Madhouse Fog : By Sean Carswell, 287 pgs. By Matthew Hart

Sep 19, 2013

There are things they never tell you about the experience of losing your mind. It doesn’t feel like losing keys, pencils, or a button. It doesn’t feel like you’ve lost anything at all. In fact, it feels like you’ve gained an extra sense or finally received the divine transmission. The operatives on Alpha Centauri finally break through your tinfoil hat and you can feel your reptilian brain get invited to the Bohemian Grove. Without hesitation you start walking towards that indefinable goal. And they say it’s good to have goals.

Madhouse Fog is a novel of location. The bulk of the story takes place in a psychiatric hospital that was once a college campus (the inverse of professor Carswell’s university that used to be a psych hospital) on the southern coast of California. Two institutions of the mind. It’s interesting how easily one can slip into the other, how both are similar in structure, and how they’re both staffed with well-intentioned professionals trying to dismantle your “mind-forg’d manacles.” You can easily get lost on both sides of the fence. The irony is not lost.

It’s also a love story with little romance. Sentimentality is generally inexcusable in a novel unless it’s about an animal. And from my point of view the leading lady—or, to be more specific, the ingénue—is a puppy named after a soccer player. You’re really rooting for the little guy. Throughout the novel animals provide a mental stability that the characters can’t grasp themselves—I viewed them as reminders of how the characters inhabit a strange headspace. The main character’s favorite work pastime is watching a wind-up toy bird flip across his desk. After the first scene in which you realize that this book is going to be a lot weirder than it seems, the main character stares out the window at a bluebird. Perhaps the most hilarious chapter in the book is one describing two men quixotically trying to catch squirrels for an experiment on telepathy. This is as sentimental as Caddyshack, but you get the point.

If you’re familiar with Carswell’s writing, you’ll immediately recognize this novel as a departure from his everyman-punk-tales. It’s Carswell being Carswell. And apparently Carswell is pretty strange. It’s a book that shows an author comfortable building his ship while out at sea. This makes it both a more personal novel and demonstration of craft. It’s intensely smart, dark, and equally hilarious. (Especially the self-referential jokes/nods or Pynchon pun/references.) To review it like a record, I’d say it’s as if Sherwood Anderson wrote Cannery Row and grew up listening to Mission Of Burma. Or if John Cusack was the main character in a Raymond Chandler film adaptation directed by George Saunders. Carswell would probably hate both of those examples, but it’s a fun game to play.

Highly recommended. –Matthew Hart (Manic D Press, manicdpress.com)

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