facebook search twitter close-envelope printer web-link close
read on

How Jean Rhys cured my crying jags

Essay | 15 minute read
Tobias McCorkell explains how returning to the the novels of the past helped him find a universality in pain and work his way through depression and anxiety

For the past two years, I’ve suffered from crying jags. As anyone who has ever wept in public knows, this is hugely embarrassing. As a man, this is not only hugely embarrassing, but emasculating as well, for it breaks one of the principle male precepts: real men don’t cry.

Six months after submitting my PhD (and still waiting to discover my result), with a nine-year relationship on the brink of collapse, and for the first time out from under the (meagre) safety net my academic institution provided, I found myself trying to make ends meet as a freelance writer and sessional tutor. In the turbulence of that time, something which had previously been intact inside of me dislodged, and I found that I had become a ‘crier’. Suddenly, anything and everything could set me off.

At the time, I’d taken a hot seat in an office building in the Central Business District in Melbourne in order to get out of my flat and complete the manuscript for a book I would publish pseudonymously. (It was a light affair, a combination of non-fiction and humour, and I’d been paid to write 20,000 words of copy that would be accompanied by some neat illustrations. It has not sold well.) During this time, however, I found that I couldn’t make it through a day without a sudden outburst of tears. And so, at lunchtimes, I would take an hour to roam the city blocks crying behind a large pair of sunglasses. For anyone who noticed me, and I feel sure people did, I must’ve been quite the sight: some macabre combination between an Australian Patrick Bateman and Moaning Myrtle. Put simply: I was cracking up.

In hindsight, it’s quite obvious that with the various financial, emotional and creative pressures I faced, added to that the sheer exhaustion that had resulted from five years battling an unruly dissertation, I was having a nervous breakdown. But these things are only so simple in hindsight. As I roamed the footpath behind my shades, I felt like a bit of a sham. In fact, when I looked at my life, there wasn’t much in it anymore: along with activities, games and hobbies (and a handful of friendships), I’d given up on so many great pleasures, and I’d stopped reading books. I was an author and creative writing tutor, but I couldn’t have told anyone, had they asked, when the last time was I’d read a book for pleasure. That didn’t happen anymore.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

Wind the clock forward nine months from that time and my decade-long relationship has come to its inevitable end. Three more weeks later, it’s Christmas and I’ve moved into my mother’s house while my partner employs the help of a friend to clear out of the flat. I’m lying in my teenage bed in charge of the untameable rescue dog we share together (a bid to save the relationship that clearly hasn’t worked), and so, with little to do, and desperate to distract myself from the humiliating circumstances I find myself in, I make a vow to return to at least one former pursuit: I choose reading.

It’s now, as I write this, been nineteen months since the crying jags first started and twelve months since my breakup. In the last year, I’ve had two publishers renege on contracts at the last minute, while in the very act of drafting them up (one tells me the US distributor has lost faith in projected sales; the other informs me the marketing department, on second thoughts, cannot figure out how to market the title, leaving me wondering what exactly marketing departments within publishing houses are actually for… ). Compounding the work frustrations, I’ve gone ahead and fallen madly in love with someone who has gone on to break my heart. And I’ve turned thirty…

Ageing really doesn’t bother me much, though I’ve noticed some bracing signs of the degeneration to come: whenever seated in a low-slung chair for periods longer than ten minutes my hip has the propensity to lock into a spasm or cramp. To avoid such issues the application of a pillow onto said chair is now a requirement, as it elevates my angry hip; my widow’s peak is peaking; the caffeine and nicotine have caught up with my teeth; and on aggressively hot days (and they are all aggressively hot when you’re a redhead) I find it’s best to apply a thin smear of anti-chaff cream onto my inner thighs before leaving the house. And if it’s not too much of an overshare, recent dietary experiments have had certain unwarranted effects. I wasn’t right to think of vegetarians as wimps before failing to become one; it’s apparent to me now they’re of heartier constitutions than my own. Such unwarranted (yes, gastric, biological, and other) effects have only come to put me in mind of the many unwanted (gastric, biological, other) problems I will need to contend with somewhere down the line; and yet further down this same line, I can hear them saying, ‘Could someone wheel Mr McCorkell back into the shade?’

