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Bedlam Burning

Bedlam Burning

by Geoff Nicholson

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In Bedlam Burning, Geoff Nicholson takes deadly satiric aim at the ivy-covered walls of academia and the rubber rooms of insane asylums.

When the debut novel of Gregory Collins is accepted by a publisher he seems set on a course for literary stardom. There's just one problem: he doesn't quite have the looks to match his talent, and his publisher wants a photo


In Bedlam Burning, Geoff Nicholson takes deadly satiric aim at the ivy-covered walls of academia and the rubber rooms of insane asylums.

When the debut novel of Gregory Collins is accepted by a publisher he seems set on a course for literary stardom. There's just one problem: he doesn't quite have the looks to match his talent, and his publisher wants a photo to put on the book jacket. He asks his handsome (but dim) college classmate, Mike Smith, to take his place.

Consequently it is Smith rather than Collins who receives the offer to be writer-in-residence at an asylum where therapy is centered on the soothing powers of literature. It's not long before the boundaries between inmate and observer are blurred in this literary cuckoo's nest and this comedy of errors verges on tragedy.

Editorial Reviews

Marcel Theroux
Nicholson is an old hand -- he's written 12 previous novels, including The Food Chain and Bleeding London -- and he knows how to catch your interest from Page 1. In Bedlam Burning, this novel commences with a funny set piece that describes Gregory and Mike's first encounter -- at a book-burning party at Cambridge University in the early 1970's held by their Mephistophelean tutor, Dr. John Bentley. It's a great opening: Bentley takes a wicked delight in his ability to make his liberal students participate in such a reactionary act. One by one, they denounce a chosen volume and fling it into the fireplace. It's simultaneously strange and believable and foreshadows the varieties of literary lunacy in the rest of the book.

From here, Nicholson uncoils the plot with great relish, neatly manipulating plausible premises into more and more absurd outcomes.
New York Times

New York Times Book Review
Nicholson...knows how to catch your interest from Page 1....[He] uncoils the plot with great relish, neatly manipulating plausible premises into more and more absurd outcomes. That an author should choose a body double for a jacket photo is a terrific conceit....Nicholson rations out the surprises so that you're never tempted to stop reading.
Boston Globe
Literary pranks and jokes progress from schoolboy fun to permanent destruction in this smart novel.
Foreword Magazine
A novel both amusing and bemusing,about what might be called the making of a critic.
All rather good fun....Nicholson is a master at setting up narrative drive.
Seattle Times
Tackles Big Ideas from odd angles and with zest....Intellectually engaging and outright fun.
Publishers Weekly
The English comic tradition has always shown a fine weakness for a little lunacy, and Nicholson's 13th novel (after Bleeding London, a Whitbread Prize finalist) is the latest variation on that theme. Michael Smith is a handsome Cambridge graduate working a dead-end job at a rare book dealer's in the mid-'70s. Fellow grad Gregory Collins has written a novel and wants to use Michael's picture for the author photograph. The hoax gets more complex when Gregory persuades Michael to continue the imposture by giving a reading of the novel at a Brighton bookstore. In the sparse audience, which includes Michael's disapproving girlfriend, Nicola, is a gorgeous psychiatrist, Alicia Crowe, who persuades Michael-as-Gregory to be writer-in-residence at a local lunatic asylum. Michael accepts for two reasons: he's bored at the bookstore and wants to bed Alicia. The real Gregory approves, partly because he's slept with Nicola. Michael finds the Kincaid Clinic to be as strange as one would expect, and his attempts to turn a colorfully psychopathological crew into creative writing students eventually bears prolix fruit. He also discovers the dubious joys of making love to Alicia, who is a coprophemic a dirty talker. Michael finds Dr. Kincaid's extreme regulations unsettling: Kincaid bans pictures, photographs and drawings from the asylum, because, as he explains, the patients "have all seen too many images." The fragile situation begins to fall apart when a selection of the inmates' writing is actually published. The ensuing attention blows Michael's cover, but will his former Cambridge professor, John Bentley, unmask him? Nicholson's book, like a Fawlty Towers episode, delightfully stretches sanity to itsfarcical breaking point. Film rights optioned by New Line Cinema. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Donald Westlake meets Ken Kesey in this 13th novel by British author Nicholson (Bleeding London), about an author impersonation at a lunatic asylum. First novelist Gregory Collins seeks out Michael Smith, whom he met at a Cambridge University party in 1974, to pose for his author photo in the hopes that Smith's good looks will help sell his book. Smith, who is stuck in a dead-end job and a stagnant relationship, agrees and then watches as events unfold bewilderingly. Trouble starts when Smith is invited to serve as a writer-in-residence at the Kincaid Clinic, an institute for mental patients. Dr. Kincaid's therapeutic method is based on the belief that the patients are suffering from visual overload and that once they are relieved of this burden they will be free to unleash their thoughts in writing, which will cure them of their psychoses. As a result, the clinic has no television, no pictures in the newspapers, no books in the library, and no labels on the food cans. Once Smith enters the clinic, he finds himself drawn into a surreal world where it is difficult to tell the sane from the insane. A compulsively good read from start to finish, this work is highly recommended for all libraries. Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ontario Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A refreshing amusement about one Mike Smith, who impersonates a literary friend and ends up teaching creative writing at an insane asylum.
From the Publisher
"Nicholson uncoils the plot with great relish . . . you're never tempted to stop reading." (Marcel Theroux, The New York Times Book Review)

