12 August 2005

98 Reasons for Being by Clare Dudman

That Clare Dudman's second novel, 98 Reasons for Being, is about Heinrich Hoffmann (the German doctor who wrote the classic and somewhat sadistic children's book Strewwelpeter) was enough to interest me. I had read Dudman's first novel, One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead (titled Wegener's Jigsaw outside the U.S.), and though for some reason I didn't find it entirely engaging, I had been impressed by many elements of it. I knew nothing of Hoffmann himself, but a friend had given me an edition of Struwwelpeter illustrated by Sarita Vendetta with images so over-the-top and gothic that it quickly became a cherished artifact, and I was curious what Dudman could do with such apparently rich material.

There's much more to 98 Reasons for Being than Strewwelpeteresque horrors -- it's a book with many layers built from a series of glimpses and portraits that at first seem disconnected, but ultimately come together to show the connections between madness and sanity, lust and desire, power and weakness. The book begins after Hoffmann has written his famous children's rhymes and is trying to build a legacy for himself not as a writer, but as the caretaker of an asylum for the insane in Frankfurt in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Though 98 Reasons for Being is held together by the narrative thread of Hoffmann's counseling of a patient, Hannah Meyer, who has been brought to him by her mother and is said to be a nymphomaniac, Dudman made the fine decision to have the book be a panoramic view of life inside the asylum, so we spend nearly as much time with other patients and their caretakers as we do with Hoffmann and Hannah. This slows the story down considerably, and the first hundred or hundred fifty pages demand considerable patience from the reader, but the accumulative power of the various stories and incidents is, in the end, considerable.

By moving from one character to another in each scene, Dudman subtly undermines any one definition of even the most bizarre characters, showing that the lines separating sanity from insanity, health from disease, nature from nurture are as dependent on who is doing the defining as on any inherent traits. For example, the label of "nymphomaniac" that gets slapped onto Hannah, and that Hoffmann is suspicious of, proves to hide all sorts of assumptions about sex, gender, and society. The virtue of 98 Reasons for Being is that, as a novel, it can make this point more subtly and more viscerally than many works of nonfiction have -- as if Foucault's Madness and Civilization were told through Chekhov's "Ward No. 6". Dudman gives us a character whose life is wrenched into confusion by forces of society and tradition, and through a presentation of her situation and an imaginative leap into her thoughts and confused feelings, that character becomes far more complex than any label would suggest. But we're not limited to Hannah -- all of the ideas and questions that we're provoked toward through her story are echoed, complexified, and given depth by the stories of the other characters. (Hoffmann himself begins to make some of the connections at the end, after his wife has sent his troubled son away to boarding school: "Boarding school for his son, ghetto for the Jews and the asylum for the insane. They were all places people were sent to be out of the way and forgotten." It's one of the only moments where Dudman makes some of her themes explicit.)

In some ways, it's too much -- at times, it feels like the book is straining to hold itself together, and I wondered if the presentation of Hannah's own point of view in the first half of the book was as effective as it could be. I'm torn by this idea, though, because it may be that, having read my fair share of Faulkner and Joyce, I want all representations of the inner thoughts of characters to be rendered in some sort of stream-of-consciousness, when often this has become a kind of crutch for many writers, a way to pretend to be profound. But the representation of Hannah's inner life felt like something a nineteenth century writer might come up with, like the dreams in Dostoyevsky's novels. Perhaps that's the point.

The use of history is another interesting element of 98 Reasons for Being. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from medical records, a newspaper article, a personal letter, or some other artifact, and it's not until the "Author's Note" at the end that we find out they're all made up, "although some of them rely quite heavily on contemporaneously published works and are intended to summarize the ideas and views widely held at this time in western Europe". The style and tone are remarkably convincing. Dudman also reveals that the character of Hannah is a fabrication -- indeed, a fantasy: "Jewish people had not been admitted to the old town asylum for many years, and certainly not during Hoffmann's time, so the case of Hannah is entirely fictitious." Hannah's Jewish identity -- her own relationship to it, as well as how other characters construct their ideas of her from it -- is integral to the novel, and this tweaking of history, like all the others, allows an imaginative deconstruction of the past that teases an alert reader toward questioning how style and presentation shape our belief in the veracity of the stories we call history just as much as our own prejudices and assumptions about normality and morality contribute to our ideas of what is and isn't sane.

Many more resonances, hints, and harmonies can be found in 98 Reasons for Being, which is, ultimately, a fine example of a novel that is vastly more than just a fictionalization of history -- it aims, instead, toward the suggestive truthfulness of art, a reimagining of the past.