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  • David Savill

Novel Thoughts: Case Study (Saraband, 2021)

Updated: Jan 11

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study provides novelists with a brilliant example of how the form of a novel can perfectly exploit its function – of how subject and themes can be elevated by style. For this blog, it provides the perfect excuse to think about how a novelist can usefully separate story, plot, structure, and style, to study the writing process, and help realize the best, novelistic, expression of an idea.

The inciting story of Case Study is that of an unnamed woman in the 1960’s who suspects a psychotherapist may have been responsible for the suicide of her sister. She invents her own, false identity as ‘Rebecca’, to pose as a client and investigate whether the psychotherapist’s methods could have precipitated her sister’s death.

The form of Case Study is ‘Rebecca’s’ journal of her quest, interspersed with a fictive biographer’s notes on the life of the psychotherapist: a fictitious character called Collins Braithwaite. The novel is introduced by the fictive biographer, who explains why, despite his reservations about the notebook’s authenticity, he is publishing the notebooks alongside his own notes on Braithwaite. (He believes that together, the two narratives may provide a greater insight into Braithwaite than the traditional work of a biographer).

Burnet already has experience with the technique of using fake, ‘found’ documents and making the author a fictive element in the story. In His Bloody Project, this technique illuminated the complex relationship between memory, fact, truth, and the liminal space between fiction and history. In Case Study, he applies the same tools to the concept of self and identity.

The literary critic might talk about the themes this story suggests – concepts of self, the ethics of psychiatry and psychotherapy, changing consciousness in the 20th century, misogyny; but in my experience the novelist first experiences themes as unanswered questions: What is this thing I call my ‘self’? What agency do I have over identity? How has contemporary consciousness of the individual been shaped? You need to be asking good, urgent questions to write a good novel, and at some point, you need to become aware of what those questions are.

Novelists use the medium’s capacious form to work out what they think and feel. Some novelists appear to do it with greater self-consciousness than others. Once a novelist has a heightened consciousness of the medium, meta-narratives are extremely tempting.

Burnet’s invented psychiatrist provides one of the principle arguments the author is surely interested in: the unified self is an invention from which we need to free ourselves. Rebecca provides a counter – without a concept of a unified self, where is our moral compass? Let alone our sanity? It is to Burnet’s credit as a thinker, and writer, that both characters are going to find their precepts challenged. And if this is all in danger of sounding like essay, loosely disguised as novel, we are fortunate that Burnet is a skilled enough stylist to keep up the emotional temperature, breathe life, and an illusory sense of agency into his characters. There is always tension in Case Study, and the affect of emotion.

Burnet’s chosen form also makes us accept that Braithwaite’s life, (like the life of Flaubert in Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot), can only be a story told by others. The fundamental uncertainty of identity, and shakiness of the 'unified self' concept, is inescapable. The very construct of this novel affirms Daniel Dennett’s supposition that self is best explained as a narrative center of gravity, at the same time as the stories of Braithwaite and Rebecca show us what happens if we fall out of its orbit.

One of the cleverest aspects of the book’s style nearly lost me and has received attention from other critics. Burnet’s voicing of ‘Rebecca’s’ journal tends to the formal, and old-fashioned; more as we imagine a retiring character from the home counties of the early 1950's than a cosmopolitan from the 1960's. It's as if she were a young girl writing to impress a teacher. But of course, it is the unnamed woman’s literary persona we are witnessing, a woman who is struggling to understand who she is supposed to be in the rapidly changing society of the 1960’s. If we think she doesn’t sound quite 'real', it is because she is never quite sure of who she is. If her voice becomes inconsistent, unstable, it is because her psyche is fracturing. It is a voice that provides a good starting point for any discussion of how we construct the notions of 'believable' or 'credible', and how these notions inform our concept of reality. It is also a voice that questions how ideas about historical reality are constructed. In the end, I fell for this complex character, and the styling of Rebecca’s voice was a brave decision that payed off in the novel's affecting end.    

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