Buckle me

Yesterday, while on the train, I mentioned this book and my friend immediately asked for the title. He was animated by the topic and asked me how I had enjoyed the book. My honest response was that I would never had chosen to read this book and while I don’t feel that it was a loss to have read it, it also would have not have been a loss to have never heard of it. While reading, I often felt that plot points could have been made more concisely and the narrative told more directly. I generally enjoy non-linear works but in the case of The Man Who Walked Away, I didn’t feel there was much added by the jumping style of narrative. One thing, however, that did strike me, and apparently my co-writers this week, was the beautiful language that Casey uses. I compiled just a few of my highlights below. Some I don’t really have commentary on but I share them because they seem, to me, to be pockets of pure wisdom and insight into the human mind, whether plagued with a disorder or disorder free. While this book is far from a favorite, there are many opportunities to write an analysis on the small but highly influential nuggets of insight therein contained. I don’t feel I gained much from the chapter in Mad Travelers but reading what Tissie wrote about Albert in Albert’s voice is interesting (end of the book).

Beautiful descriptions

Albert would say, “the song of his body walking was a silky mist” (4)

“wherever he walked, he was filled with a wonder so fierce it was as if he were being burned alive from its astonishing beauty” (5)

“He wants to play the way that man walked; even as he was walking, it was as if he had arrived” (79)

Insights or descriptions by and of patients at the asylum

The veteran – “he is a man like any other, thinking things he wishes he weren’t thinking” (86). I like this quotation because I agree that we are often thinking things we wish we weren’t thinking, plagued by our pasts, fears, prejudices, etc. I think what makes this habit pathological is what makes anything pathological, the fact that it hinders your ability to go about your normal life. In this case, that those thoughts become obsessions and don’t allow you to move past them.

“They spoke to one another the same way this woman and Walter did, confident the other wouldn’t disappear;” (93). There is a comfort in knowing that one can be themselves, flaws and all, around at least some people in their life. The patients are aware that they are in an asylum and are also aware of what the others around them are there for, including their fears and likes. While they may not always like one another or get along, it is an environment where they fear minimally, in comparison to the general world, to be themselves. The patients also understand the asylum as their home and expect that those who live there will remain there indefinitely. Any addition or change to the number of patients creates an imbalance that needs to be addressed.

“Entering into time is like squeezing through a too-small door” (94) – Fantastic way to describe Albert trying to accommodate to the life of a “normal” person.

“There had once been so much love. How could he have forgotten it for so long? It hadn’t disappeared; it had only gone into hiding” (109) Albert remembering his past relationship with father that his conscious mind hid.

Ponderings that stuck out to me

“What is the story of my invisible life” – describe scenario (69)

“Albert is astonished by how much more to the world there is than the house built to keep it out.” 225
The Doctor

Lastly, I really enjoy the way in which the doctor’s character views his role in the asylum and in his field. There is something gentle and poetic about his worldview in regard to his patients; “The same as with every new patient – inside, somewhere, waiting to be discovered: beautiful, intricate, mechanisms” (76). On page 70 the Doctor “feels once again the buoying optimism of the wind. His work doesn’t require of him that he make a perfect discovery…He needs to listen to the words.”

In thinking of Albert, the Doctor thinks, “If the man had lived then [Middle Ages], he might very well have been considered a spiritual pilgrim, but he didn’t, and so he is patient” (124). I always wonder how much doctors think about the development of pathologized conditions in history. I think it would require a sincere and thoughtful process to consider why a patient’s symptoms are considered problematic today but may have been/may be perfectly acceptable in other circumstances.

Buckle me. That’s all anyone ever wants, really, the Doctor thinks…To be contained. To be given shape by the constraints of a narrative” (185). This idea is reoccurring in the book, not just in this language but also when Albert wishes to only be brought back when he walks away. I think it says a lot about the human nature of many of wanting to be part of something stable and predictable. A very good paper could be written about this that could even cite a toddler’s routine as an example of humans thriving within contained parameters.

The two quotations, “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family in unhappy in its own way” (126) and “It has more to do with the story the patient tells as a means of achieving peace. The problem is not that Albert’s story of his life is happy or unhappy; it is that it is invisible to him” (127) also speak to themes throughout the book. As usual, I have written too much so maybe someone who was interested in these themes could comment on them.



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3 Responses to Buckle me

  1. Andrew Ude says:

    I actually agree with you 100%. While I did enjoy the book it is certainly not something that I would necessarily recommend to anyone. Casey does in fact write beautifully and I highlighted some of the same passages myself, but I can’t help but feel the plots may have been so far drawn out. I remember reading the first third of the book waiting for the Albert’s story to unfold and finished the book wondering where the rest was.

    That being said in an attempt to explain his story, I wonder if the lack of information is a part of the overall message itself, or at least it may be a message to use as readers in this particular class. Similar to Hustvedt, Albert’s story offers small glimpses into his past experiences, the few he can remembers and those he later uncovers, that ultimately help to define who he is. Even his inability to remember gives cause to his quick attachment to a strange home. In the end we do not get a chance to see Albert fully realize himself but we as a reader learn that even though he cannot recall his history it still very much defines him.

  2. David Liburd says:

    I could have replied to anyone of the posts as they are all certainly worthy of a response. My response can serve as a generic one. Maud Casey writes so poetically as everyone has rightly commented and her writing is loaded with wit: “He is grateful she doesn’t require him to have a conversation, that she is happy to speak both parts” (25). Her use of metaphors is also scintillating. “A woman with skin like an aging peach – a soft, pink sag and fuzzy down along her jaw…She smells of a life lived outside without soap, of hay and rich soil.(25) Casey helps the reader to read this novel but structurally it jumps around too much and without rhyme nor reason at times. Should we understand mental illness at the novels end? Patients? Sufferers? Or the doctors? Or even the institutions that house the patients? This is a pleasant enough read but does little in the way of given any real insight to the reader if an understanding of the illness is sought. Should doctors and hospitals be so beholden to pharmaceutical companies and big government when seeking an answer to mental illness? Or should a more holistic approach be used?




  3. Liz Foley says:

    Reading your choice bits from Casey makes me feel like she may be a writer who excerpts better than she actually reads. Like you, I was struck by individual sentences and observations, and thought there was some good dialogue among the patients in the asylum also. But like you I wasn’t nearly as taken with the whole–“it also would not have been a loss to have never heard of it” describes my feelings pretty well too. Some elements of it I actively disliked: I could really have done without the repeated incantations of “Listen” and “Ring (shadow ring)” and “click-clickety-click,” which I found a lot less talismanic and hypnotic (ha ha) than Casey seemed to think they were. Also all the characters for whom no adult sexual relationship could hold a candle to the mythic love of their parents, the loss of whom seemed to be the defining feature of their lives. It often felt to me like Casey was imposing contemporary American therapeutic cliches on this historical material without questioning their universality, or even realizing they were cliches.

    I did like the Hacking piece, partly because of his authoritative yet conversational tone and the interesting places he went with his analysis. Casey’s novel only came out last year, but it’s hard to imagine Hacking wouldn’t know about it and have an opinion on it. I Googled hoping to find out whether he’d expressed any reaction to it, but to no avail.

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