BOOKS / Second Thoughts: All in the mind of a plumber's lonely son: Patrick McGrath on the flash of light that led to the psychotic Spider (Penguin pounds 5.99)

THE NOVEL began with a knock on the door. A man answers the door. He gasps with horror. Standing there is a woman supposed to be dead these last 10 years. Who is she? How did she 'die'? The story unfolded in my imagination in a flash, in a few seconds, no more. And that was the genesis of the novel, that short bit of narrative wire that over the next 16 months got pulled and bent and twisted into the delusional self-portrait of a matricidal schizophrenic.

Actually that's not how it began. What came first were Bill Brandt's spooky photographs of the East End in the 1930s, gloomy atmospheric images of alleyways with lamplight spilling over damp cobblestones, tacky pubs with stout barmaids grimly pulling pints, cramped houses, bad teeth, the working Thames, furtive sex. Somewhere in all this, I knew, lay a novel. Only then was that knock on the door possible.

First draft was writing out the story, in the course of which the dead woman at the front door somehow disappeared. But an infidelity theme announced itself loudly, and the man who opened the door turned out to be Horace Cleg, an adulterous plumber. At about page 150 the question of just precisely who was telling the story became impossible to defer any longer. After a few false starts Horace's boy, Dennis, who witnessed the whole ghastly mess, was chosen.

Now the fun really began. Second draft: Dennis - nicknamed Spider - was to recall the events from the vantage point of maturity, some 20 years later. Who was he, this son of a plumber? One day in the Mile End Road I saw a threadbare character who resembled Samuel Beckett shuffling over a zebra crossing. I followed him for 10 minutes and knew I had my Spider.

Then the idea occurred: what if it's all false memory? What if he's got it all wrong? From there it was a short hop to making him schizophrenic, and from that decision emerged the ambition to depict, from the inside, the experience of psychosis.

Now the fun really began. I reached for my R D Laing. Not the least of the problems was staying faithful to the chaos of madness while providing the coherence and continuity that the intelligible novel demands. Spider's story was necessarily ambiguous, unreliable and confused, but it hinted constantly at a 'true' version of events buried somewhere within its web-work of denial and hallucination. The question was, would the reader be agreeably stimulated by all this, or give up in frustration, or see through it in a minute and toss the book at the wall?

I encountered all three reactions from the critics. (People one talks to tend not to mention the work unless they loved it.) Most, happily, seemed to have enjoyed being tantalised by the uncertainty of never knowing when Spider was telling the truth. And most were generous enough to recognise that it's a delicate technical challenge, when doing an unreliable narrator, to calibrate the obscurity just right. What makes it so dodgy is that after living in someone else's story for months on end, you can't tell what it looks like from the outside anymore. That's in part what editors are for.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried