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Jonathan Harnisch: An Alibiography
JONATHAN HARNISCH: AN ALIBIOGRAPHY - KIRKUS REVIEW
A fragmented debut novel about life lived under a fog of schizophrenia from author Harnisch.
Benjamin J. Schreiber has a number of problems, not the least of which being that he tried to rob a bank with a cellphone. Mentally ill, though protected by a powerful father and a trust fund, Ben finds himself in therapy instead of jail. While in therapy, Ben explores his alter ego, a masochist named Georgie Gust. Much like Ben, Georgie depends on wealthy parents; a state of affairs that he uses to explore all types of humiliation and kinky sex. After Georgie hires a neighbor named Claudia to torture him in new and inventive ways, he succumbs to a type of twisted love only his peculiar mind and circumstances could produce. Book Two drifts back in time and finds a high school-aged Georgie attending a prestigious private school in New England. Afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, Georgie has a hard time making friends. When Claudia, the girlfriend of a popular lacrosse player, takes an interest in him, it naturally causes problems. Following chapters become yet more disordered, with names and afflictions repeated, though the circumstances tend to vary. It’s 1987, and the reader sees Ben’s suburban New York family home being remodeled while his unhappy mother goes about her private demise. Later Georgie marries a woman named Clio, though he longs for a waitress named Claudia. At one point, Jonathan Harnisch introduces himself as a mentally ill artist in a string of beat-like sentences: “Thoughts. Thoughts bombard my head, my brain. My psyche.” What is the reader to make of these worlds of obsessions, disorders and well-to-do young men? Those looking for an anchor in this swirling sea will have difficulty finding one. Taken as a fictionalized account of a disparate mind, the book succeeds—although not without moments of melodrama and repetition. Claudia and Georgie’s teenage relationship often proves no more exciting than an after-school TV special, but at another point in the book, when the torturer-for-hire Claudia must find new levels of debasement to explore, Georgie’s pain is very real and not for the faint of heart.
As complex as the disorder it seeks to explore; makes for a frequently disquieting read.
Second Alibi: The Banality of Life
SECOND ALIBI: THE BANALITY OF LIFE - KIRKUS REVIEW
A semiautobiographical exploration of mental illness from Harnisch (An Alibiography, 2014).
With conditions ranging from tobacco addiction to schizophrenia, this mixture of personal reflections, fictional characters and a portion of a screenplay investigates what makes the mentally ill tick. Writing at times as his fictional protagonist Ben Schreiber, other times as Ben’s alter ego, Georgie Gust, and occasionally as himself, the author takes readers on a journey involving troubled young men with troubled young minds. The narrators—including, in various narrative formats, the psychologist Dr. C; Claudia, the seductive neighbor; and an older, supportive wife named Kelly—grapple with their psychological problems for the benefit of the reader. What, the reader may wonder, is it like to suffer from the hallucinations of schizophrenia combined with the tics of Tourette’s syndrome? As the author asks, “What do you do when people assume your truths are delusions?” The answers to such questions and the ways in which they are portrayed prove complex. Mixing diary entries concerning the daily struggles of the fictional Georgie with a screenplay detailing past abuses of the fictional Ben, messages are often jumbled though not without merit. For instance, when the narrator announces that “I had a paranoid spell last night. [My wife] was texting me, and I was convinced that it was my stepmother impersonating my wife,” the sting of schizophrenic paranoia is made real. As the author says: “Of course my life would be easier without schizophrenia—sure I wish I didn’t have this condition.” Occasional statements prove less than informative—“Sometimes I’m more productive than at other times”—and throughout the book, even the most careful of readers are likely to feel some confusion navigating scenes including a sexually abusive grandmother and chapter endings such as “Georgie places the letter in his messy desk’s drawer and walks out with a winter coat on and the whole scene changes completely.” Whether all such elements come together to form a memorable impression of illness or merely a collection of fragmented stories depends greatly on the reader’s willingness to follow along on the path provided, no matter how many twists and dead ends are on the way.
Wildly varied in style and content, making for an informative and strange trip through the experience of mental disorders.
