Sunday, 11 February 2018

Book review: Permission to Bloom, Nicole Llera (2017)

This is the second first-person account by a person living with a mental illness I have tried to read in the last few days. This book is subtitled ‘A novel’ but it’s clear that it is autobiographical.

The other was ‘Moving to Oregon’ by James Townsend (2017) which was subtitled ‘A bipolar journey’. In that case, the book started with what seemed to be some sort of episodic structure that might have enabled the reader to follow the story in a structured way, but the narrator quickly hijacked it and abruptly reverted to what he thought were the origins of his illness in his childhood, much in the same way that someone with a mental illness might approach the same task with their psychiatrist. It demonstrated a lack of sympathy for the reader, and a troubling lack of insight into the nature of his own illness. I gave up and put the book down.

In Llera’s case, the narrative sets out with an odd little introduction from an “external regulator” of the narrative of Michaela Rose, the protagonist. This self-conscious and rather redundant technical device has been inserted by the author into the narrative because she wants it to distance the reader from the focalising mechanism of the character Michaela as she goes about her daily life with her illness, a kind of anxiety that intrudes on her thought processes at inopportune times and makes living a “normal” life difficult. The narrator uses italics from time to time to show the reader how these thoughts appear, but it’s not always clear what are extraneous thoughts and if what you are reading is really what Michaela is thinking.

Her life as a dental student at a tertiary institution is complicated when she decides one day in a fit of optimism to go to work for an established dentist, who operates a secondary business as a supplier of dental implants to local dental clinics in Los Angeles. Originally, Michaela had imagined shadowing Dr Vasquez during appointments with patients to learn more about the craft of dentistry but he has an idea to use her as a salesperson. Michaela is initially teamed up with Heath, a loud and pushy salesman who has a taste for playing heavy metal music in his car. She survives a few trips with Heath but in the end the stresses of the work wear down her reserves of strength and she quits the job. In the meantime she takes up acting classes with a woman named Lexine, who she had met one day at the dentist’s clinic.

She also quits seeing her psychiatrist, who had prescribed medication that Michaela found had made her aggressive. She decides to stop taking the pills and soon she decides to stop seeing the doctor. Her subsequent story makes it clear that she was acting precipitously on both counts.

The narrative chugs along contentedly if a little jumpily – you are sometimes left a little confused as to who is speaking, for example – but it really comes apart when Michaela starts flirting with men. Her coquettish behaviour bodes ill for all concerned, especially for Kenneth, a college friend Micahela helps to teach to drive a car. When Michaela starts flirting with a young man she meets when she is driving by herself to a salsa dancing class, things really start going off the rails in terms of narrative quality and the character of Michaela loses the ability to command the reader’s sympathy.

Michaela’s complete lack of insight into her own motivations with respect to love interests like Raphael queasily mirrors an equally devastating lack of insight into the nature of her own illness. She thinks that she can tough it out alone, like she thinks that she can get away with degrading personal relationships.

Reading about mental illness has this danger: you never know at the outset if the person writing the story has the insight required to do it justice. You soon find out though. Back in July last year, I reviewed a non-fiction book by a Californian teacher, Mark Lukach, ‘My Lovely Wife’, which chronicled a family’s journey through mental illness when his wife started to experience psychosis. The difference between his book and the other two named in this review is that he had the necessary insight to know what was real and what was the product of the illness. Llera does not possess this insight, and I suspect that Townsend does not either.

Llera’s book is also riddled with typographical errors, and would have benefited from proper proofing. There are a lot of problems like using “mirky” for “murky”, “downs” for “dons”, and “arms chairs” for “armchairs”. I suspect that there was very little editing done on the book and that, like other aspects of her life, Llera just went it alone.

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