Tuesday 15 March 2016

Alex Pheby's Playthings

I was delighted but not surprised to hear that Alex Pheby's fine novel Playthings has been shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Prize. Worth a punt, I'd say.

I wrote about the book when it was published by the independent Galley Beggar Press. Below, thriftily recycled, is part of that review (with thanks and acknowledgements to Tom Fleming at the Literary Review).


'In my belly is an octopus and in it are God's children. Living children. These are things I must not speak of.'

These are the startling words of a German judge named Paul Daniel Schreber (1842-1911), an educated, cultivated and highly intelligent member of the legal establishment who went raving mad at the age of 40. Schreber's case is remembered today because of a remarkable memoir entitled Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (Memoirs of My Nervous Illness), written during a later period of lucidity and published in 1903. His book snagged the attention of Freud who tartly remarked that the author ought to be appointed director of a mental hospital. The memoir remains a key text in the history of psychoanalysis because of the clarity and candour of Schreber's account and because of the astonishing range and complexity of his disorder. The case and the memoir form the basis for Playthings, Alex Pheby's brilliant, compelling and profoundly disturbing novel.

Schreber's wide-ranging insanity had its origins in a single transgressive thought: waking one morning he wondered what it could be like to experience sexual intercourse as a woman, a speculation that marked the onset of an intense paranoid state diagnosed at the time as a form of dementia praecox. He believed that he was turning into a woman (hence the octopus/womb); that his corporal emasculation ('Verwandlung zum Weibe') was to prepare him for procreation with God; that he was controlled by 'divine rays' emanating from other souls; that the universe was a complex architecture of nerves. Another of his lunatic convictions - that his family had been replaced by imposter marionettes - is now known as the Caretas Delusion, a condition which, despite its rarity, has been the subject of at least two recent novels: Richard Powers's The Echomaker (2006) and Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances (2008). An earlier fictionalised account of Schreber's childhood from a largely anti-Freudian perspective was Soul Murder (1973) by Morton Schatzman, 

These are examples of what Marco Roth (writing in the Brooklyn-based journal n+1) has usefully termed 'the neuronovel' - fictions that explore the experience of what he calls 'a cognitively anomalous or abnormal person'. What such novels share is an interest in the workings of the brain rather than of the mind, an interest that reflects, claims Roth, a post-Freudian, post-Lacanian movement away from traditional theories of personality. The neuronovel explores the loss of self, although to be sure selfhood is no longer the prerogative of novelists. It has become the property of specialists working within their own professional disciplines. 

Schreber is a lost soul with no fragments to shore against his ruin. If Playthings is a neuronovel then it's arguably the best neuronovel ever written, particularly in its depiction of memory and the instability of personality. But it transcends any such category and is simply a superb novel tout court, Kafkaesque in its nightmarish fluency and a powerful exposition of Kant's celebrated view that 'the madman is a waking dreamer'.

You can buy this novel direct from the publishers here.


  1. I loved this book. And enjoyed your review. But Marco Roth's term 'neuronovel' is not useful; it's fashionable and lazily cashing-in on on neuro-this and neuro-that - applications with claims that would never be supported by serious neuro-scientists. It is a radical misinterpretation of the novel to believe its interest is in the brain rather than the mind - what it demonstrates is literatures ability to render the lived experience, which is as far away from the reductionist view of personality as being little more than a concatenation of neurons and proteins.

    1. Agreed that 'neuronovel' is a facile categorisation but (in my defence) wanted to place a challengingly brilliant book within a context that Lit Review readers might feel at ease with (and my original review (here much reduced) did that, roping in Ian McEwan and Mark Haddon. Congratulations on The Republic of Consciousness prize - a very welcome innovation. I'd nominate Dodge Rose by Jack Cox (Dalkey Archive Press), but there are many others!

  2. I have to accept that 'neuro-' is a large selling point in any industry these days and the more people that read Playthings the better, so all good really. It's just my personal bette noire. My day job - research industry - sucks up any spurious claim from the neuro-industry, good people are losing jobs to £100 EEG caps.

    On another note: the small press prize. Thanks for recommendation. Will check out - needs to be published in 2016. Also, we - Nicci Praca (do you know her?) and I - are thinking about shadow jury of lit bloggers to give the books even more exposure - does that interest you at all

    1. Happy to support the small press prize in any way I can. If you DM your email address we can exchange thoughts.

  3. hi there