Psychology: J. Robert Lennon’s Novel “Castle”
September 8, 2009   By:    Book Review   Comments are off   //   372 Views

Anis Shivani

By J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, 224 pages. $22.00

We were assured that as soon as the age of Bush-Cheney was over, we would return, in the age of Obama, to a purity before we went down the dark path of torture. Nothing could be further from the truth. As J. Robert Lennon correctly notes in an interview, “We pretend we’re the same Americans we were before those [Abu Ghraib] photos were published. And, like Loesch [Lennon’s central character], we are not the same anymore, and never will be.” There seems little inclination on the part of the public or politicians to attempt truth-seeking about what happened, the first condition for reconciliation.

Lennon’s unusual, very ambitious novel takes an essential creative step in this direction, however, bringing us closer to the terror protagonist (torture being the mirror image of the terrorist’s tactics, to the point of nondistinction) than any post-9/11 novel yet. This is a departure from the burgeoning genre which characteristically takes the event as given (without questioning our complicity in its occurrence) and explores only its impact on domestic life; Castle, instead, takes us to the really important point: how the event generated waves of fear that seem to have permanently altered our psyches, so that even at this point we are only asking how much of the torture apparatus Obama can retain without getting into legal trouble, not insisting that we abolish it altogether. Why the abolition is so arduous is precisely the point of Lennon’s narrative.

Eric Loesch, the first-person narrator of Castle, has returned to his isolated hometown, Gerrysburg in upstate New York, after a long absence. He buys a large parcel of land with an abandoned white house, which he intends to make habitable again. He is disconcerted to find that a small section of land, adjoining a giant rock (20 feet high), is not part of his large property, even though he owns the woods leading to it and around it. Much of the first half of the book is taken up by his immense struggle to find a way through the forest to the rock (although the area covered wouldn’t seem to be too great, bounded as it is by major roads), as he maintains a hostile silence with the hardware store clerks, the plumber, and other town residents who come in fleeting contact with him. Even when his older sister shows up Eric is repulsed by her presence, considering her a washed-up loser without discipline who has let her passions prematurely age her; he wants nothing to do with her.

Throughout this part of the novel we don’t know anything about Eric’s past, the reason for his return, and the nature of his resentment. We only learn that he is a military man when one of the townspeople guesses from his demeanor. At this point the novel is mostly a Jack London-type adventure story, our minds willing to ignore motives and history to focus on the thrill of the physical effort. Not to put it too crudely, but Eric’s condition in the first half of the book, before we learn his past, is analogous to the condition of America now (we don’t know how long this will last). Fiction that attempts to come to terms with national psychoses and traumas perhaps does best with a mixing of genres, as though to suggest that there are multiple, confusing, overlaid, indeterminable paths to the same essential truth, that the journey is dark, shaded, opaque. The one outstanding fact about Eric’s personality is his need to impose (at times superhuman) discipline on himself, and his contempt for those who lack this impulse.

The rage for order is the first principle of the fascist personality (this has not changed in post-Bush America). Where ordinary memoir, or memoir-like fiction, presumes that private grief is determinative, is only private and not public in the final analysis, Lennon’s novel borrows from the fundamentals of this genre to tell a story of how the private always spills over into the public — in other words, that Bush or other icons of liberal hate are not really to blame, but all of us who made him possible, and will continue to do so even now that he is gone.

Eric discovers a castle — yes, a castle! — next to the rock, smaller than he at first perceives it, but complete with fortress-like walls and towers, and a difficult entrance through a tunnel in a rock. The castle is no longer Kafka’s indecipherable entity; we, in the current age of terror/torture, have entirely reclaimed it for ourselves, reduced it to potent psychological shorthand. The castle is enclosure, security, fear, exposure, shame, humiliation, anxiety, welcome, capture, liberation all at once. It is Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It is Iraq. It is Afghanistan. It is America. Eric, as it turns out, has already been to the castle many times as a child, but discovers it as if for the first time. Isn’t it like that always? When we come to the castle by the rock in the forest on our own property, memory becomes virginal in every sense of the word. We need to start over again.

Eric begins recalling, as much for his sake as ours. His parents were cold, distant, at odds with each other, the father a disciplinarian, the mother too weak to offer Eric liberating affection. The sister finds her way out of this dysfunction by becoming a hedonist — as Eric sees her. Eric’s father introduces him to Dr. Avery Stiles, a prominent psychologist at SUNY Milan, lately in the news because his young daughter, Rachel, and his wife, have both died. Dr. Stiles embarks on a classic regimen of breaking down Eric’s will, step by step, until Eric becomes fully complicit in his subjection to rigid order. At the moment of his first submission, Eric feels “a very small amount of pride.” Later he feels “comfortably suspended in a web of interlocking strands of obligation, strength, and bureaucratic mastery…tense, alert, and on the verge of contentment.” Eric’s father soon kills his mother in a murder-suicide, which Eric, unlike his sister, has always chosen to believe was an accident.

With this background, is there any surprise that Eric will end up in the army — or that he would rise to Chief Warrant Officer, in charge of building and maintaining a prison in Iraq, along the model of Abu Ghraib, where all that he has learned from Dr. Stiles will be implemented to break down the will of prisoners who just might be the enemy?

We don’t find out the truth about Eric’s Iraq experience until the final three chapters, which are headily Conradian in their willingness to confront the very heart of darkness. The castle at home, constructed in grief for Dr. Stiles’s dead daughter, where Eric once romped in submissive joy, has been replicated in Iraq, subjecting the harmless prisoners of empire to a brutal regimen without a purpose. More significantly — for the terror/torture to stop — the imperialists themselves are uncomfortable outside such castles, impulsively reconstructing them in their own domestic lives, all over the place. Not everyone is subject to the illusions of false mastery — Eric’s sister is a clear exception — but we have all confronted something of Dr. Stiles, the rude authoritarian, and we are now living in a moment of national history where those of us who succumbed to Dr. Stiles have full authority, because of the “war on terror,” to give vent to frustrations.

Eric is ashamed because his little prison for torturing detainees ultimately spins out of his control. He spawns numerous little Erics, in less-restrained soldiers willing to out-Eric him. He doesn’t know — or does he? — why he is back in Gerrysburg, until the final confrontation with Dr. Stiles — of course he is still there! — on top of the rock, a more sinister version of the Sherlock Holmes-Moriarty confrontation on the cliff. In one sense, Eric will survive, but in another sense he is doomed from his first moment of epiphanic pleasure in Dr. Stiles’s subjection.

The question now is, will the nation find the fortitude to commit the only purge that can take us to the next stage of history — will it find its way back to the castle, and rewrite rewritten history? The cycles of violence — beginning with the genocide of Native Americans, as Dr. Stiles himself is keen to note — engender new cycles, as manliness assumes more and more grotesque forms. But it may not even be as simple as killing Dr. Stiles. As he asks Eric at their final clash: “I want to tell you that destroying me is not the answer. In fact, you don’t even know what the question is, do you?” This great difficulty is what Castle is really about.


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