This is part of my Other Authors series, where I share dissociated voices written by a number of different novelists.
Today I’m sharing my thoughts on Spider by Patrick McGrath.
It came as no surprise to me to discover Patrick McGrath grew up around people with severe mental illness. (His father was Medical Superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital.)
In Spider, McGrath inflicts a persecutory delusion upon his protagonist – called Spider – who no longer trusts his parents: “Hilda and my father would sometimes watch me from the corners of their eyes, and I could sense them doing it tonight. What used to drive me mad was that as soon as I became conscious of it they’d be looking elsewhere and behaving perfectly normally – too normally.”
The fragmentation in Spider’s head is terrifying to read. He has developed what he refers to as a “two-headed system” which, from the way he talks about it, has become perfectly normal to him.
“The front of my head was what I used with other people in the house, the back of my head was for when I was alone. My mother lived in the back of my head, but not the front […] I was in the back, that’s where Spider lived, up the front was Dennis. […] and when my father took me down to the coal cellar it was Dennis who went with him […] while all the time Spider was upstairs in his bedroom!”
Spider also suffers from periods of mania, which exhibit themselves as excessive energy and joy: “My fingers were drumming, my feet were tapping, I was smiling at the world” and “I am seized […] with a feeling so intense as to make me laugh out loud […] I hop from foot to foot and try to stifle waves of inexplicable joy.”
McGrath paints a complex character who ping-pongs from one unstable mental state to another. He is the most extreme form of unreliable narrator because there’s no way of knowing how much of what he believes is true.