The Scottish Review of Books Review: Waking up in Toytown

"Not so long ago", John Burnside's seductive new memoir begins, "when I was still mad, I found myself in the strangest lunatic asylum that I had ever seen". He goes on to describe the place in all its eeriness, his departure from it, and the nature of his 'madness'.

It is gripping stuff, and madness is never more fascinating and even beautiful than when Burnside writes about it from the inside. I'd never heard of the condition known as apophenia, but it sounds like a special poet's paranoia: it is the ability to view events and things as abnormally meaningful and connected. We could argue at this point that apophenia, aside from being a painful mental affliction, is also a requirement for being a great, wacky, visionary writer like Burnside – but let's not get too tangled up in definitions of what 'normal' is. Already the protagonist- author is sufficiently tangled up in his struggle to escape his daemons and achieve normality in 'the suburbs'. He soon finds out that the suburbs are far from normal, and some very seedy things are going on around him – for instance, one of his workmates is plotting the murder of his own wife. These are lives of quiet desperation, and we begin to sense that his struggle for normality is doomed, although "congenital mediocrity" may well strangle his soul in the process.

This epic inner struggle is the spiritual and philosophical heart of the story, and it is what gives this account of a troubled existence the unrelenting tension of a fine psychological thriller. Throw in Burnside's sharp turn of phrase, hypnotic perceptions of inner and outer goings-on, and his trademark gift for creating an atmosphere of menace, and you begin to get an idea of just how compelling this book is. Here is his vision of what he calls, throughout the book, 'the afterlife' – a place perfectly and poetically pitched between this world and the other, memory and reality: "This, I think, is what troubles him, most, that person who used to be me: that the afterlife will be discontinued, along with everything else, and he will never see the light of a new morning, where the dead wait to welcome us like ushers at a wedding, guiding us to our appointed places as the organist takes his seat and the congregation falls silent for all eternity".

The struggle to make the fractured self whole through intimacy with others gives the story its narrative drive, but also its powerful emotional charge. Here are exquisitely rendered stories of love and squalor where normality is neither possible nor wanted, because "love is an abandonment of order", and we are never – and should never be – safe from chaos, Burnside suggests, even when the price is unbearably high.

"Some miracles are purely personal and may be entirely imaginary, but they are miracles, nonetheless", Burnside writes in his poignant stand-alone chapter on flying, but he may as well be writing of his love experiences. But something always comes to smash the magic moment, just as the boy's childhood was broken by a violent father.

Although much of the material in this story of a man's tormented twenties and thirties is shocking and extreme, for those familiar with his earlier memoir, A Lie About My Father, it won't come as a complete surprise. Indeed, the book is haunted by the ghost of Burnside's father. Towards the end, the protagonist looks in the mirror and sees his father: "his face in the glass, his predicament in mine, his ability to deceive himself in my ridiculous attempt to put on a normal face". In another scene, he is at a party when he senses an invisible presence, and realises that he will never be rid of his own inner monster. And that ultimately, the inner monster is the other face of the inner child, that who we are is "a question of the soul, and the soul is murky and deep-rooted and wet…the dank mud where the lotus is anchored, the mud and the silty water and the spreading of the leaves and yes, the flower opening in to the light…not one good thing, not the higher thing, not the thing that can be cleansed or perfected".

This is a psychological masterpiece and, yes, a triumph of apophenia and poetry over Home and Garden. In the end, the man who failed to deaden his daemons sufficiently in order to disappear into 'the suburbs', succeeds in keeping alive in himself that tragic and loveable boy with the dirty face of an angel who, "no matter how graceless and painful" his falls were, continued to believe "that willed flight was possible".

  • Cover scan of Waking Up In Toytown
    Waking Up In Toytown
    John Burnside - Hardback - Jonathan Cape
    The sequel to 'A Lie About My Father', John Burnside's new memoir follows his hopeless quest for peace and mental security as the ghosts and terrors close in and the illusion of Surbiton falls apart. Unsettling, touching, oddly romantic and unflinchingly honest, this is the story of one man's search for sanity.
Scottish Review Of Books Vol 6 Num 1