Alex Pheby’s Playthings is an Easily-Summarized Story and Nearly Impossible to Summarize Experience

PlaythingsNot often does a book remind one of both Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Ellis’ American Psycho, but here we are: immersed in compelling minutiae. Alex Pheby’s Playthings is simultaneously unsettling and fascinating, tragic and hilarious, the sort of novel with an easily-summarized story but a nearly impossible to summarize experience.

Playthings tells the (based on a) true story of Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge slipping into psychosis. He’s aware of what’s happening to him, for the most part, though he’s uncertain how much of his experience is due to his illness – what can be trusted, and what cannot. Although Schreber’s illness famously manifested in an eclectic assortment of behaviours and perceptions, Pheby wisely chooses not to dwell in the more salacious of these, focusing instead on Schreber’s confounding sense that the world and the people around him are somehow not real. His is an extreme example of questions that enter everyone’s minds at least once in life. Am I living in a dream? Is any of this real?

Pheby is hardly the first person to write about Schreber’s story – aside from Schreber’s own writing, such celebrity thinkers as Lacan and Freud also wrote about his case – but to my knowledge he’s the first to write about Schreber so intimately. The story is, here, neither a mere case nor a puzzle to be pondered, and the man himself is not objectified except by himself. Pheby’s decision to bring us into Schreber’s mind in the third-person rather than first cleverly forces us to experience a man’s growing alienation from his own selfhood, his own experience. From the first chapter onward, we are in Schreber’s mind with him – uncertain, paranoid, hyper-focused yet paradoxically distractible.

As I was treated to Schreber’s obsessive observations and ruminations about even the smallest details of the world around him, I couldn’t help but think pf Patrick Bateman’s fixation on everyday banalities in American Psycho, and of the Narrator in Remembrance. As in Proust’s celebrated work, Pheby shows us the unpredictable cascades of associations and memories associated with seemingly every sight, sound, taste and smell that Schreber encounters – the way a mind can veer from one topic to another through paths and triggers nearly impossible to predict.

Pheby’s novel shines not only in the choices made regarding presentation and structure, however, but more so for the astonishingly clear, uncluttered, and direct manner in which everything is laid out. His prose belongs in the mid 20th century in its lean efficiency. And like the masters of lean prose from decades ago (think Cormac McCarthy – only with articles and punctuation), Pheby’s clarity can be deceptive, leading the reader to expect something straight forward only to encounter surprising complexity.

Schreber’s story, while not a happy one, is surely captivating. To encounter, to become immersed in, Playthings is to reflect on our assumptions about experience and perception and memory and reality itself, in wholly new ways – not abstract, but anchored in the experiences of a breathing human being living an unusual life.