But what has any of this to do with reading? Well, I’m almost there …

In these last twelve, bracing, months, I’ve read 67 books. I started with Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, then it was Leila Silmani’s Lullaby, then The Hunter by Julia Leigh, Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi, Rod Jones’s Julia Paradise, the Patrick Melrose series, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Tim Winton’s Breath, Catherine Texier’s Breakup, William Maxwell, Nigel Balchin, Milan Kundera, Mavis Gallant, and on and on it went. Suddenly, once I started reading books again, I couldn’t stop. It was as if the entire body of literature, like a packed auditorium, had stood up all at once and announced itself to me, each writer calling their name off a roll. And pretty soon, something else started coming into focus. My life started to change…

First, it was a noticeable break in habits: TV watching went away, I no longer wanted screen-based distractions: no social media, no late-night movie marathons, no YouTube: just books, just reading. What followed was a sense of calm, a better mood, and slowly, my identity started to solidify, to clarify – my identity reordering itself around reading. But my identity, who I was, began to emerge in harmony with what I was reading, too. And it’s here, in this little nook where literature and one’s identity intersects, that I find myself compelled to write this very article.

Because we live in the world we do, what we understand mostly comes to us via external forces. Where literature is concerned, institutional and curriculum bias dictates the ‘great’ novels and novelists, and women writers are frequently overlooked (as well as many other marginalised writers, we’re beginning to acknowledge). In the current era, though, what isn’t PC (and dictated by middle-class taste and values) will also be overlooked as we line our streets with gastro pubs and flat-white providers. And in such an environment a true appreciation for literature will be neutered.

When I began reading again, I felt compelled to read what I hadn’t before, what I’d overlooked thanks to institutional or personal bias. To push myself, in other words, and to find the kinds of books few people were talking about now. With a little research and with much help from the Backlisted podcast, I found three authors/ novels that I can adamantly confess changed my life and reinvigorated all my passion for it.

Astute readers may have picked up on the first sections being something of a homage to Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (the reason for so many parentheses; plus, the cribbed joke that sees me in a wheelchair as an old man). Make of it what you will, but of all the books I read this past year I found Heller’s wholly politically incorrect 600-page soliloquy/ monologue/ rant/ second novel the most thoroughly revitalising and, yes, entirely necessary book right in this moment.

It might seem as if this novel is a far cry from my other two choices – Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight and Anita Brookner’s Look At Me – but all three aren’t so different upon close inspection. They all deal with an extreme end of a person’s state of isolation and disconnection (I could relate). They are all brutally honest and despairing in their outlook (I could relate). And they do not pander to the reader with ‘likable’ characters (thank God!).

Nor are they ‘fun’ books, which is precisely what makes them so great. (Although, I would also argue quite urgently that there is a gloriously perverse fun to be had in the despair Heller offers – the uncomfortable yet tantalising front row at the world’s most monstrous stand-up performance. Do you dare stay in your seat?)

I can’t, of course, endorse or even ‘like’ Bob Slocum, because he’s racist and misogynist and a philanderer and somebody who admits to disliking his own kids (why am I grinning as I type this?)… but what I like about Heller’s book and Slocum’s voice in general has nothing to do with what’s ‘bad’ about the character, because what’s bad about the character isn’t what this book’s about. It’s about fear. Expressly, a brand of male fear that is once hateful and vulnerable and crippling, the very kind of suppressed fear that I’d argue has had an impact on our socio-political landscape in the last few years… This fear is teased out by Heller and, vibrantly and triumphantly, brought to the surface in a spellbinding display of artistic and technical control. And because Heller goes there, I have to go there, and this is what’s crucial about the book: you are never off the hook. To this end, Something Happened, through its uncompromisingly politically incorrect and nuanced aggression, does the kind of socially progressive work a more PC narrative could never do, because it’s there to incite you and challenge you and provoke you into facing up to yourself.

Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash

If it’s difficult to imagine Something Happened being published today (impossible, in fact), then it’s also difficult to imagine Jean Rhys thriving in the current landscape either. In honesty, I’d read Rhys before as an undergraduate, and she’d had more of an impact on my writing than I’d ever admitted to. I hadn’t snubbed her when stating my influences as a young man because she was a woman; worse, I’d just forgotten her. Her novels were slight and didn’t really fit the aesthetic I’d assumed was my own (a friend I’d not considered a friend because she wasn’t in my immediate ‘group’). I’d been trying to write a gritty novel about going to bars and clubs and having terrifying sexual encounters while intoxicated that left me flat and despondent (I was 19, this was the milieu) and had thought the likes of Irvine Welsh and Bret Easton Ellis were the examples to follow.

But returning to Good Morning, Midnight, it’s apparent how much better Rhys tackles these themes than ‘the boys’. Rhys’ women (in the early novels – perhaps I should call them her ‘Paris novels’?) are frightening and frustrating to the reader, none more so than Sophia Jansen. These women are people who cannot (or will not?) get their shit together. And in a period of excessive drinking as I wandered through my life despondent and incapable of getting my shit together, here was another book raising my hackles and driving me toward an uncomfortable place: For fuck’s sake Sophia, just put that drink down, just make a decision, stop being you! Sometimes I was saying this to the novel; mostly, I was saying it to myself.

