Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Psycho's Path

Carla Blumenkranz


Patrick Oxtoby, the narrator of This Is How, M. J. Hyland’s third novel, does not appear to have a hopeful future. Although his life started out well—he fulfilled his mother’s ambition by being the first in the family to attend college—he reveals himself within the first few pages to be unfit for society.

Patrick has a strong sense of how he should behave toward others, but he’s often simply struck dumb. “I should say something, but I can’t think what.” “I should say a lot more nice things and make her feel welcome, but she’s got to know I don’t want her here.” He has no natural feeling to encourage him in these gestures, and his constant effort to simulate emotion frustrates and exhausts him. He relentlessly seeks to make a good impression, and the pressure wears him down: He feels it as pain in his neck and shoulders and occasionally releases it in verbal outbursts and fantasies of violence.

When Hyland’s story opens, twenty-three-year-old Patrick has just arrived at a seaside boardinghouse, where he hopes to escape the failures of his suburban life. He dropped out of school, to the dismay of his family, in order to pursue a career as a mechanic, and his fiancée recently left him, saying he “didn’t know how to express [his] emotions.” When she announced that she was leaving, Patrick recalls, he imagined pushing her down the stairs, making “the kind of impression I didn’t know how to make with words.” He experiences a similar burst of malevolence when his mother pays a surprise visit to the boarding house. Patrick takes her to the pier, and as they look down at the water, he imagines her drowning, “how she’d sink and her ugly short dress would float up and surround her head like a jellyfish.”

Hyland appears to have taken much of Patrick’s personality from the DSM. She has him find an old copy toward the end of the novel and then study, without self-awareness, the symptoms of psychopathy. Like a prototypical psychopath, Patrick shows tendencies toward lying, boredom, substance abuse, financial irresponsibility, and cruelty; most crucially, he almost completely lacks empathy. During his time at the boardinghouse, he struggles to control these symptoms, and it’s no surprise when he commits a sudden act of violence. At the end of a week of increasing hostility and isolation, he kills a sleeping man with a blow to the head, carefully but without much intention. After his arrest, he implausibly maintains that he only meant to “wake up” his victim.

Hyland draws on several genres to extend and complicate what begins as a gripping if unsurprising thriller. Patrick is charged with murder, and the story in its second part becomes a legal procedural. After he’s tried and convicted, a prison narrative takes its place. As the plotline shifts repeatedly, the novel comes into focus as a study of Patrick’s personality in different environments. He never escapes his psychopathy, and he never significantly changes. The only solace Hyland offers Patrick is prison, where he’s kept from hurting others and finds some comfort in the presence of other defective personalities.

Patrick gives voice to repetitive, dis-affected thoughts, and his words are often challenging to read. He thinks constantly about the murder, but with a sense of regret only for his own fate, not his victim’s. As he tells a psychologist, the feeling he has isn’t remorse, “it’s more like embarrassment, like when you lose something really important, leave it on a bus seat or something stupid like that.” Before he reconciles himself to prison, he complains interminably about his life there (“If I’d not made that mistake with the hammer”). He forgets that he was as unhappy before: He resented the cold showers at the boarding house as he does at the prison.

Hyland has a history of choosing difficult narrators who resist their own stories. Her first novel, How the Light Gets In (2004), features a brilliant, belligerent girl who constantly self-destructs. An overgrown boy who unnerves his parents by continuing to act like a child narrates her second, Carry Me Down (2006). Hyland is full of patience for these characters, and allows them their halting development. But Patrick has little hope, and he’s much more closed and hostile to expectations.

Patrick is not Tom Ripley or Hannibal Lecter, nor was meant to be. If Hyland had wanted a charismatic killer, then she could have chosen one of her many minor characters. Patrick’s cellmate is a talkative suicidal who stabbed his wife with a kitchen knife: “The whites of his eyes are yellow with smears of red, like eggs with blood in them.” His other ally is an alarmingly competent former law student who intends to get out as quickly as possible. Most notable is the other psychopath on his block, Smith, who writes him a sympathetic letter. Smith was abused by his father as a child and, as revenge, killed eight men whose red hair resembled his dad’s. “His crimes are like no other on record”; unsurprisingly, a true-crime book has been written about him.

In jail, Patrick is known as Miss Otis, after the unassuming Cole Porter heroine who regrets that her lunch date conflicts with her hanging. Besides providing one of the most direct views of Patrick from another perspective, the nickname is also one of this bleak account’s few moments of humor. Hyland offers a spare, unforgiving portrait of a psychological oddity that is notable for its flatness; Patrick’s emotional blankness is rendered perhaps too accurately. His psychologist seems to enjoy their sessions, but this must be because she values him as a case study. Readers without this professional interest may find him less rewarding.

Carla Blumenkranz is an assistant editor of n+1.

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