"Intellectually engaging and outright fun, Nicholson's new book is a winner." (Barbara Lloyd McMichael, Seattle Times)

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The Overlook Press
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I first met Gregory Collins at a book-burning party given by my Director of Studies in his college rooms in Cambridge in 1974. I was as surprised to be invited as I was appalled to learn that such things went on in what I took to be an enlightened and liberal institution. I was, I admit, extremely young and extremely naive.

    My Director of Studies was Dr John Bentley. We called him Dr John the Night Tripper, which was the least appropriate name we could come up with. He had a reputation for intellectual audacity, not to say offensiveness. He embraced 'tradition', the Augustans, Milton, Hobbes, right-wing politics, beagling, Wagner, the Salisbury Review, although, in retrospect, I'm sure he did much of it to annoy. He could also on occasions be extremely surprising. Once, in a tutorial ostensibly about Dryden, he delivered an extraordinarily detailed and well-informed, if ultimately dismissive, critique of the early films of Andy Warhol. It came as no surprise that he dismissed them, but it was pretty amazing that he'd taken the trouble to become informed about them at all; and not only was he informed, he'd actually been there at a showing of the full-length version of Empire at the Arts Lab, in London in 1967.

    'I wouldn't have taken you for a fan of experimental cinema, Dr B,' I'd said at the time.

    'I'm not,' he'd replied. 'I'm a fan of good jokes.'

    We students wanted to find him both hateful and ridiculous; but we could never convincingly write him off as either, especially not when hewas known to be such a good host. His parties, even the ones that didn't feature book burnings, floated on limitless reservoirs of college claret.

    At first I thought the invitation must have come to the wrong man. I have a woefully common name — Mike Smith, a name shared with all sorts of people: the English cricketer, the keyboard player in the Dave Clark Five, to name but two. But I spoke to Bentley and he assured me there'd been no mistake.

    The invitation wasn't at all explicit about how the party would proceed, but before long lots of information came my way. It was as though I'd joined some secret society. People I'd never spoken to before came up to me in Hall or in the bar, as though they were about to discuss, if not offer, drugs or sex, but all they wanted was to share gossip about this party. Some had actually attended previous ones, but mostly they'd just heard rumours, and they all wanted to know what book I was going to take along, and when I said I had no idea, they took the opportunity to school me in the various strategies.

