“Look, I know I’m crazy. I know that. You don’t have any reason to believe what I’m about to tell you[.]”
Disclosure: I received an ARC of Stay Crazy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The most important thing to note about Stay Crazy, of course, is that the protagonist is insane. Well, yes, of course. It says right in the blurb that she was discharged from a mental hospital. And yet, she is also at the center of a vast conspiracy. It would have been so easy to make this the story of someone who only appears to be insane, when they are in fact the only ones who see the truth. Most often when I see spec fic stories involving characters confined in mental wards or the like, the story is one of false imprisonment, and draws a sharp line between the POV character and all those other people, the real crazies.
Em is as real-crazy as they come. Despite her unflattering descriptions of her fellow patients, she explicitly sets herself among them, the other psychotics. The book is written in a very subjective and often claustrophobic first person narration, dragging the reader deep into Em’s periodic bouts of hallucination. It’s difficult to immediately determine, during each episode, whether is is delusional or merely trans-dimensional. The silver insects crawling over her boyfriend’s plate at the restaurant, the swallowing brown smoke at the bowling alley, even the TV psychologist’s hidden messages. Which of these are conspiracy, and which are artifacts of the mind?
Issues of representation and medical accuracy aside, what this atypical choice achieves is to make the reader feel as paranoid and uncertain as Em herself might be. Readers of SFF like myself are used to switching abruptly from one set of rules to another. The typical rules for a conspiracy story are, the more the other characters think you’re crazy, the closer to the truth you are. It’s rather like setting up an epic fantasy quest based on a prophecy given by a pathological liar — genre convention would have you believe everything she says, because of her role in the plot. But your critical mind forces you to examine every bit of detail for incongruities.
A running theme of Em’s personal journey is the isolation that comes with her disease, both her skewed perception of reality and the clinging social stigma. Side effects from her three medications also play a role. Add this to the alienation that’s almost native to being nineteen, and it leaves Em in an unenviable position. It also makes the supporting cast of the book especially critical. This consists mostly of Em’s family, her co-workers, her psychiatrist, and a short episode with a forgettable boyfriend named Kevin.
Most of these characters are well-meaning, but clueless, both qualities playing into Em’s loneliness in a way. Escodex, the trans-dimensional cop who directs her actions, is a chilly pragmatist whose concern is primarily for protecting his own dimension, his own people. Her sister Jackie is struggling with her own faith in God, to which Em is not terribly sympathetic. The manager of the Walmart-like department store where she works hires her with the best of intent, but has clearly underestimated how disabling her condition can be.
Em’s only true ally is Roger, the standoffish co-worker who the other employees warn her away from. Like Em, Roger’s mental illness separates him from the others, and makes him able to hear the trans-dimensional communications. He is ambivalent about Escodex from the start, but doesn’t scruple to reassure Em that he hears the voice, too. Although they’re not exactly friends, Roger is the only internal perspective Em has on the harrowing process of living with mental illness.
Diving deep into Em’s delusions makes for a trying reading experience. I found the book very hard to read at times. The narrative doesn’t cut the reader much slack for assuming, from years of watching science fiction or urban fantasy, that the delusion must be real. That the protagonist is special. That this is all for the best, and someday those who called her mad will thank her, unless she makes a noble sacrifice and eschews taking credit in favor of protecting the mundanes and their fragile minds.
Emmeline herself avoids putting together her various episodes, at least, anywhere but her own mind. Although she has regular contact with Escodex, and less so with Roger, she never brings up her suspicions about Wes Summersby or her mother being brain-washed. She never seeks advice in decoding his hidden messages, just keeps her certainty in their existence to herself instead of confronting it with the more verifiable insanity at the store. The same goes for her octopus machine, which is never subjected to an engineer’s scrutiny, as Escodex’s blueprints had been. In her mind everything is connected, or at least it is during her episodes.
When she decides to bring her sister on board, a decision mostly taken out of her hands, she tells her about Escodex and the suicides, but mentions nothing of the self-help DVDs or any of the other stuff. Other episodes are even more isolated in their specificity. They fade after she gets kicked out of a restaurant, loses a bowling match, finally gets the pink slip from Savertown USA. All of this serves to ensure that Em’s schizophrenia is never reduced to embellishment, but remains an integral and indeed defining feature of her character. For her, there is no happily ever after and no clean slate. Her happy ending comes in the form of rediscovering her lost empathy, for others and for herself.
Stay Crazy treads the common ground between science fiction, horror, and fantasy. It taps a common plot thread, the gap between the fantastical and the insane, but doesn’t scruple to twist convention for its own purpose. The persistent tragic undercurrent to both the setting and the characters keeps it grounded in a grim reality, without being overwhelmed by despair. That alone, in my estimation, makes it well worth a read.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.