A dark, stark addition to the subgenre of asylum literature.
Kocan (Fresh Fields, 2007) introduces us to Len Tarbutt, who seems more than vaguely based on the author. (After a failed assassination attempt, Kocan spent time both in prison and in a hospital for the criminally insane.) It’s the late 1960s in Australia, and Len and his fellow patients live in fear, fear in part of “Electric Ned,” a doctor who’s inordinately fond of recommending shock treatments, so the patients are forced into rigidly self-conscious behavior. For example, Len, disturbed by the bright lights in the ward, wants to tie a few thicknesses of toilet paper around his eyes to ward off the glare—but to the guards (or “screws” in the argot of the hospital) that might look suspiciously like the behavior of one who’s incurably insane. Patients must be on constant watch for how things might look to a guard. Simple and innocent conversations can be twisted to make it seem as though patients are in tune with spirits or voices. If a patient wants a moment of quiet and sits alone, “they’ll think you’re too withdrawn and might report it to the doctor. So you space out your alone periods. You make sure the screws see you playing billiards or cards, or see you talking and laughing with other men.” Len is eventually transferred from MAX (i.e., maximum security) to REFRACT (for refractory but not dangerous patients), and after that he’s able to make the metaphorical leap to an open ward, but life remains charged with tension. Len is even able to have a brief though unstable sexual relationship with fellow inmate Julie, who’s in for treatment for drugs. Len winds up freeing his mind by writing poetry (Kocan is himself a poet), and the novel ends with his being informed that he’s won the National Poetry Prize.
A Spartan novel with more degradation than uplift.