    The format, I was told, was quite simple. Each guest had to bring a book, just the one, and towards the end of the evening, when everyone was good and drunk, we would each in turn briefly state our reasons for wanting to burn our particular book, and then throw it into the fire in Bentley's study.

    Of course, I was not the only one to be shocked by this flirtation with the imagery of Nazism. I was told there were those who got round the problem by bringing along a book that was itself fascistic, Mein Kampf or a volume of Nietzsche or Ayn Rand. Another option was to go for books which, if not evil, were at least transparently worthless: Agatha Christie or Barbara Cartland or Frederic Raphael. Other people apparently took what seemed to me a rather silly option and burned the Bible or Shakespeare or Chaucer, a reaction against being forced to read these texts as part of their education rather than because of anything the texts actually contained.

    But in a way, it seemed to me that all these gestures somehow missed the point. From knowing the man a little, I felt Bentley's real interest was in castigating what he took to be the trendily, vapidly liberal, the emptily left-wing. Bentley didn't want us to burn the great works of English literature, he wanted us to burn Barthes and Marcuse, Chomsky and Foucault. I had actually read something by all these people and if I was cornered I'd probably have been forced to agree about their vapidity, but I tended to think they shouldn't be burned, if for no other reason than that they clearly annoyed and threatened people like Bentley.

    I knew I should have turned down the invitation to the party, and yet there was some perverse honour in being invited. No doubt Dr Bentley chose his guests carefully, for their sense of irony or perhaps their moral ambivalence, and if some people went along with trepidation, or even with an urge to denounce the proceedings, that was all part of the show. Bentley didn't want to invite a bunch of Nazis to his book-burning parties; that would have been too easy. He wanted to invite a group of self-conscious, self-regarding students who had pretensions to civilisation and intellect, and he wanted to watch them squirm and implicate themselves.

    His rooms were comfortable in a dusty, bookish, scholarly sort of way. There were a couple of leather wing chairs, a pair of frayed chaises-longues, a few upright chairs; but there was certainly not enough seating for the number of people at the party, so most of us stood awkwardly by the fireplace, or wedged in against glass-fronted bookcases filled with the dark, bare spines of English literary texts. These were serious, scholarly works in standard editions, nothing so frivolous as a paperback, nothing so gaudy as a book jacket. There were a few paintings on the walls, dark landscapes and still lifes thickened with the painters' disdain for brightness or colour. This seemed somehow deliberately joyless. The walls of my own room, naturally, were decked out with posters: Raquel Welch and Frank Zappa (not the one with him on the toilet — I thought that was a bit corny), and there was a reproduction of Hylas and the Nymphs, a painting I'd found indecently erotic when I first saw it, although the effect had started to wear off now that it had been up there for the best part of two years.

    If Bentley's rooms were masculine, he was not. Like plenty of other Cambridge dons I'd met he managed to be effete without appearing at all homosexual, to be soft without being feminine. At the time he seemed ancient to me, a fading old scholar who had been immured with his books and his thoughts for decades. Now, I realise he could only have been in his mid-thirties, and his patrician, musty air had no doubt been developed precisely to disguise any vestiges of youthfulness or frivolity.

    The invitation said 'lounge suits' were required, and I did happen to own a suit. My parents had bought it for me in my last year at school, saying it would come in handy for university entrance interviews, if nothing else. It still just about fitted me. The suit was sober, grey, smart, precise; everything I didn't want to be. Yes, I had worn it to interviews and it had apparently done no harm since I'd got in to Cambridge, a surprise to everyone except me, but I liked to think that my hair, long, thick, clean but out of control, did something to subvert the meaning of the suit. To make the point even more forcibly, I arrived at the book-burning party wearing a scruffy orange T-shirt under the suit, and if Dr Bentley wanted to bounce me for being improperly dressed, that was just fine by me. I intended to treat this party with at least some of the contempt it deserved. But Bentley didn't remark on the T-shirt at all, and welcomed me to his rooms with easy, effortless politeness, and then a college servant, a sullen, understandably resentful seventeen-year-old from the town, handed me a glass of wine.

