyst. But he is also not very good at understanding her problems with her father. Constance says something about her father being cruel, and Sidney says, Cruel? He’s a doctor. And Constance says, Yes, so what he’s a doctor, you think they’re benign?

LT I want to return to the family. Did you set out to write a family romance?

PM In terms of setting out, I just wanted to do that house up the Hudson, Wilderstein, and to describe the Hudson Valley and that house in particular. A rather romantic house a hundred miles north of New York. It’s not far from Rhinebeck.

LT Ravenswood in the novel.

PM But it is based on an actual house and that’s where the novel began. I put a family in it, comprised of a father and two daughters; the mother had died and that was going to be the story as I began it. It was going to be very much about the absence of the mother, and then the story changed as stories do.

LT In terms of structure, the greatest change was shifting from one to two points of view, right?

PM That was quite late. The notion was that, if I were going to write the novel in part or in whole from Sidney’s point of view, I would get a radically different view of Constance, and this began to seem important. I think she does need to be seen from without, because she seems to some men, to Sidney for sure, an extremely attractive woman, and what is attractive about her is ironically the very thing that is sort of wrong with her, the sickness, the absence, the blankness, the emotional emptiness that is read as an intriguing aloofness or mystery. In fact, it is the sort of emptiness and vacancy that is more properly read as a symptom of trauma, of deep trauma.

LT It brings to mind how Hitchcock used Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, and other blondes. He poured traumas—

PM You’re saying he actually traumatized them in order to get that sort of disdain and affectlessness?

LT No, not actually, although he did traumatize Janet Leigh in the making of Psycho. She said she could never take a shower again after doing that shower scene again and again. Hitchcock certainly used their placid features, and an idea of a cool, distant beauty. He forced them to experience horrible events, because their responses would be all the more notable on a remote or cool façade.

PM In a sense, Constance could be a deconstruction of the Hitchcock blonde. It was a striking discovery for me that in the psychoanalytic literature psychic emptiness can be symptomatic of repressed trauma, but would be read as whatever another projected onto it. In the case of the Hitchcock blonde, what was projected onto that was a sexual allure, a sense of mystery. I thought that was a fascinating notion: the sickness in fact reads as a sort of a come-hither attraction. It emerged, as I had the story being told both by Constance, who is damaged, unhappy, miserably isolated, and by Sidney who sees a somewhat troubled girl but more often a ravishingly lovely but somewhat immature creature whom he can nurture.

LT Or a tabula rasa on whom he can—

PM On whom he can impress himself, yes.

LT The child Sidney has from a previous marriage, Howard, becomes a kind of touchstone in the novel. He becomes central to Sidney and Constance’s relationship. I’m not going to give anything away but the boy’s own mother dies in the novel. The novel is replete with varying kinds of family issues: early death of the mother, a suspicion around paternity; there’s enmity between sisters, moments of jealousy, one feeling that the other has had more affection; and all of them have secrets they keep from each other. One of the secrets goes to the grave with Constance and Iris’s mother but affects all of them. What’s hidden produces actions and reactions upon discovery or revelation. None of your other books have secrets manifested in the narrative in this way.

PM No. I was inspired by the theories of Abraham and Torok, French psychoanalysts, who spoke of trans-generational haunting whereby the secret that is held by the parent, and which is repressed in the parent, produces psychic affects in the child. The child is somehow infected by the parents’ own psychic distress. That was extraordinary to me, the notion that a kind of infection could occur and that Constance could carry the symptoms of her father’s trauma, even though she hadn’t witnessed it, and it had occurred before she was born—

LT And her mother’s trauma.

PM Her mother’s trauma too. That was a very new phenomenon to me, and I began to see a possibility of—

LT But wouldn’t it make sense that a parent’s behavior would affect the child that they’re raising?

PM I suppose it was in the way it was formulated in this literature. They spoke about a sort of psychic typography, they spoke about a place in the mind of the child which is a crypt, and that the crypt was inhabited by a phantom—the terminology is entirely gothic.

LT Yes.

PM And that any sort of health, any intervention, was possible only if that parental trauma could somehow be unearthed; then that unearthing could be used to give relief to the after-image of the trauma that had produced and created so much damage in the child. So the parent’s behavior, yes, but they took it much further than that. Much further than having a father who was not entirely present because he was damaged from the war or something equally destructive—

LT Were they thinking about children of Holocaust survivors?

