RECENT REVIEWS OF BOOKS BY JONATHAN HARNISCH
Jonathan Harnisch: An Alibiography
This, it is easy to imagine, is what life with mental illness is like for some: full of continuous questioning, rationalization, guilt, anxiety.
Jonathan Harnisch: An Alibiography presents a simultaneously dazzling and frightening portrayal of mental illness through the eyes of several characters—though all embodied in the same being.
The complex narrative is seemingly told from the viewpoint of Benjamin J. Schreiber, son of a wealthy blue-blood family who converses with his doctor (known as C). The privilege afforded to him by birth enables him to live relatively well off; his multitude of diagnoses, including Tourette’s and schizoaffective disorder, would effectively render him incapable of functioning in society under other circumstances. However, Ben doesn’t wish to talk about himself with Dr. C, but rather a fictional counterpart, Georgie Gust.
Georgie, like Ben, comes from an aristocratic family and views reality from a different vantage. An obsessive coffee drinker and chain smoker, he maintains a quiet (though sordid) existence on the outside, a rich sexual life in private. Early in the text, an erotic scene focusing on his foot fetishism appears in exacting detail. This proves to be the most tame of Georgie’s passions, as soon he begins his sadomasochistic conquest of Claudia, an older woman whom he hires to torture him. This, too, is richly rendered, as Georgie is teased with dripping wax, hot pans, and psychological distress. The two become dependent upon each other, hating yet needing their company, and their relationship evolves into a bizarre reimagining of the American Dream, one in which we are privy to the seedy reality underneath the polished exterior.
Forced to confront the darker nature of desire, An Alibiography shocks and confuses as the narrative unspools itself with a randomness that evokes a questioning of reality. This, it is easy to imagine, is what life with mental illness is like for some: full of continuous questioning, rationalization, guilt, and anxiety. In many respects, this work can be compared to Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine, in which a businessman obsesses over his sadomasochistic desires and dreams, seeking meaning in his own marginalized existence. Harnisch’s work, however, employs many main characters embodied in the same man, building realities within realities that often cannot be constructed into a cohesive narrative.
At over eight hundred pages, the subject loses shock value and becomes mundane. As Georgie and Claudia’s passion evolves and intensifies, and the novel ventures into the completely surreal, disgusting, and criminal, the oversaturation of violence and S&M confuses the message. Mental illness is romanticized at points in the text, as well, which may leave some familiar with the realities with an unsavory taste. That’s not to say the work isn’t well written—it’s carefully plotted with well-rendered characters, presented in a narrative that would appropriately be deemed “schizophrenic.”
However, upon reaching the end, there is an exhaustion. Perhaps, though, this is in itself a meaning: that life with mental illness is difficult and confusing, yet produces a desperation for understanding.
-- Foreword Clarion Reviews
The author of this deeply moving portrait of a schizophrenic is afflicted himself with schizo-affective disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome and a few other things. Jonathan Harnisch even calls himself “the king of mental illness.” Given those obstacles, it’s a wonder he can write anything, much less a semi-autobiographical novel as fiercely intelligent and finely crafted as this one.
First, a caveat: At 803 pages, Harnisch’s cleverly named “alibiography” contains all the repetitions and anomalies you might expect from a writer with serious demons. There’s also some gibberish. Sample: “Make it and makeshift it. Prototype it! Grab it! Snag it!”
Little matter. The protagonist, a disturbed trust-funder named Benjamin J. Schreiber, who has a self-destructive alter ego called Georgie Gust boiling inside his head, may be the most compelling character in the literature of madness since A Beautiful Mind’s John Nash. Unable to cope with dark childhood traumas, reclusive Ben transfers his fears and obsessions to his extroverted creation, Georgie, who falls into the clutches of a cruel sado-masochist lover, Claudia Nesbitt. That means Ben suffers too, of course, and Harnisch’s depictions of inner torment are harrowing. When Ben tries to hang himself, the scene reverberates with authorial knowingness.
Ben descends into drug addiction. He tries to rob a bank in Pasadena. He spends years in a mental ward as “everything I don’t want to be.” Luckily, he also comes under the care of a gifted psychiatrist, “Dr. C,” who unlocks the secrets of his past and gives Ben hope. All he’s ever dreamed of—what the author obviously wants, too-—is some “seemingly impossible peace of mind, through complete honesty and self-love, by any means necessary.”
