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Asylum Piece - Spine 2014 > Discussion - Week One - Asylum Piece - First nine stories

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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
This discussion covers the first nine stories, p. 7 – 102


The Birthmark, p. 7 – At a private boarding school, the young protagonist has a crush on a young beauty who seems to lead a charmed existence, but a birthmark suggests otherwise.

Going Up in the World, p.19 – Cold and fog leads an artist on a visit to her patrons, only to be denied her place in the sun.

The Enemy, p.29 – He’s out there… waiting…

A Changed Situation, p. 35 – Who owns who?

The Birds, p. 41 – Watching birds, feeling calm, mostly

Airing a Grievance, p. 53 – Squeaking wheels don’t always get the grease

Just Another Failure, p. 73 – Good intent, but unable to follow through

The Summons, p. 83 – Get in the car, ma’am

At Night, p. 97 – Not sleeping in the dark


What at first seems to be a collection of stories begins to coalesce into a single narrative as the book progresses. Were the connections reasonable to follow?


Whitney | 326 comments I didn't really see these as a progression until you posed this question, but in retrospect there sort of a rough progression of perspectives on mental illness from 'view from outside' to 'view from inside' to 'literal commitment' to 'grim outlook'. I'm having trouble expressing my thoughts in a coherent thesis, so here are some random things that struck me about individual stories.

I thought "The Birthmark" was the most powerful story in the collection, but part of that may have been that it was the first Kavan I’ve read. I thought it captured perfectly the feelings of impotence when there's someone reaching out to you for help, and you can neither comprehend what they're asking or see anyway to help them. The consequences of the narrator failing to understand what "H" is asking of her are devastating to both of them.

"Going Up In the World" is just one of the stories where the indifference and uncomprehending judgment of the more powerful condemn the narrator to 'remain in the fog'. The image of the poor apples, the best the narrator has to offer, being eclipsed by the chocolate liqueurs and bound to get tossed away was incredibly poignant to me. She can't take them back, and she can only hope that maybe a maid will take a bite of one before throwing them out. Her judges can never see the value of the simple (and far more nutritious) apples over the flashy liquors. I thought this had some resonance in the stories set later in the asylum, where the doctors don’t see the value of, or even need for, simple human contact over their ideas of a strictly run asylum (I know I jumped ahead a bit there, but I don’t think that was too spoilerish).

I’ve had schizophrenic friends, and “The Birds” seemed to capture the way they sometimes read far more into things than other people. And also how other people’s failure to perceive things in the same momentous way sometimes manifests itself as paranoia and suspicion.

One story I’d really like to hear other’s interpretation of is “A Changed Situation”. When she talks about belonging to a ‘family of rolling stones’, is she talking about the family of other people who suffer from depression or mental illness? Is staying in one place instead of moving around essentially allowing the darker parts of herself to catch up to her?

As an aside, I have a kind of odd but very nice neighbor who puts the apples from his tree out in a box for people to take. The box is labeled “appols”. This year, I will be picking out some of the more bruised and sad looking ones and using them to make apple muffins for my friends and coworkers.


message 3: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Whitney wrote: "I didn't really see these as a progression until you posed this question, but in retrospect there sort of a rough progression of perspectives on mental illness from 'view from outside' to 'view fro..."

Good observations. I agree about the first story being very strong. Catching a glimpse of the woman in the underground cell was particularly terrifying, especially since the guards hustled her away and she had to answer questions about her intentions, and so on. Reminded me of issues about warehousing the mentally ill and some of the exposés of the 1960's and 70's.

Looking at pictures of Kavan, she seemed quite attractive when she was young. I thought of "H" as being a reflection of Helen Woods, her birth name. I don't know her exact history, but maybe when she was young, she may have been similar to H; attractive, seemingly living a charmed life, but bearing some "birthmark" in the form of her mental health troubles.

It's late here, so I'll comment further tomorrow.


Jonathan | 108 comments Jim wrote: "What at first seems to be a collection of stories begins to coalesce into a single narrative as the book progresses. Were the connections reasonable to follow? "

I read the first nine stories today and I'm impressed so far. The only 'progression' that I noticed in the stories was that they were getting more menacing or sinister but that may have just been from the cumulative effect from reading them.

If the book's title didn't include the word 'Asylum' and I didn't know beforehand that Kavan had mental health issues then I wouldn't, at this stage of the book, necessarily connect the stories to mental instability. Instead, the menace seems very real and the only 'sane' reaction is capitulation and defeat. Published in 1940, it must have seemed that totalitarian governments were unstoppable and the individual was under threat.

I liked the clear prose. Similar in style to J. G. Ballard and Robert Aickman, similar in content to Kafka, Franz, there are already science fiction elements in these stories, I feel.

I thought The Enemy was a great (and very short) story and in some ways summed up the book so far. It starts with 'Somewhere in the world I have an implacable enemy although I do not know his name' and the penultimate line is 'I know that I'm doomed and I'm not going to struggle against my fate.' The narrator is paranoid and fears for her life. Unlike the other stories there appears to be no tangible threat.


message 5: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Jonathan wrote: "If the book's title didn't include the word 'Asylum' and I didn't know beforehand that Kavan had mental health issues then I wouldn't, at this stage of the book, necessarily connect the stories to mental instability...."

I wish I hadn't known any of Kavan's history before beginning the book. I found myself reading certain meanings into the stories as I went, thinking "oh, yes, I see how this connects with her breakdown, her family, the heroin" and so on. Without that foreknowledge, it would have been a different reading.

The narrator is certainly a fatalist - submitting instead of resisting, going limp in the face of her oppression. Like a prey animal caught by a predator.

I don't know Ballard and Aickman's work, but I definitely agree that she has an affinity with Kafka. We're reading Kafka's short stories right now in another discussion and I think Kavan could easily be his kid sister.


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