In 1965, the psychiatrist RD Laing began an experiment in the treatment of schizophrenic patients at Kingsley Hall in the East End of London. In this residential centre, Laing attempted to break down the hierarchical boundaries between psychiatrist and patient; rather than using medication or traditional therapies, patients were encouraged to work through their madness without intervention. Kingsley Hall contained rooms for meditation, and regularly hosted long Friday night meals attended by celebrity guests. Less glamorous was the basement room where Mary Barnes (who went on to become a well-known artist after leaving the centre) was encouraged to revert to an infantile state, only eating when fed with a bottle and smearing shit on the walls. Patients and psychiatrists also engaged in LSD trips together, with the aim of unlocking childhood traumas.
Interviewed by Jon Ronson in his book The Psychopath Test, Laing’s son Adrian explained that the problem with the set up at Kingsley Hall was that when the usual boundaries were broken down, everybody gravitated towards madness rather than sanity. The fluid relationship between madness and sanity, and between psychiatrist and patient, is a recurring theme in Will Self’s fiction, with the character of Dr Zach Busner standing in for a host of real-life celebrity doctors. In his previous novel, Umbrella (2012), Self used Busner to channel Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who had some success in treating patients with encephalitic lethargica. In Shark, a loose follow-up, the doctor has moved on from his work with ‘enkies’ to found Concept House, a therapeutic community in Willesden.
Life in Concept House is governed by ‘no rules, and only the queerest of conventions’. Busner is operating ‘without the compass of orthodox psychiatry’, refusing to categorise his patients according to the ‘prejudicial pathologies’ of his profession. Self gleefully satirises the otherworldliness of Busner’s philosophy. One patient, Clive, would be fine without medication, he says, on the proviso that ‘he could only live in a pre-industrial society… decoupled from the relentless assembly line of work and consumption’. The dark side of life in Kingsley Hall is explicitly referenced through the character of Podge, a young woman regressed to infancy. There’s also a riff on Catch-22, as one character, Claude, a former US Air Force technician who worked on the Enola Gay, randomly censors all post which arrives at the house.
From Concept House, the narrative spirals outwards, moving fluidly between countries and time periods. One strand focuses on Peter and Michael De’ath, two brothers who attempt to register as conscientious objectors during World War II. Peter is successful, although he faces police harassment and suffers from a life-long sense of shame, whereas Michael is rejected by a querulous investigator and is drafted into the RAF, where he acts as an observer as the first atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Another strand features a destructive mother-daughter relationship, between Mumsie and Jeanie, who drifts from Greenham Common revolutionary to drug use and prostitution. Jeanie links the narrative strands together, having a long-term affair with Peter De’ath and working as a carer for Claude in his later life.
Shark is bookended by an account of the largest shark attack in recorded history, as sailors from the USS Indianapolis struggle to survive in shark-infested waters following the sinking of their ship. Once again, Claude was present, finding safety on a crowded life raft, watching through a haze of morphine as sailors in the water, strapped together in a tight formation, one by one succumb to desperate thirst. What begins as a disciplined communal effort to survive rapidly turns into chaos, as ‘those boys foolish enough to slake their terrible thirst with sea-water soon enough begin crazily ranting, then puke their guts out’. Hallucinating, these sailors begin to hallucinate and swim away from the group. Self-interest takes hold among the survivors, and Claude watches ‘the fists that fly when one of the boys dies and ten others gather round to fight over who should get his life-vest’.
The novel’s critical moment comes when Claude and Michael are bought together, as the De’ath brother visits Concept House. As he arrives, the patients and staff are embarking on an ill-advised communal acid trip, which Busner unwillingly became part of when his drink was spiked. The bringing together of these two minor participants in the dropping of the first atomic bomb is the shockwave that propels Shark’s psychic debris along, like ‘flung confetti at the wedding of nightmare to reason’.
This idea of groups which fuse and then atomise recurs throughout Shark. As with the hallucinating sailors of the USS Indianapolis, or the community at Concept House, disturbed by the unsettling influence of Claude, there is always a sense of madness lurking in the edges, waiting to destroy the bonds holding people together. Attending a screening of Jaws with his children, some years after the events at Concept House, the action makes Busner think of the ‘nuclear domesticity’ of his own family, constantly threatened by ‘a predatory dread surrounding us’. There is also a lurking threat to Busner’s own career, as more conservative elements of the medical profession will soon put a stop to his freewheeling experimentation.
Like an acid trip, Shark contains moments of intense clarity which rise from the stream-of-consciousness; Busner attending the screening of Jaws, the young Peter De’ath arguing with his father and brother that he should be allowed to build a field hospital for their lead soldiers, and, most notably, the shark attack in the South Pacific. These sections represent Self writing at the top of his game, offering perfectly fully-formed and self-contained passages of prose with masterful narrative arcs. At these points, Self appears more confident in his handling of the modernist style he adopted with Umbrella, writing with control and warmth; overall, though, Shark is slightly less satisfying than its predecessor. There are too many different threads woven into the narrative, and the drop in quality between, say, the scenes at Concept House and the subplot involving Mumsie and Jeanie is too apparent.
The big question is why, forty years on, does Self spend so much of his time satirising 1970s psychiatrists? As with his literary hero JG Ballard, Self is concerned with the pathology of everyday life, but his recent novels have abandoned the satire that drove his early work. You might say he’s more concerned with being Modernist than he is with being modern. It could be that, for Self, the psychiatric experiments of the Sixties and Seventies represent a high point of liberal intellectualism, a time when thinkers could act with autonomy, investigating outrageous theories without the need to justify their existence through reports, cost-benefit analyses, and the like. Self has repeatedly critiqued the complacency of the intellectual upper-middle classes, whose liberal consensus was swept aside by Thatcherism. Such Quixotic projects as Busner’s would soon become unacceptable, and yet there is no urgency in his work, no vision of the sharks circling. As Self worries about the relevancy of his own career as a writer of literary fiction, is he drawn to the figure of the maverick psychiatrist, blissfully unaware of his impending extinction?
Shark is the second volume of what is expected to be a trilogy; as we know from cinema, the second instalment is rarely the most satisfying. The next novel could finally cement Self’s place in the upper echelons of literature and bring that elusive Booker prize. At least, unlike Busner, Self is aware of the threat to his position and is going down fighting.