PM They were in part, yes. But they were also talking about family tragedies or sins within a family that were not explained, not revealed to the next generation, but the next generation did take on the same sort of psychic symptoms as the parents, and didn’t know why.

LT That’s fascinating. Constance has a relentlessness; it never lets up. There is always tension. There is mystery upon mystery upon mystery, but I think the tension is created in part by how Constance and Sidney fail to understand each other. Each time the narrative shifts in point of view, the reader thinks: But he doesn’t understand this, or she doesn’t get this about her sister. Constance isn’t thinking so much about Sidney, Constance is thinking about her origin problems, so to say, but thinking in a way that is not thinking. It’s more reactive. As I was reading and turning pages – you always write books that one can’t put down – but I had more desire to stop, because it kept getting more intense, and more disturbing. The secrets mounted up, the characters didn’t understand each other; it just kept whirling around, yet in a very spare way.

PM As you know there is a pivotal event or revelation. I had, as I said, started with a house, into which I put a father, then his two daughters. I began to move them around and pretty soon I had them as adults. Now the two young women were in New York City, and the father, or Daddy, as the aging father is called, was left in the house upstate. At some point it dawned on me that a key revelation would be made by the father who is in the very early stages of dementia, and it will rock their world. I won’t say Constance had peace of mind, but whatever peace of mind she did have was destroyed by what she learned from her father that Christmas afternoon. The story becomes a working out of the implications of that revelation for each of the characters but for Constance in particular, and how her husband, her sister, her father, her sister’s lover, all became drawn into the fall-out from one piece of information, a very dramatic piece of information.

LT A radical—

PM Each reaction and thought brought about its own reaction in each relationship and the reactions compounded, and one thing led to another, and it began to spiral, downwards obviously, because I don’t know how to make them spiral upward.

LT (laughter) I don’t know that it went downwards because you maintained that level of tension all the way through, so even though this was an exciting or inciting event it was more what would have been the end of somebody’s book. Instead, it became another book...

PM Oh, that changes things.

LT What could have been the end became the beginning.

PM It explained some things but the effects of it were much more powerful.

LT That was also formally very interesting. The reader can begin to forget what the revelation was that was so dramatic, because what happens afterward becomes even more dramatic.

PM Yes, the reaction takes on a life on its own. And so other narratives come into existence and run their particular course.

LT The destruction of Penn Station frames the novel, and the frame, in a way, is an externalization of the problems in the marriage, something that is being taken apart, and maybe will collapse. So you’ve got this crumbling city, a crumbling marriage, and there is also nature.

PM There is nature.

LT The Hudson River Valley. You write about what the sky is like, what the river is like, and all the description weaves into the story. The father’s house is dilapidated, and it’s where Constance and Iris were both raised, and visit as adults. So a house in ruins, a city in distress, magnificent Penn Station being destroyed. Going to the country is meant to be calming and wonderful yet terrible things happen there. The Hudson River is also dangerous.

PM It’s a lovely part of the world. The initial inspiration was to capture something of that, and then certain other bits of luck occurred: one was that when I thought about the crumbling city and the crumbling family and the crumbling old house up the river, I knew that my crumbling city would have to be observed somewhere between the early '60s and the early '80s. It also occurred to me that as the sisters went up the Hudson and as the family came down the Hudson, everybody would come through Penn Station and in 1963 Penn Station was crumbling, it was crumbling at the hands of the city, one of the greatest pieces of vandalism ever committed in New York City.

LT Municipal murder!

PM Municipal murder. And so I felt very lucky that I could put the demolition of Penn Station right at the very center of all the movements of the characters. Penn Station was being used as a railway station even while it was being demolished. I thought that there is a significant pivotal entity at the center of the novel.

LT It creates a sense of permanent dislocation and disruption.

PM Yes.

LT Sidney talks about Constance as if she’s under construction. He speaks of her problems as if she had no agency: “She would have abandoned our marriage if I’d let her. Daddy had at least provided some kind of focus for her flailing emotions.” His attitudes, and hers, are old-fashioned, if you will. Yet Constance might be on the cusp of change, the city too. Penn Station has been or is being destroyed, but other changes, better ones, are coming. Don’t you think? Or, the novel represents why change was needed.

PM I’ve been asked about the end of the novel. I say that things will go on as they are for about—a week. Beyond that I’m not willing to say. That’s the reader’s responsibility.

 

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