Waking Up In Toytown, By John Burnside

Reviewed,Fiona Sampson
Friday 22 January 2010 01:00
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Every addict's story features cyclical repetitions until that eureka moment, which may or may not arrive, when the pattern is finally broken. The territory of Waking Up In Toytown is no exception. The poet and novelist John Burnside's second volume of autobiography recounts the usual depressing pattern of hopeful attempt and spectacular relapse. Yet this is far from a depressing or "worthy" read. Burnside is a genuinely transformative writer, in whose hands what could be unpromisingly formless acquires real light and shade. In place of the "and then... and then" of misery memoir, he has produced an acute, beautifully written, study of the self in process.

Burnside's much-acclaimed memoir of his childhood and youth, A Lie About My Father, had the integrated trajectory of a coming-of-age narrative. Waking Up In Toytown sets itself a more original task, to present a life from the point of view of a self in chaos. How high the stakes are is explicit from the book's striking first sentence – "Not so long ago, when I was still mad, I found myself in the strangest lunatic asylum that I had ever seen" – to its conclusion, "Incipit vita nova."

The author, doubly burdened by a clinical diagnosis of apophenia and by addictions, attempts to escape to the suburbs. In "a Surbiton of the mind, a dreamscape that I was constructing around a soi-disant outsider's confusion of the normal and the banal", he believes he will be able to "live a normal life". To some extent, he succeeds. A series of computing jobs sees our protagonist become a civil servant, then a highly-paid consultant. Periods of "what my fellow self-helpers coyly referred to as my sobriety" allow him to develop interests in European cinema and Japanese gardening. Yet these are solitary activities.

Apart from office socialising, in this story human contact is mostly achieved while – and perhaps through being – under the influence of alcohol, drugs or "self-medication". Burnside has produced a brilliant portrait of isolation, and the way in which it encourages the inner world to expand until it blocks out "fallow and stepwise" outer experience. Nevertheless, key encounters structure the book.

The suicide, a man who wants his wife murdered, the beloved complicit in an erotics of pain, a single mother, the jail-bait and finally the phantom self: each acts as a dark archetype to reveal aspects of the psyche. Equally artful is Burnside's palimpsest diction. The broadly linear narrative is cross-hatched with references to other encounters, so that we begin to understand the logic of addictive repetition. Similarity, we discover, is not so much an engine as a web, in which the addict is trapped.

There are also bursts of characteristic Burnside numinosity, which lift clear of the narrative ruck to grasp the "something more" that makes keeping going worthwhile. Lodged in the quotidian, this becomes "the wabasabi of toasters", "a trace of some local sweetness in a turned bowl, the hint of gold at the rim of a glass".

For all that this book embraces both beauty and difficulty, it eschews the clichés of the redemptive read: "I wasn't beginning the long journey back to community and... maturity that I might have travelled had I been a character in a novel." Yet Burnside also holds a mirror to the sardonic anomie of 1990s fictions like Trainspotting. In its place, this sophisticated study of the human mind argues for our right "to continue in the pursuit of wholeness. To be not-normal after all."

Fiona Sampson's latest book is 'Poetry Writing: an expert guide' (Robert Hale)

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