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Patrick McGrath's stylish new novel, Asylum, should only add to his reputation as the leader of the neo-Gothic pack. Set in a British mental hospital, the book also signals the ascendancy of psychiatrists as the genre's villain of choice, finally replacing vampires. It's not that big a change, if you think about it. But while the undead are only after your blood, shrinks want to mess with your mind.
As does Asylum. It's the story of Stella Raphael, a woman trapped not only by her loveless marriage to Max, the hospital's assistant superintendent, but also by the claustrophobic life (including a big house on the hospital grounds) dictated by her husband's job. Stella's smart, sensuous, bored. When she meets Edgar Stark, a handsome sculptor who murdered, decapitated and mutilated his wife, her overripe loneliness bursts. Recklessly, dreamily, she begins an affair that threatens her sanity as well as her arriage.
Enter Peter Cleave, the narrator. He's Edgar's psychiatrist, Max's colleague and Stella's confidante; yet his interest is more than personal, it's professional. Peter specializes in "the catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession." In Stella's story, he finds plenty of material. Despite Peter's warnings and Max's growing suspicions, Stella can't give up Edgar. In a plot as delectably twisted as his characters, McGrath scripts Stella's flight from the hospital's stultifying tension to two very different hellholes -- first on the lam with Edgar, later in a desolate Welsh farmhouse with Max and their son, Charlie.
If, as one of McGrath's characters says, "psychiatry attracts people with high anxiety about going mad," then Peter is an anomaly. He betrays as little anxiety as any good psychopath; he is already mad. Since McGrath studs the narrative with hints of Peter's oddly proprietary air toward "his" Edgar, we are less surprised than thrillingly creeped-out by the good doctor's glee when circumstances place Stella under his care. At last, he says, he can start "stripping away her defenses and opening her up, seeing what that psyche of hers really looked like."
An insane narrator, rampant symbolism and the near-inevitability of a movie deal (Jeremy Irons, anyone?) could make Asylum unbearable, a mere bag full of gimmicks. But instead, it's outrageously fun. Smart, frightening, funny and surprisingly affecting, McGrath's latest elevates the psychiatric case-study to high art. -- Salon