I finished Engleby by Sebastian Faulks this weekend and I’ve been thinking about it on and off this week. It affected me quite powerfully because I immersed myself in the distorted perceptions of the narrator for almost two days as I was caught up in the story and I wanted to know how it would turn out.
[Spoiler alert: The discussion that follows gives away the key plot development so click away if you don’t want to know what happens. I think a lot of readers will anticipate what happens and it’s still interesting to see how Faulks gets there. But of course a lot of people will feel that their reading is spoiled if they know the key plot development in advance.]
Contemporary Writers gives an excellent synopsis:
Engleby (2007) is in many ways Faulks’ most unusual novel. It shares with Human Traces the subject of human consciousness but its setting and manner is entirely different. Instead of heroic and altruistic scientific Victorian characters, we are introduced to an-almost contemporary voice from the outset: ‘My name is Mike Engelby, and I’m in my second year at an ancient university’. This is the Cambridge of the early 1970s, replete with drinking, pop culture and dull tutorials. Engelby proceeds to tell us of his encounters there, especially with good-looking student Jennifer Arkland, whose subsequent disappearance forms the essence of the plot. Engelby proves to be an engaging narrator, even as he unveils his disturbed family history and increasingly devious behaviour, but also – of course – an untrustworthy one. He comes to admit that ‘My memory’s odd … I’m big on detail, but there are holes in the fabric’. We follow his burgeoning career in the national media as the years unfold, and his viewpoint on events becomes ever darker. As always with Faulks, the period detailing is excellent, the narrative drive strong, and full of clever contrivances. While Sebastian Faulks’ forte has been to depict romance under pressure of war, in this startling book he shows another side to his talents – summoning up an almost contemporary era as well as more disturbing aspects of humanity.
My emotional reaction to this novel was powerful. I felt sad and also quite horrified. And then I had a feeling of being used somehow and I went looking for blog reactions. It’s interesting that readers are very divided on whether they loved or hated it.
At a broader level, I wondered why it is that in most crime novels the victim is a woman (and often a pretty woman). What if he had killed a male student? Would we as readers have cared less? I was reminded of the tragic Cape Town story of the American student Amy Biehl and how her death (at the time of South Africa’s transition to democracy) became more important in many ways that the countless other deaths we read about or hear about in South Africa.
By choosing to depict one more man killing another woman, is Faulks perpetuating a dominant narrative of male violence and female victimhood? By way of comparison, the other novel set in Cambridge which I read recently is Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds. I won’t review it here but perhaps the triumph of that novel (as one reviewer pointed out) is the character of the female academic Martha Pierce. And obviously the Cambridge that is depicted there is very different from the distorted perceptions of Mike Engleby (however interesting and fascinating they might be). Hearts and Minds touched on serious issues (ethical, cultural) and was still an uplifting, enjoyable and easy read. With Engleby the going was a lot tougher at first but then I was pulled along by the powerful narrative arc.
I had a sense after reading Engleby that the female character was a means to an end and we never, even when reading her diary, really saw things from her perspective. In the background there was always the filter of Mike Engleby’s perceptions which controlled our access to this other story.
From a psychological point of view, there were a number of thought-provoking issues and it made me very curious to know more about amnestic disorders (memory disorders) and the experience of dissociation. I’m also interested to find out more about how personality disorders can be considered to constitute diminished responsibility for violent crimes. Is a personality disorder a ‘mental illness’? The expert psychiatry witness in this novel says that Mike Engleby is not mentally ill but rather that he suffers from schizoid personality disorder. But isn’t that a form of mental illness? I suppose you could have a situation in which a personality disorder would not be considered a mental illness for legal purposes but could be considered one for lay purposes.
I would favour a broader definition of mental illness for lay purposes, and I’m certainly at pains to reassure my clients who complain of anxiety or depression that their symptoms are quite common and don’t make them different or defective. When does anxiety or depression become a mental illness? And why would someone with Borderline Personality Disorder not be considered mentally ill?
And then I was remembering Adam Phillips’s contention that we are all crazy to some degree and that craziness is actually part of the human condition. For me it comes down to our ability to manage or contain that craziness. We might have the odd violent nightmare or express a wish to hurt somebody out of frustration but we wouldn’t act on this. This is what it means to be sane, to control our crazy impulses and to act in accordance with what society expects. With Engleby this wasn’t the case and the violence escaped in a very uncontained way, which he subsequently blocked off and was largely unable to remember.
I did think that Engleby was excellently written and it made a much stronger impression on me than the other Faulks that I read, which was On Green Dolphin Street (also good but I have almost no memory of it). With Engleby I had disturbed thoughts on the Saturday night as I filtered his own problems through my own experience. And then when I finished I took a drive to the supermarket and was quite relieved at the simple warmth of the brief exchange with the teller. Those transactions are quite absent from Engleby’s life where he was quite trapped in his own (brilliant but damaged) mind. His attachments were poor and everything deteriorates from the lack of real human contact.
Another interesting aspect for me was that I realised that anger, if properly expressed, could have been a redemptive force in Engleby’s life. If he was irritated with Jen for not talking to him or taking much of an interest and he was able to express this to himself then it would have been easier for him to manage the frustration and not act on it by becoming violent.
Will be interested to hear your thoughts. Hope my spoiler review was not too spoiling!