There have been numerous memoirs, a cottage industry's worth, on bipolar disorder (Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation comes to mind). And there have been numerous novels about Hollywood, going back to the days of Nathanael West and Budd Schulberg. While it is quite possible that there have been novels about bipolar Hollywood executives, Juliann Garey's Too Bright To Hear Too Loud To See, which has just been published by Soho Press, may be the first novel I have read that so brilliantly captures the effects of electro-convulsive therapy.
If the book, Garey's debut novel, is ostensibly about a manic Sammy Glick character, it never quite fits that mold. For one, Greyson Todd, the book's protagonist, is not a slime ball in the classic Glickian sense. He does not make a habit of selling out his clients, nor does he promote himself to the point of nausea.
No, he is a man who is spiraling into a vortex of delusion, mania and depression. But the book is about more than mental illness. It is a meditation on memory, its hopscotch, recursive nature and the extent to which forgiveness is possible for the memory-deprived.
Recently, I spoke over the phone with Garey, who hails from Los Angeles and will be coming to the golden state for several book signings. She will be reading from her novel on Thursday, Jan. 17, at the Belmont Library in Belmont, Calif., as part of an event with Books, Inc. of San Francisco; and she will read and sign copies of her novel on Friday, Jan. 18, at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip.
While Garey suffers from bipolar disorder, she has never actually undergone ECT. Yet her depictions of electro-shock therapy have an authenticity to them. This is partly due to Garey's imaginative gifts, but it is also due to her memories of time spent in psychiatric wards with people who had indeed been administered such shocks.
A journalist as well as a screenwriter, Garey did not take notes while she was hospitalized, but she did not forget much either.
Her writing about memory is poetic, particularly near the end of the book, when Greyson attempts to reunite with his daughter. Consider the following passages: "Sometimes I think maybe there is a glimmer, a flash. But it is gone before I can get a good look. It is like trying to catch fireflies in broad daylight. With no jar."
"And little by little memories that have scattered come together and begin to shuffle like a deck of cards, arranging and rearranging themselves until every once in a while I see one and am momentarily struck by the depth of its meaning."
"I close my eyes and it is like pulling up an anchor. One that was dropped from a ship abandoned decades ago."
As poetic as these passages are, Garey, true to her raunchy protagonist, can also include lines that are a tad more profane, such as when Greyson discusses AIDS with a Ugandan beauty while "slowly positioning myself behind her, slowly remembering how to f*ck a pregnant woman."
Asked how she could get into the head of a man who gets horny even from ECT and who enjoys raucous psych-ward sex, Garey said that she "found it easier to write from the point of view of a man, or this man," adding that Greyson Todd "spoke for himself."
It may have helped that, in addition to Proust, on whom she wrote her undergraduate thesis, she has been influenced by writers, whom she refers to as "transgressive, nasty men," including Paul Harding, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, and Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club.
In writing the character of Greyson Todd, she was also undoubtedly influenced by her father and grandfather, both of whom may have had undiagnosed mental disorders. Her father, an entertainment lawyer, took his life when Garey was 16, one of five suicides in her family over two generations.
A self-dubbed "theater geek" as a child, Garey initially thought that she wanted to be an actress. After getting up on stage a few times, though, she "quickly realized I didn't like people staring at me."
Garey said that she "can't ever remember not being an anxious kid." She had her first major depressive episode when she was 19 and was misdiagnosed at the time as being "unipolar" as opposed to bipolar.
In the past year, Garey has stabilized, though she pointed out that publishing a book and having her first child apply to college at the same time has been stressful.
She takes psychotropic medication, which she said has affected her memory. She mentioned that she has other cognitive deficits as well, including difficulty concentrating at times.
If Too Bright To Hear Too Loud To See is any indication, Garey has been able to overcome those deficits and then some. Her book is a testament to fortitude and imagination. And her prose, with its mixture of the poetic and the profane, illuminates the psyche of a bipolar man, who seeks not a Hollywood ending but a restoration of the "glimmer" of his faded past.