Books: Foul play in the cuckoo's nest

Is therapy the disease of which it thinks itself a cure? Brian Morton on a novel that makes up its own mind; Scar Culture by Toni Davidson Rebel Inc., pounds 9.99, 247pp
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IN THE cicatrising cultures of Africa, the rituals and endurances of young adulthood are literally inscribed on the body: raised scars which stand as badges of attainment and outward proof that fear and superstition are overcome. Modern therapy culture is no less scarifying, except that the scars are only expressible as language, not as ornamental keloids on the skin.

Toni Davidson's first novel Scar Culture has already been the object of some misleading press coverage. This is emphatically not another trawl through the lower social depths and extremes of sensation from Rebel Inc. of Edinburgh - one of Irvine Welsh's first publishers. It is one the most confidently literary novels of the year, poised and unrhetorical, and no less chilling for its quiet reticence about physical and sexual horrors.

Its main premise is a Laingian elision of any line between the mad and the sane, therapist and therapee, abuser, abused and rescuer. Here victims and perpetrators are reduced not to the file numbers one became used to in the Cleveland case, but to strange, gnomic names - Panic, Exit, Click, Languid - which are not so much diagnostic labels as dramatic masks.

Click documents his own suffering with a real and a mental Instamatic, snapping awkward semi-posed glimpses of his weirdly choreographed family romance. Like the chaotic opening section of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, it is a narrative that only makes sense in retrospect, re-read.

Reading it becomes the responsibility of Sad - Dr Curtis Sad - the ambiguous language-gamer of the Brathouse whose personal experiments in recovered memory deliver him an ongoing incestuous relationship with his shaven- headed, 10-year-old sister. Sad networks with other researchers - "therapist" is the wrong word - and one of these, Peterson, becomes the book's savage chorus. He is a blunt, almost nostalgic spokesman for the unfettered libertarianism of the Sixties and so almost inevitably an absolutist and an elitist.

For him, recovery has nothing to do with where the real stories are at. Recovery is for the pond life. "The fucks who whinge away to their therapist for months on end, for X dollars per session, are small fry, goldfish in an ocean, spiritless idiots who have swapped fundamentalism for therapy."

Scar Culture is itself no leisurely whinge about the ills and inequities of mental health care. It is not a conspiracy-novel because it accepts the lofty separatism and abject complicity of the professionals as a given rather than offering them as an accusatory conclusion. But it is a deeply unsettling book, because it probes far beyond mere worthiness and mere wordiness, offering a self-defining and utterly consistent model for how therapeutic language encysts and encloses suffering.

This is a work that needs to be read with the almost musical responsiveness one ideally brings to poetry, rather than with the engagement and empathy that would be appropriate to a newspaper feature or a whistle-blowing documentary. It is one the most searching books of recent years.

Brian Morton presents BBC Radio Scotland's arts programme, `The Usual Suspects' for