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Alex Pheby – Playthings

Book Cover

Nothing is as it seems/everything is as it seems.

Publisher: Galley Beggar Press
Pages: 235
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-29647-9
First Published: 5th November 2015
Date Reviewed: 22nd April 2016
Rating: 4/5

Judge Daniel Paul Schreber can’t find his wife. She’s gone, and the cook doesn’t seem worried enough. On running outside, he sees his daughter returning home; she urges him to go back in, but he doesn’t, and when others find him they say they’ll take him to his Court. When he wakes up he’s in a sanatorium.

Playthings is a fiction book based on part of the life of a 19th to early 20th century German judge, diagnosed with paranoia Schizophrenia, who wrote a memoir in the hope it would allow him to leave the sanatorium he was living in. It’s a rather unique book that gives all its time to Schreber and what was going on in his mind, based on reports and the memoir, and is quite something.

Pheby throws you into the story without explaining anything, which has the effect of leaving you as confused as his character about what is going on. It’s a great beginning that enables the author to demonstrate Schizophrenia without description, without having to say anything about it, the ultimate of the concept of show rather than tell. And it carries on throughout, meaning that on one hand you understand what Schreber is going through – you’re in his head, via third person, after all – whilst simultaneously questioning everything. It’s the unreliable narrative at its extreme.

So you feel for this man from the get go because whilst you may not understand him at his core, you’ve been with him from the start and he is what you know. You sympathise with his confusion. There is seemingly no malice in him and so you’re comfortable in your discomfort and want him to prevail. That’s important to note, I think – you’ll feel at a loss at the start but you gradually get used to it and any hope you may have had that Pheby would give you a clear answer at some point fades away because you just don’t need it.

Unfortunately what the thrown-into-the-story factor also means is that you’ve no context in which to ‘get’ what’s going on. This book is Pheby’s fictional attempt to continue Schreber’s memoir, to give life to the times of illness that Schreber did not write about; the story reads very much as a continuation and so whilst you may be happy with that, you are just as likely to feel you lack the context, history, information, to truly appreciate it. There is information enough about Schreber online, and likely if you’re interested in the book you’ll have a basic idea anyway, but it does mean you can’t expect to pick this book up at random. It requires research in a way fiction often does not.

It’s worth doing your research. Not only does Pheby look deeply into the way mental illness was viewed and treated at the turn of the century, which is reason enough to read it, he looks at Schizophrenia itself meaning that albeit historical, there is a lot to learn about the illness from this book. He looks into the progression, at where Schreber’s Schizophrenia may have begun (there are a few opinions on this; Pheby’s opinion is of events in Schreber’s childhood and he looks to Schreber’s family’s dynamics for evidence, which are of course fictionalised somewhat here but the factual base is there), at how it affects a person, and by the excellently crafted confusion he includes, he shows how reality and fantasy can be mixed up.

In this book repetition is intentional. If you think you’ve already read that line, heard that simile, you have – one of the features of Schreber’s illness is that he will think he is somewhere and then later think he’s there again and so on. There are conflicts in this book that would be called devices in other books and that simply isn’t the case here – here it’s just truth and illness. Schreber goes on for a very long time about his wife, showing us in turn – once we’ve realised how much time has or has not passed – that his perception of time is rudimentary at best. And so yours will be too – are we on a memory of last week or moments ago or are we in the present? You must work it out.

That isn’t to say you have to be perfect at identifying everything; on this note each chapter starts with a sentence or two which details what the chapter is about – this helps you figure out your impression of events but doesn’t cure you of confusion, leaving out enough that you can draw a line between fantasy and reality but not to be let off the hook. Your job as the reader is to be in Schreber’s head. The sentences have the effect of making the book seem a bit theatrical in the literal sense and bring an additional atmosphere to it.

“There are things I do not allow myself to think of.”

There is a lot of tragedy in this book. Schreber’s father had a few accidents and as he had been very strict and into routine for his children – he’s rather akin to The Sound Of Music’s Captain von Trapp – this has a profound effect on the children and the working of the household in general. Schreber’s illness was characterised by the feeling that he must be good for God, and here, in this book, at least, we witness the emergence of one of the factors of this complete willingness to please – Schreber’s belief that God was turning him into a woman. It may not be obvious from the text of the novel, but this was not a transgender issue, rather an anxiety, a paranoia about what God wanted from him. Whilst at first confused, the character later takes comfort in pretending to be his mother, in assuming her role. He comes to believe he needs to be a woman to do what God wants.

Of Schreber’s father’s authoritarian manner of parenting, some people have used the term ‘psychological fascism’ to describe the way Schreber thinks – to describe the thoughts he has that you come to understand are the result of his father’s demeanour. It fits. There is no reasoning in himself; Schreber is his own dictator in many ways.

Of tragedy, and in terms of the above quotation, however, perhaps the most effecting part of the book occurs in the penultimate pages. We see the ultimate reason for Schreber and his wife’s adoption of a child, and of a girl at that, in a time when heirs were boys. You know the basics for a while but Pheby goes right to the heart of the matter, speaking plainly of multiple miscarriages and two stillbirths that caused the couple a lot of pain; in particular we see Schreber’s pain which given his illness is honest and could be considered graphic – not in a dirty way but in the way devastation can cause things that are understandable but are things we don’t like to talk about. If everything else is somewhere on the scale of confusion, then this episode is clear, transparent.

He sees himself shouting like a God to his stillborn children, animating them, but them refusing to move.

Playthings is a fantastic book. It boasts a particular individuality that’s not just in its subject matter but in its handling. It’s well written, clear in its confusion; it’s one you won’t forget any time soon. You do need to do your research, be awake so that you catch every detail, and willing to start and end in the midst of a longer tale, but make time for some preliminary reading and get to reading this book. You’ll know a lot more about many things by the time you’ve finished and there are a variety of reasons to enjoy it.

I received this book at the Wellcome Book Prize blogger’s brunch.

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Tracy Terry

May 9, 2016, 3:06 pm

Hmm. The style of writing will either fascinate me or irritate me beyond measure but its definitely a book that I will doubtlessly find fascinating.

Great review, I’m hoping our library will have a copy of this.


May 24, 2016, 6:23 pm

Tracy: That’s the thing; the subject matter and the subtext out way the writing in this context :)



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