For Harnisch, those means seem to have included writing this powerful, heart-wrenching and clearly self-therapeutic book, even though his alter ego, Ben, feels obliged to apologize to the reader “for all the utter confusion, chaos and inconsistencies here within.” No apology necessary.
-- BlueInk Review
Second Alibi: The Banality of Life
Harnisch’s words and images dance vividly and repeat themselves in strange succession; even his most self-conscious writing has rhythmic energy and flair.
Jonathan Harnisch doesn’t so much showcase literary genius as he grapples with it in his experimental autobiography, Second Alibi: The Banality of Life. Genius is a creative spirit he chases. When he gets his hands on it, when genius possesses him, the results are stunning. Parts of Second Alibi radiate with originality.
With a self-referential postmodern style reminiscent of William Burroughs, Harnisch chronicles his hell-bent search for personal truth. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental disorders, he explores all aspects of his personality: his alter ego, Ben; his alter ego’s alter ego, Georgie; and their mutual love interest, Claudia. Harnisch wrangles to the page episodes of madness and lucidity, hospitalizations, hallucinations, love affairs. He searches every experience for meaning, sometimes exhaustively, and offers up whatever truth he can.
If there’s fault in Harnisch’s methodology, it’s that he overanalyzes and micromanages his own creative process. For example, the book’s third act flounders in a sea of platitudinous journal entries about living with mental illness, the writing process, the progress of his manuscript, and his ultimate aspirations as a writer. Although well-intentioned, the entries become preening and laborious. At one point, the author admits, “I feel like I am forcing this writing.”
The book’s first and second acts are much stronger—the first relayed in stream-of-consciousness passages, and the second in the form of a screenplay. In the first act, Harnisch produces the stuff of poetry. His words and images dance vividly and repeat themselves in strange succession: “The living, colorful sound of the mysterious telephone still haunts us, even me. It rings and rings, again and again.” In these passages, even his most self-conscious writing has rhythmic energy and flair: “The sensation of sensational sex and blue movies, the characters and chaos, onslaughts of sketches, prototypes … of expanding pounding putty and pus, some sex and violence. I’m built for it.”
The second act, the screenplay, offers the book’s most absorbing and sharply written drama. Harnisch appears to be a natural in the medium, exploring past trauma through scene and dialogue. The screenplay ends with amazing profundity. “And sometimes you just have to listen to the sounds of your life,” Ben says. “That kind of silence. That deep remarkable hollow stuff.”
Second Alibi provides an honest window into the “hollow stuff.” Harnisch is at his best, though, when he leaves his inner critic behind and allows his creativity to color the world around him.
-- Foreword Clarion Reviews
Afflicted with schizophrenia, Tourette’s Syndrome and other mental illnesses, the prolific and gifted Jonathan Harnisch has transformed the harrowing raw material of his life into what he calls “transgressive fiction” in semi-autobiographical novels such as Jonathan Harnisch: An Alibiography and Living Colorful Beauty. With Second Alibi: The Banality of Life, he revisits the abrasive, triangular psychodrama of his brilliant, questing psychotic Ben Schreiber, Ben’s libertine alter-ego, Georgie Gust, and the sadistic temptress, Claudia Nesbitt, who torments them both, while also including a moving plea for understanding that stands apart from the disturbed fevers of his fiction.
“This is a story, I hope, about my coming to enlightenment,” Harnisch writes, and in that vein he enlightens us, too, about the fantastic terrors of schizophrenia: “What this life is like with the ups and the downs, the confusion, the love and the hate; the black and the white.” He tells us about his moods abruptly shifting 25 times in an hour, his suicide attempts and addictions, the grim realities of sleep deprivation and the fear that his beloved wife has been reading his mind.
Second Alibi toggles unpredictably between semi-coherent rage (Harnisch says he often writes when symptomatic) and cool detachment, and it deploys several forms: Harnisch’s sexually-charged fiction (Claudia is “a slow-moving serpent with a tongue of fire and the ass of a bombshell”); a 106-page screenplay featuring dialogues between Ben and his old antagonists, and with his life-saving therapist, “Dr. C”; self-lacerating entries from “Georgie Gust’s” 2005 diary, and the author’s clear explanations of his condition, apparently written at moments when his symptoms have subsided.
