Waking Up in Toytown, By John Burnside

John Burnside escapes to a 'Surbiton of the mind' – but not his demons – while searching for his true self
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The Independent Culture

Although this is a memoir and undoubtedly contains its fair share of misery, Waking Up in Toytown, by the Scottish novelist and poet John Burnside, is about as far from the conventional idea of a misery memoir as it's possible to get. The same was true of Burnside's astonishing 2006 childhood memoir A Lie About My Father, a book which rightly received universal acclaim, winning most Scottish book prizes into the bargain.

Burnside again brings his poet's eye for detail and his novelist's sense of the dramatic to the pages, but more than that, Burnside is a deep thinker, always probing for meaning, for reason, for resonance in the rather tumultuous events of his life. The result, in both this book and its predecessor, is a thoughtful look at the nature of truth and lies, and a search for a way to live one's life that has some kind of validity.

Waking Up in Toytown more or less picks up where A Lie About My Father left off. After 13 years of drink and drug abuse, combined with a continual struggle with mental illness, Burnside determines to run away to the suburbs (the "toytown" of the title) and live a normal life.

Craving banal stability, he seeks a "Surbiton of the mind", where he can see out his days away from the chaos of his younger years, holding down a dreary office job and revelling in the mediocrity of suburban living. As he eloquently puts it: "It wouldn't be much of a life, perhaps, but it was the most elegant acknowledgement of honourable failure that I could imagine."

So he gets a job as a computer programmer, swears off the booze and rents a place with a nice, wee garden. Needless to say, it doesn't work out. Anyone who has read any of Burnside's menacing, bleak novels will know he's a writer who revels in the darkest depths of the human psyche, so it's no surprise to find he's like that as a person too.

Pretty soon he's drinking and taking drugs again, hearing voices coming from the walls as he lies unable to sleep at night, and gripped again by bouts of apophenia, a psychological disorder in which the sufferer sees patterns or connections in random events and data.

But possibly worse than that is his tendency for destructive relationships. There are a handful of relationships with women in Waking Up in Toytown, not one of them healthy. The desperate drinking sessions with another alcoholic, the affair with an old flame, now married, the relationship with a single mum where Burnside has more of a bond with her kids than her, and finally a non-physical relationship with a 15-year-old schoolgirl which is psychologically and morally ambiguous, to say the least.

All this is treated with admirable candour, which doesn't necessarily paint the author in a great light, but there is something underlying it all, a quest for some kind of honesty, that makes the reader retain some sympathy.

Burnside is acutely aware of the self- deception in all of us, addictive personalities or not, and Waking Up in Toytown is as much about the nature of truth and a search for our true selves as it is anything else.

"As it happens, I have never found myself a very convincing phenomenon," he writes at one point about a romantic liaison, a statement which gets to the very heart of his search for identity and sanity in the world. Burnside may not find himself convincing, but this complex, considered piece of work certainly is.

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