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Geoff Nicholson: Bedlam Burning

As this is Geoff Nicholson, we know straight away that nothing is what it seems, that there will be games with identities and plot twists within plot twists and, of course, his favourite theme, namely that the border between the sane and insane is not only thin but non-existent. Of course, as the title tells us, he takes this theme literally in this book as most of it is indeed set inside a hospital for the mentally ill.

The narrator is the blandly named Mike Smith, a student of English at Cambridge University. His tutor, Dr. John Bentley, has annual parties at which he invites a selected few to burn a book of their choice. Mike is, for some reason, invited to one of these and cleverly brings Bentley’s own book of criticism, a sly dig at what he considers Bentley’s not very politically correct way of behaviour. This will have considerable significance for him but not as much as his meeting with Gregory Collins. Collins burns his own novel manuscript, saying that it is worthless.

Cut to a few years hence. Mike is shacked up in a boring relationship with Nicola, who works at a publisher’s, while he himself has a boring job with a well-to-do dealer of rare books. Gregory reappears, having written another book, called The Wax Man, about a man entrapped in wax, who recounts his reactions to this event. He is getting the book published and wants Mike to allow him to use his – Mike’s – photo on the dust jacket as Mike is dashing and good-looking and Gregory is an ugly bugger. Mike, while drunk, agrees, feeling that the book will go nowhere. However, when, after publication, Gregory is asked to do a book reading in Brighton, he asks Mike to do it. Mike reluctantly agrees, though it really angers Nicola. Only three people turn up to the reading – Bob Burns, who is actually Gregory, Nicola, who arrives with and leaves with Gregory and Alicia Crowe, who says that she only came to sleep with the author.

Alicia is a doctor at a local mental hospital and wants to recruit Gregory/Mike to offer writing classes to the patients. Bored with his job and life and attracted to Alicia, he agrees. On arrival, he is assaulted, loses all of his stuff and is thrown into a padded cell. Things get better – Alicia rescues him and has sex with him. The hospital is run by Dr. Kincaid, who has a theory that the huge mass of images is the cause of mental illness and denies the patients any access to images (no TV, no photos in newspapers, not even pictures of any sort) and that language will help them. Kincaid soon puts Mike to work and has the patients writing, first on the theme of The Moon and Sixpence and then, at Mike’s suggestion, The Heart of Darkness. Soon they produce mounds of work, but all anonymously. While he can guess that, for example, the stories about the sex crimes come from the thug, while the stories about football come from the woman who always wears football kits, he cannot be sure.

Everything is going OK – including regular sex with Alicia – when Gregory turns up again. Gregory agrees to edit a collection of these writings, which Nicola agrees to publish. Of course, they do rather well but, at a literary party to celebrate the success, two things happen. Dr. Bentley turns up and, of course, identifies Gregory/Mike (though not publicly) and Gregory says that he is marrying Nicola. Of course, it all goes pear-shaped from thereon in, with Mike barely surviving and the hospital not surviving but you will have to read the book to find out how. What you can be sure of is that it will not be as you suspected, that everyone will have dubious motives and that the outcome will be discombobulated. But it is all huge fun.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Victor Gollancz