The brilliant Macrae Burnet strikes again. This time the “GMB” of the preface claims to have received an email offering him a series of notebooks “that might form the basis of an interesting book” about the now forgotten 1960s psychotherapist Collins Braithwaite. As it happens, GMB once thought of writing a biography of Braithwaite, a notorious member of the anti-psychiatry movement famous as much for his rebarbative personality as for his controversial style of therapy and his salacious books Untherapy and Kill Your Self. Sceptical at first, GMB is sucked in when he reads the notebooks, apparently written in the 1960’s by a young woman who believes that Braithwaite drove her sister to suicide. Under the name “Rebecca Smyth” she goes into therapy with Braithwaite, hoping to find some evidence she can give the police. “Rebecca”, once born, turns out to be the polar opposite of the extremely conservative journal writer: she’s sexy, flirtatious and outspoken, and the journal writer finds it much more fun to be her. What better example could there be of Braithwaite’s belief that “a person is not a single self, but a bundle of personae” and that much of our mental turmoil comes from the fact that “we take the part of the one we know first and dismiss the others as impostors”? In this case the impostor Rebecca gains the upper hand, and you start to feel as if you’re in a car being driven at speed by a very unreliable driver. It’s unnerving, but at the same time horribly funny. She even manages to wrong-foot Braithwaite himself. It’s enjoyable to see him so clearly through the patient’s eyes, while the so-called therapist just doesn’t know what to make of her.
Running alongside the story told in the notebooks is the story of Braithwaite’s life told by GMB in a pseudo-documentary style. It’s all the stories you ever heard about bad behaviour from drunken artists, the working-class lad running rings around Oxbridge types and stealing their girls into the bargain, and the con-man’s ability to latch on to the zeitgeist. The documentary-style description makes for some very funny scenes, as in the punch-up in a pub between Braithwaite and Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider and icon of the Angry Young Men generation:
Wilson accused Braithwaite of being no more than a nihilist, intent on destruction. Braithwaite responded that he was a nihilist, but that was better than being a mithering spinster like Wilson. Wilson then told Braithwaite to fuck off back to Oxford. Braithwaite grabbed Wilson by the lapels, spilling several pints in the process, but before any proper blows were landed the two were separated and Braithwaite was thrown out. He could be heard loudly decrying ‘soft London ponces’ from the street. Years later, Wilson took his revenge in an ‘Observer’ review of ‘Untherapy’, calling it (among other things), ‘the degenerate outpourings of a third-rate mind.’
But we do in the end come to feel some touch of understanding, even for such a horrible man. That’s typical of Macrae Burnet’s openness to his characters; you never feel as if he’s plotted out their course in advance. And the book ends in the same sort of openness. We still don’t know if there really were notebooks written by a young woman, if their story is truth or fiction, or if the GMB of the preface has made everything up. Very appropriate in a book that so enjoys the fuzziness of identity. It’s a great read, a high-wire act by one of the best.