Monday, July 30, 2012

An Age of Madness by David Maine Aug-Red Hen Press

The Age of Madness by David Maine, Red Hen Press

I first thought Regina, the darkly ironic central character in David Maine's The Age of Madness, was a chick-lit standard, the successful professional woman, who knows something's missing from her life. Almost a caricature of the type, Regina's a runner obsessed with her performance, a fervent health food consumer, a home-owner fixated on light white spaces,classical music, peace and quiet. But this Regina is a psychiatrist,  a hard-headed rationalist, a non-believer, who doesn't suffer fools easily and yet suspects she is one.

Maine cracks open her facade to reveal a woman shell shocked by the simultaneous deaths of her husband and son. "Facing the facts," Regina wonders if she's the cause--the evil feminist, who forced her husband to abandon literature and become a househusband.  Was this the reason for his suicide or homicide-suicide?  She's obsessed with the question of what happened. And so are we, as Maine peels off the layers of this psychological mystery.

The author's brilliance is to show not just the tortured conscience of this profoundly ethical woman but her unexpectedly generous heart. Regina truly empathizes with patients, while summing up their diagnosis and treatment. She wants to heal but doubts she does more than dispense pills to ease pain and perhaps hope. Though a devotee of  "reality" without sentimental sugar-coating, it's clear she's wrapped herself up tightly to keep madness at bay.

Regina's healing is the plot of this novel and its movers are an unlikely pair, the estranged daughter she believes she failed and a handsome gentle hospital worker, who persists in wanting a connection. .
As Regina's self-delusions unravel, her reliance on the facts of existence seems akin to the madness of our times. Assumptions of what life is and how people are supposed to act--from roles and professions to race and class--have broken down. Ours, like Regina's, is an Age of Madness.

Her escape is in her work, her hospital practice with patients, who keep returning after improvement. And in her private practice, an elderly couple still struggles decades after their son's disappearance, a Korean-American daughter seeks prescriptions to relieve pressure from her family's expectations, a delusional minister serves a fervent flock of believers. Regina sees her work as a band-aid for the sorrows of the world. But after awhile, she can't escape. "Physician heal thyself" comes to mind, as Reginia's daughter takes up Shakespeare and creative license becomes an avenue of healing Regina can't dismiss.

Acting gives her daughter confidence to communicate what will save her mother, who's of course obsessed with her daughter's mental health.. Then, like many a Lifetime movie, love almost saves the day. There's a bit of a literary contradiction with The Age of Madness. Maine has written a commercial novel by blasting the formula. This is thinking woman's chick-lit but then so is Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. I found this book surprisingly insightful about how we live and think.