At times, Harnisch is energized by the very power of his illness. “The mind and the sickness is all so sublime,” he writes, “the heart of living, colorful beauty.” But in his most lucid moments, this brave and eloquent writer struggles mightily to escape the dark woods of madness: “As always, my journey continues, on and on.”
-- BlueInk Review
Living Colorful Beauty
Living Colorful Beauty is a twisted, intensely character-driven ride.
In Living Colorful Beauty, author Jonathan Harnisch tells the story of Ben, a man diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, schizoaffective disorder, and several other issues. Ever since his youth, Ben has been both plagued by mental illness and obsessed with venality. As he navigates through an unstable, directionless life and leaves a string of shattered romances in his wake, he generates a fictional character, Georgie Gust, to deal with his many paraphilias and neuroses. But with the introduction of a new psychotherapist, Ben may have a chance to let go of his doppelgänger as well as his overwhelming insecurity.
Though the book is saturated with Ben’s sexuality, its prevailing theme is actually his struggle to come to terms with his mental health. The entire book reads like a Freudian therapy session, so the ultimate resolution of Ben’s problems is appropriate. Ben’s internal creative process is integral to the book’s effectiveness, since much of the psychoanalysis Ben receives seems to come from himself through the lens of his fictional creation, Georgie. The book features an almost claustrophobic amount of of navel-gazing, which may be intentional. At times, the reading experience leaves no doubt as to how the book’s main character could drive himself crazy with his recursive, obsessive self-examination.
Ben and Georgie have an interesting and nuanced relationship. At times Ben seems completely unable to control his double while simultaneously being one with him. He often reassures himself that his creation is the inferior man, citing Georgie’s pumpkin-like body as the reason that nobody will ever want him. On the other hand, of the two of them, Georgie seems to have the more active love life. Ben reaches for emotional intimacy through relationship after relationship, but his illness, issues with women, and physical demands—the Georgie in him—constantly hamper his progress.
As the narrator, Ben’s point of view colors all of the other characters. Several of these, in addition to Georgie, are or may be fictional, mere expressions of Ben’s illness. This is especially true of the women in Ben’s life. There are comparatively very few men in this story, but the women are usually of a seductive and even predatory type. Ben aggressively sizes up the ladies he knows, from his girlfriends to his therapist, in terms of their attractiveness, perhaps in an attempt to balance the scales, since in his own perception, women are domineering copies of his own terrifying mother. Part of Ben’s evolution is to move toward a valuing of women beyond his mother issues, a satisfying direction for this character to travel.
Living Colorful Beauty is a twisted, intensely character-driven ride that ends on a hopeful note. It may interest fans of Charles Bukowski and Tom Robbins.
-- Foreword Clarion Reviews
This short novel by New Mexico writer Jonathan Harnisch features the same urgent anguish—and the same disturbing characters—as the author’s 803-page, semi-autobiographical rampage through sexual obsession, schizophrenia and healing, Jonathan Harnisch: An Alibiography. Good news: Living Colorful Beauty stands on its own, serving as a vivid introduction to this gifted, if flawed, writer’s teeming mind.
In 30-year-old Benjamin J. Schreiber, who suffers (like Harnisch) from schizo-affective disorder and Tourette’s Syndrome, the author has created a brilliant and memorable psychotic. In reckless Georgie Gust, he delivers a convincing alter-ego to whom Ben can transfer “my confessionary details, my sins, my fetishes.” As in Alibiography, their destructive common fantasy is the cruel, manipulative siren Claudia Nesbitt. Their possible salvation? An insightful shrink called Dr. C.
Once again, Harnisch’s prose is simultaneously original and confusing: ”the words in my head have turned to salad,” Ben tells us, but “my imagination’s on fire.” Careening between New York and Southern California, and even more wildly between the searing traumas of Ben’s childhood and the perilous uncertainties of his present, the narrative reveals a tormented soul who is “merely a spy, an observer, into the world of my hallucinations” but who can sometimes make peace with his demons. “Let me lose my mind,” Ben muses. “Fuck it. I’m going out for a walk on the beach. The beach is a block away. The voices in my head are raging. They’re calling me a winner.”
For Harnisch, who playfully calls himself “the king of mental illness,” writing fiction is clearly therapeutic. An editor character tells Ben: “The problem though is that your reader cannot possibly follow your train of thought,” and that’s often our problem, too. But the authenticity of Harnisch’s voice bursts through the tangles and repetitions of his language. He’s the real thing.