Sex, Drugs, and Schizophrenia
SEX, DRUGS, AND SCHIZOPHRENIA - KIRKUS REVIEW
Harnisch (Second Alibi, 2014, etc.) offers a novel that investigates the fractured mind of a schizophrenic.
“Let’s get the facts straight up front, to avoid any confusion later,” the author states at the start of this wild, candid book. “I am a person first, a human being, just like anyone else. Maybe a little different, that’s all.” That difference is a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and this extensive work explores the realities of mental illness through a whirlwind of fictional, narrative pieces and personal reflections. Along the way, it takes readers to places of depravity and confusion. Its characters include Ben Schreiber, a precocious but mentally ill youngster in Armani jeans, who explains his troubled life to the ever-calm Dr. C, after trying to rob a bank with a cellphone. Schreiber discusses his alter ego, Georgie Gust, a masochist and foot-fetishist, who’s wealthy enough to pay his neighbor Claudia to torture him; indeed, he seems capable of enduring any type of humiliation, so long as it doesn’t involve actually working. The first-person narrator regularly interrupts the proceedings to offer generally off-topic details: “(Parenthetical Pet Peeve) Commercials for unappetizing products shown at meal times…feminine hygiene products, jock itch, yeast infections, etc.” The scattered narrative uses diverse literary mechanisms, to say the least, mixing elements such as journal entries, a screenplay, a straightforward melodrama involving a Tourette’s sufferer at a private school, occasional celebrity name-dropping (“I met Joanna Cassidy, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Downey Jr, Mel Gibson, and others”), and a dapper figure named John Marshal, who, when asked his opinion of a party, responds, “I’d scarcely be a good judge of that…. My life is taken up with writing.” Making sense of it all in any traditional way, it would seem, isn’t really the point. From horrific scenes of child abuse (“She did. She raped me. My grandmother”) to glimpses of triumph (“I can start taking control of my life”), this long book’s many scenes of anguish and hope are difficult to take in, by any estimation. Whether readers will find the difficulty worthwhile depends largely on their tolerance for twisted tales.
A repetitive, explicit, fractured, lengthy and honest book, with an overall effect that mimics the confusion of its title.
Lover in the Nobody
LOVER IN THE NOBODY - KIRKUS REVIEW
A young man battling extreme mental illness brings his sadomasochistic fantasies to life in Harnisch’s (Sex, Drugs, and Schizophrenia, 2014, etc.) latest novel.
As this riveting story opens, Georgie Gust, a suicidal Tourette’s syndrome patient, tells his doctor he wants to leave the mental institution where he’s been committed. When the doctor puts him off, Gust finds himself buffeted by violent fantasies of escape, and he even prepares to hang himself. The novel plunges readers into the mind of a man at war with his own urges, memories, and sexual obsessions. After a scene shift, Gust’s chauffeur, Ben, delivers him to his empty home, where Margaret, his only friend, visits to check on him. However, she annoys him because “she seems to care.” Later, Gust, a foot fetishist, gives a pedicure to his sexy neighbor, Claudia, in a scene lit with unexpected poetry and poignancy. As the narrative viewpoint flickers among Gust, Ben, and a quasi-omniscient third-person perspective, Gust’s voracious appetite for pain prompts him to hire Claudia to torment him. (He has wealthy parents, so he spends cash liberally.) When Claudia’s house goes up in flames, she moves in with him, and their sadomasochistic bond descends into extraordinary, hallucinatory violence. In Claudia’s hands, Gust discovers new depths of masochism, and she finds joy in tormenting him. Despite the garishness, brutality, and squalor of many passages (which are not for the squeamish), more sophisticated readers will appreciate the extraordinary feat Harnisch has accomplished. He lucidly, poignantly conveys a mind riven with what are, after all, human vulnerabilities: mental pathologies, shameful fantasies, anguished doubts about the natures of reality, love, and memory. In the hands of a lesser writer, these themes would splinter the narrative. Fortunately, the author masters his material; readers will believe the voices that vivify it and compassionately wish them to find the healing that eludes them.
An extraordinary, harrowing odyssey into an embattled self, full of humor, compassion, and a rare understanding of mental illness.