    The others at the party, a dozen or so undergraduates, plus a few research students, had made less effort to be subversive. They were all wearing collars and ties but most of them looked very ill-at-ease in this regulation dress. This was a time of shoulder-length hair and ornate facial fuzz, of faded, flared denim, of cheese-cloth shirts and grandad vests. Just about everyone wanted to look like a hippie, even some of the dons, but Gregory Collins was untouched by such influences.

    He stood out from the crowd because he looked so at home in his suit. It was certainly not a smart suit and certainly not fashionable. It was a baggy three-piece, thick, hot, hairy, and looked as though it might have been handed down through the family, but Gregory inhabited it comfortably. He wore his hair in a short back and sides, and it shone slickly in a style reminiscent of Brylcreemed footballers from the nineteen-thirties. He was wearing what looked like an old school tie, perhaps one that he'd had since the second form.

    He was big but not fat, not yet anyway, but he had difficulty manoeuvring his clumsy, uncoordinated bulk, and he moved as though constantly correcting himself, reining himself in, struggling to keep control of legs that threatened to walk into furniture, of arms that were constantly about to knock over glasses or elbow people in the stomach. He had one of those heads that appears to widen as it approaches the neck: the top of the skull a small dome, the cheeks slanting outwards, the jaw wider than the ears, disappearing into what one day soon would be heavy jowls.

    There was something amusing about his clumsiness, and yet he was a person who demanded to be taken seriously. His size, his awkwardness, his uncompromising look of being out of place, gave him a presence, a gravity that had to be dealt with. I'd never met him before, in fact I only knew one or two people in the whole room, but he came across to me immediately and said, 'I saw you in some play or other, didn't I?'

    I admitted this might be so. I'd had a brief, humiliating fling with the world of student theatre.

    'Aye, I thought it was you.'

     By now I'd taken in his voice, an unembarrassed, even ostentatious, Yorkshire accent. This was not an unfamiliar ploy at Cambridge. Although some people at university tried to disguise their origins, either because they were too fancy or too humble or, as in my own case, simply too dull, others wore them like a badge. Personally, I was trying hard to appear classless and deracinated, and I admit that I did feel a little superior to Gregory Collins, not because he was working class, whereas I was more solidly, boringly middle class, but because he felt the need to turn his origins into a performance and I did not.

    'You looked the part all right,' he said, 'but every time you opened your mouth, I thought, What a twat.'

    His criticism was undoubtedly justified but it still took me aback. It did so happen that I was a good-looking young man at that time. I took no particular credit for it. I knew it was completely accidental, that it carried no morality with it, but others seemed to see it far less clear-sightedly than I did. Some people liked me because of the way I looked. People were willing to trust me, they were willing to make allowances, willing to do me favours. Sometimes they wanted something in return, perhaps there was an occasional sexual motive, people who fancied me, although they were almost always the wrong people. But sex wasn't the whole story, not even very much of the story. People attributed qualities to me because of my attractiveness. They wanted me around. They wanted me at their parties. They wanted me for their friend. I had an advantage that I thought the likes of Gregory Collins would never have.

    And so, thinking I might be able to do something with these accidental good looks, I had gone into student amateur dramatics. The majority of the other people involved didn't seem to think of themselves as either students or amateurs. They preferred to think of themselves as serious young thespians, artists who were on the springboard to great things in the professional theatre, and I might have been willing to go along with the self-deception, but my few appearances on stage had convinced me I was absolutely, irredeemably amateur.

    I tried to be good. I wanted to be charismatic and magnetic, the kind of performer audiences couldn't take their eyes off. But they could, and they did. Such charisma and magnetism as I genuinely seemed to have in my real life evaporated completely the moment I walked on stage. No doubt the whole audience thought, What a twat, but none of them had expressed it quite so directly as Gregory Collins.

