Wednesday, June 18, 2003

SPIDER: the insistence of memory

I've always found it odd that I can recall incidents from my boyhood with clarity and precision, and yet events that happened yesterday are blurred, and I have no confidence in my ability to remember them accurately at all...

Thus begins Patrick McGrath's Spider, which I had picked up from the public library (the second time) a while ago, and finally did justice to -- by reading it. Just like Asylum, McGrath has a great knack for exploring mentally disturbed characters with a sense of pity and understanding for them, while writing with startling clarity descriptions of the sickness that afflicts them (in this case, complete with dreams and the smell of gas). The book begins as a journal of Dennis Cleg, back to his old neighbourhood (London's East End) after twenty years of treatment and recovery. We share Spider's (that's Dennis' nickname) memories and also begin to question them, as he does, while enduring a disturbing journey into the mind of a schizophrenic individual trying to come to terms with reality, as he knows it.

McGrath grew up in 1950s England on the grounds of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where his father was the superintendent. This has given him the ability to write about the sick and demented with uncanny sympathy and tenderness, while retaining all the grit and gloom of a gothic mystery.

David Cronenberg's screen adaptation featured a stellar performance by Ralph Fiennes with excellent support from Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson, but suffered from the inability of film to hide the truth. While McGrath can use words to construct multiple realities and leave some of them to our imagination, the stark clarity of the visual medium prevents Cronenberg from providing as disturbing an experience as the source novel. The film worked on its own terms though, as we see Spider from without (instead of within), and we long to reach out and console him, to assure him that everything is going to be all right.

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