When asked to explain he wrote that:
One of the main sources of mental corruption in this country is the ghost of Vince Lombardi: don’t matter how you play the game, don’t matter if you enjoy the game, don’t matter if the game means anything, the important thing is TO WIN. I think that’s as good a definition of mental illness as you’re ever gonna get.
So, when one begins to break away from that mindset, with all the trouble and turmoil that goes along with it, one can be absolutely free. All very well and nice in theory until you’re confronted with someone and their various suicide attempts, then such thinking becomes somewhat glib.
Collected from various other publications, History of… is presented to the reader as a case file. According to the Editor’s Note:
In an attempt to make sense of what happened to you, you spent the weeks after your release compiling a series of handwritten pages documenting your experience of the aforementioned psychotic episode, as well as its aftermath.
Over the course of seventy pages, we read (in grim detail) the mental deterioration of the narrator as they envisage strange men in their house, being hospitalised, self-harming on the grounds that the instructions on the microwave meal said ‘pierce slowly several times’ and the impact that has on others around the narrator.
As you can imagine, it is an intense read (although the microwave moment discussed above melds a little black humour with pathos) and an unsettling one. Unlike that other infamous document of depression Prozac Nation, this is a full throttle, no prisoners taken look at depression and how it destroys souls as well as others trying to help.
Elements of body horror, psychological torture and claustrophobia are present throughout the various episodes, which are written in a way which blur the boundaries between standard prose and experimental poetry (described as ‘prosetry’ on the back), while the narrator never once comes across as an unsympathetic character.
Maybe this is down to the short length of the tome, which means there’s little scope to explore the more maudlin, self-absorbed aspects of living with a mental illness. However, it’s a welcome move as it means the reader is shown the realities of the situation without it being repeated to such a degree that we lose sympathy for the narrator. Crucially, the collection ends on a note that manages to be both ambiguous and positive (but not in the way that one would expect), leaving the reader with a number of questions.
Works of this nature are ten a penny in the current climate, but few manage to be as enthralling, as horrifying and as thought provoking as History of Present Complaint. It’s visceral reading which never once strays into self-indulgence. Every word is there for a reason and the impact is keenly felt.
And, in her own way, HLR has forged her own path to freedom.
HLR, 2021, History of Present Complaint. Close to the Bone Publishing, ISBN-13: 979-8703799475
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.