    At that point the sullen boy came round asking if we wanted our glasses refilled and Gregory Collins said, 'That'd be champion.' I thought he was trying to be funny, but no, 'champion' seemed to be a regular part of his vocabulary.

    I discovered he'd seen me in a minor role in an experimental production of Huysmans' Against Nature, a project that would have been quite bad and ludicrous enough even without my own contribution. He said, 'I should think that's a book you wouldn't mind seeing burned.' I smiled thinly. The fact that he was almost right didn't make him any less annoying. I got away from him.

    Our choice of book had to be kept secret, so we had arrived at the party with our volumes in sealed envelopes as though it were the Oscars or the Miss World Contest. But I did notice that Gregory Collins brought his offering in a locked metal case. This surely was taking things too far.

    I spent the rest of the evening trying to keep my distance from him. He seemed like a bore. The party went on for a long time and nothing much happened. We all got slowly but not extravagantly drunk, and it was nearly midnight before the book burning started. I managed to get one of the few seats in the room from where I could see the proceedings clearly yet appear detached from them.

    Bentley stood unsteadily on a footstool, called for order, and the burning began. He chose the sequence in which guests had to make their denunciations, but there seemed no particular pattern to it. I was hoping he'd choose me early so I could get it over with, but perhaps he sensed that and deliberately kept me waiting.

    Envelopes were opened, books were produced, displayed, jejunely denounced and tossed into the fireplace. A couple of people played along with Bentley's prejudices. Someone burned Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. Someone went for Mythologies. But naturally there were also more liberal, combative elements present, and someone burned Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer for reasons Kate Millett would have agreed with.

    A slight, red-haired Scot with a squint and asymmetrical, triangular sideburns had brought along a copy of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, not because he thought it deserved burning for anything it contained, he explained, but simply because of the title.

    'When you consider it,' Bentley said thoughtfully, 'I don't suppose four hundred and fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit can really be the temperature at which all paper burns, can it? Paper comes in different varieties, made from all sorts of materials, and it's treated with any number of different chemicals and acids and so forth, depending on the quality and the purpose. So different kinds of paper must have widely differing flash points. Still, it's a catchy enough title.'

    The fire burned erratically in the hearth, swallowing up books, occasionally choking with paper and ash, and requiring Bentley to attend it with a poker and tongs. He did it cheerfully and fastidiously, and he muttered ironic phrases about the dignity of labour.

    Then a big fleshy bruiser took the floor. He was called Franklin, a medical student, treasurer of the JCR committee, captain of the college rowing team, who made pin-money by selling cheap pocket calculators to science students, assuring buyers that these little plastic suckers were going to change the world. Most of us were not convinced.

    'I'd certainly like to rid the world of this novelettish little volume,' he said.

    He opened his envelope and displayed a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, and in one movement he whipped it across the room like a frisbee, so that it thwacked into the fire back, creating a messy little eruption of ash and soot.

    'Oh, come on,' I said loudly, 'that's not funny.'

    'Wasn't trying to be funny.'

    I started to get up from my chair. I don't know precisely what I had in mind, whether I was going to flounce out of the party or whether I was going to offer to horse-whip the anti-Semitic bounder; but inevitably I did neither and Bentley did his amused best to placate me.

    'You shouldn't take this too seriously, you know,' he said. 'We aren't actually trying to rid the world of these books. That would be as wearisome as it would be futile. We're simply engaging in a little active, symbolic literary criticism.'

    I was usually quite good at thinking on my feet and coming back with a snappy answer, but I couldn't think of anything worth saying, so rather awkwardly I sat down again, had another drink, and I was still gently glowering when Bentley said, 'So, Michael, have you solved your own liberal dilemma in this area?'

    'You mean, have I found a book I want to burn?'

    He pursed his mouth to show that he thought I was being a little vulgar and needlessly explicit.

    'As a matter of fact, I have,' I said.

    I stood up and opened my own envelope, and I took out a small volume of literary criticism. It was called Palpable Obscure and it was written by Dr John Bentley.

