Scar, the debut novel from Ryan Frawley, is reviewed by Ian Chung.
“…it is an ambitious piece of work that never sacrifices atmospheric storytelling, even as it pursues…”
Published by 529 Publishing, 300pp
Reviewed by Ian Chung
Deliberate or not, Ryan Frawley’s first novel Scar owes a debt to another debut, Mark Z. Danielewski’s work of ergodic literature, House of Leaves. Ergodic literature, as defined by Espen J. Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, is literature where ‘nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text’. Like House of Leaves, Scar contains footnotes that comment or intrude on what is presented as the main textual narrative. This narrative alternates between the story of Dermot Fallon, supposedly a schizophrenic hospitalised in Vancouver, and that of Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, a warrior of the Fianna, from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. The latter’s chapters are presented in a different font (also a technique employed by Danielewski), and as the novel progresses, the two characters’ stories begin to parallel each other, to the point where later chapters interchangeably use Dermot and Diarmuid to refer to the latter character, as if the former’s psyche has mystically come to immerse itself in the distant past.
Shorn of its typographical games, Dermot’s story is relatively straightforward. He returns to Ireland from Canada to bury his father, only to begin an affair with Fiona, his cousin Sean’s fiancée. He also discovers his father’s notebook, written using a Vigenère cipher, whose keyword is ‘miotas’, the Irish Gaelic for ‘myth’. Decoding this notebook then reveals the story of Diarmuid, and believing that Diarmuid’s tale was his father’s way of telling him that they actually shared no blood relationship (which in turn accounted for his father’s tendency to be more abusive towards him), Dermot develops an obsession with finding out exactly who his real father was. Although this mystery is never satisfactorily resolved, Dermot does eventually reconcile himself to his personal history to some extent:
“I mean, it’s a common story now, right? What’s the divorce rate, fifty per cent? More? That’s our generation, the product of what they used to call ‘broken homes’. My mum left – so what? My dad went a little crazy – sometimes he got violent. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. I mean, he had a temper – what Irishman doesn’t? But that was my trauma, right there; that’s when I stopped being a kid, when my life became serious. The first crack that lets the light in. My own private mythology – my mother as the devil, my father a wounded king, and me, the hero, searching for the grail.”
The intertwining of Dermot and Diarmuid’s narratives, even as Dermot’s mental state appears to progressively disintegrate, is a bold undertaking. Both stories feel freighted with significance, as though they were ciphers in need of decoding too. If so, it is the framing narrative of Dr Thomas Kinsella that seems to hold the key. Dr Kinsella is supposedly responsible for Dermot’s treatment at Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, and the book is presented as his attempt at organising Dermot’s journal entries while under his care. Yet Dr Kinsella is not without his intriguing self-contradictions. While his description of the compiled text as ‘part memoir, part fiction, part re-telling of traditional folk tales, part metaphysical treatise’ is sound, his claim to ‘have endeavoured as far as possible to let Dermot speak for himself’ is presented to the reader as being blatantly untrue. Although his footnotes begin objectively, by the end, any semblance of professionalism has been abandoned: ‘Google it. I have a fucking headache.’
The unreliable narrator is a familiar device in literature, and as with Johnny Truant in House of Leaves, a secondary narrative unfolds through Dr Kinsella’s footnotes that paints him in a sinister light. Several times, Dermot makes references to a figure known as ‘the Toad’, who is ‘some kind of therapist’, ‘the old cliché of the psychiatrist who loses his mind, collapsing under the weight of other people’s neuroses’. Coupled with Dr Kinsella’s repeated comments about the unwillingness of the nurses to cooperate with his attempts to treat Dermot (or to locate Dermot’s patient records that have somehow gone missing) and his headaches, it is strongly suggested that the person in need of psychiatric help may in fact be Dr Kinsella himself. Further evidence for this is the way the word ‘visions’ appears in grey throughout the book in Dermot’s chapters, an editorial decision on Dr Kinsella’s part to render descriptions of Dermot’s visual hallucinations, but it also appears this way in Dr Kinsella’s own footnotes.
Ultimately, while the evidence seems weighted in favour of most of the text being largely an invention of Dr Kinsella’s, the success of Frawley’s writing is that even as the layered puzzle of Scar unfolds in the reading process, one never comes to feel like the puzzle must be solved in order to enjoy the storytelling. While the symbolic parallels of Dermot and Diarmuid’s stories might seem overstated, this is countered by the possibility that the overwrought nature of the narrative is a result of Dr Kinsella’s personal obsession and need to impose an ordering pattern on Dermot’s story. Frawley’s debut is by no means perfect (I personally would have preferred more subtlety to Dr Kinsella’s secondary narrative), but it is an ambitious piece of work that never sacrifices atmospheric storytelling, even as it pursues its ergodic agenda.