Rhys is most important to me, though, for what she has to say about writing fiction. In David Plante’s memoir Difficult Women, Rhys has this to say to the author: ‘Listen to me. I want to tell you something very important. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake. It is important. Nothing else is important.’

Like Heller, Rhys is uncompromising in her vision, both in fiction and in the real world, and what I was learning as a person and as a writer and as a reader was to confront myself, to be uncompromising in my approach, to go ever deeper.

And so, who was I? And what was going on in the turbulence of this transitory phase in my life? I had thought, rather naively and rather foolishly, perhaps all too male-ly, that as a single thirty-year-old and small-time success in my industry, bachelordom would involve a little more (and a lot more sex) than sitting about in my flat reading novels. But as it’s turned out I’m a lot more Bridget Jones than I am Hugh Hefner.

It wasn’t until I came upon Anita Brookner (and Frances Hinton, the protagonist of Look At Me) that the journey I’d started upon when I made the decision to return to reading, on that teenage bed in my mother’s house that bleak Christmas, came to fruition.

There’s much sadness in Look At Me, real sadness. And there is ‘coldness’ and ‘bitterness’ and ‘loneliness’, too. All words we hate. And idiots will call Frances Hinton a ‘spinster’, because it’s convenient to. But on cold nights, alone in my flat, drinking stout and writing, I was both mesmerised and haunted by this book. It took me months to read because I couldn’t get through two pages without blubbing, and so for long stretches it remained a black talisman on my coffee table. But nor would I return my library copy either, because I understood intuitively that what was inside those pages was perhaps a Rosetta Stone that might just make sense of my problems despite my discomfort.

Brookner never stoops to making Frances an outright ‘victim’, despite how convenient that would be. Frances has strong opinions and can even be harsh in her appraisals of other people, despite being seemingly frail, which renders her more like a person than a ‘character’. And her humiliations are often demonstrations of her resilience and strength than of victimisation. She is someone for whom life has passed over in a way she’s cognisant of and able to comprehend, and her awareness and understanding of her circumstances only makes this the more devastating and distressing. But! The reason Frances can endure her humiliations is because she has grit and a backbone, and she can shoulder the burden of her loneliness in the face of wanting more for herself.

It’s okay to be this fucking miserable, the novel says, and it may not get better either, but you can, and you will, survive. And, importantly, you can write. There’s always ‘the lake’ …

The books I’ve come to love, that have nursed me through my own minor humiliations, embody almost everything we might reasonably want to run away from. The very things we don’t want to see or know or confront. But reading, and the cure it may supply, when one has committed to it, is a deeper level of understanding of the world and of ourselves through what can be both an immensely pleasurable and painful engagement with the art of literature.

The voices of Heller/ Slocum and Rhys/ Jansen and Brookner/ Hinton don’t tell me everything will be all right. Rather, they say, ‘This once happened to me, too’ or ‘I’ve felt that way before’. Which, really, is all I need. More than reassuring me, this message contributes to making me a more active participant in my own life, helping me repurpose the events and the pain in that life. My bad feelings aren’t my bad feelings, they’re universal, and as a writer they’re also fuel, ammunition, material, which isn’t to undermine or diminish them, but to elevate them by making them useful.

Art makes sense (to me, at least) of what to do with one’s thoughts and emotions, because art makes further meaning of them in aesthetic terms. This is the beauty of literature and, by extension, the beauty of reading, which I now maintain is a creative act and not the passive pursuit it is often misunderstood as being, and that for it to work most effectively it requires a commitment to this act.

Perhaps Ms Rhys was misguided to propose we don’t matter, that it’s the lake that matters. Maybe this is deluded, a cop out, a way of avoiding reality by going into art. But I don’t think so, not when you take into account that for an author, going further into their art – evaluating it over the worth of their own life – forces them to confront their own experiences more frequently than the average person, to sit with those experiences and unpack them and make more of them. It’s an awful thing to write a deeply personal novel, knowing each morning, possibly for years, you’ll wake up to face your ghosts and ghoulies – it ain’t much fun, I can assure anyone who hasn’t tried. And the same goes for reading anything that might at first be ‘difficult’ (emotionally, I mean). But the reward is worth it. The reward is freedom and knowledge.

Rhys’ sentiment represents a total, eclipsing freedom, despite those realities of a writing life I’ve just outlined. To commit to the lake, to suggest it’s all that matters, is true liberation – it’s to live and to finally, maybe, understand. Readers ought to commit to that lake. It’s a cure, I know; the crying jags have stopped.

Want more great Boundless essays in your inbox every Sunday? Sign up to the free, weekly newsletter, here