    'My reasons for wanting to burn this book are fairly straightforward,' I said. 'Because he's the kind of author who approves of book-burning parties.'

    The hush around the room was gratifyingly brittle. The guests reacted as though I'd committed the most terrible social gaffe. It was all very well to toy with fascism, but it was something quite else to insult your host. Dr Bentley looked at me sadly, as though he was trying hard to suppress the condescension he felt towards me, but wasn't quite succeeding.

    'Someone does this every year,' he said. 'Not very original, but it does ensure at least the occasional small royalty.'

    He raised his glass to me and of course I had to raise my own in return. I don't suppose I'd really imagined that my simple little insult would reduce him to quivering shame, but equally I couldn't show my disappointment at how successfully and urbanely he'd dealt with it.

    It might have made for a rather sour end to the proceedings, which I suppose had been my intention, but we'd reckoned without Gregory Collins. It was now his turn. Grandly he took his place at a side table and placed his metal box on it, roughly shoving bottles and glasses out of the way. With unnecessary and comical ceremony he opened up the box. What he took out was not a book at all, but a typed manuscript some three or four inches thick. The pages were loose and unbound, and as he gripped them they slid around in his fingers.

    'This is my contribution to the proceedings,' he said. 'I've grafted away for the last two years trying to write the great bloody Cambridge novel, and here it is.'

    I knew nothing at all about Gregory Collins, but it still came as a surprise to find that he'd written a novel. He didn't look the type, although my idea of what the type looked like was utterly uninformed.

    'Anyway,' he said, 'the bugger's finished, and it's absolute tripe, and I can't think of anything better to do with it than chuck the bloody thing in the fire.'

    The manuscript was too big and cumbersome to be thrown easily or accurately and so he walked across the room and carefully placed it in the grate. By now there was already a great deal of ash and burned paper in there and the sheer bulk of the manuscript threatened to extinguish the fire altogether, but after a while the pages started to curl and smoulder, then blacken and separate, never bursting into a grand, satisfying conflagration, but nevertheless being very effectively consumed and destroyed.

    There was some muttering around the room that this was a brave, rash and foolish thing to do, although simultaneously a couple of people sneered that it was probably only a first draft or a Xerox, and there could easily be another copy safely stashed away somewhere. But I didn't think that. I could believe that Gregory Collins was a poseur, but I didn't think he was a fake. Dr Bentley was finding the whole thing delicious, and was giggling like a schoolboy. It had been a great finale.

    And that was the end of the burning, though not quite the end of the party. A couple of people came up to me and said it had been pretty smart of me to burn Bentley's book, but there was no doubt that I'd been upstaged by Gregory Collins. He briefly became the centre of attention, although he had very little to say for himself. When somebody asked him what the novel had been about he refused to give details. 'I've burned the bastard,' he said. 'You don't expect me to turn it into a bloody oral tradition, do you?'

    Then Bentley put on a record of Siegfried, clear signal that it was time for the majority of us to leave. A group of us were going back to someone's room to smoke dope and listen to a Captain Beefheart bootleg, and we invited Gregory Collins along, but he turned us down, saying it sounded a bit too rich for his blood. I think we were all relieved. But before we went our separate ways he shook me very formally by the hand and said, 'We made a great double act, eh, Michael?'

    Far less formally, Dr Bentley saw us to the door, and as I made my way out he looked at me with a tenderness that made me very uncomfortable. 'So pretty,' he said, 'and so empty.' I felt less threatened by his words than I did by his look, and perhaps recognising that he added, 'But not quite pretty enough or quite empty enough to be truly appealing.'

Excerpted from BEDLAM BURNING by Geoff Nicholson. Copyright © 2000 by Geoff Nicholson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Geoff Nicholson is the author of twenty books, including Sex Collectors, Hunters and Gatherers, The Food Chain, and Bleeding London, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. He divides his time between Los Angeles and London

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