Title: The Storm at the Door
Author: Stefan Merrill Block
Release date: June 21, 2011
Publisher: Random House
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 3 out of 5
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Possible theme song: “Flagpole Sitta” by Harvey Danger
Short and sweet: A grandson pieces together the relationship between his grandparents, one of whom suffered bipolar disorder.
Long before Stefan Merrill Block was born, the marriage between his grandparents, Frederick and Katharine Merrill, was pushed to the breaking point. Frederick’s alcohol abuse and infidelity had wounded Katharine for years, but his manic depression took him too far one night. Katharine convinced the police to take him to a renowned mental hospital in Massachusetts instead of placing him under arrest.
Months pass and Frederick is not released; in fact, the doctors tell his wife, his condition seems to be worsening. Katharine finds herself drifting further from the scandal her husband has created, and she grapples with questions of whether he is mentally ill or brilliant—or both.
Now, decades later, their grandson wants to know exactly what happened during his grandfather’s long hospitalization. The Storm at the Door, Stefan’s fictionalized account of their relationship, explores the line between genius and madness and whether such a distinction can be made.
For years, Katharine struggled to tether Frederick to the ground during his manic episodes and to pull him from the dirt during his depression, “a fathomless depth over which they both had to work, laying tenuous ropes and gangplanks, to try to continue to navigate the world’s surface.” She questions whether their situation is a unique one, or whether “this was simply the truth of adult life, this unending project of keeping up appearances.”
Every adult relationship contains myriad secrets and compromises, but Katharine and Frederick’s seems built on them. They fell in love shortly before Frederick shipped out for World War II, and the hopes and illusions that they build in their months apart later form the foundation of their marriage:
“Across great distances, they had loved and mourned notions of each other. . . . They could not then have known that to love each other in the way they imagined required that distance.”
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Frederick clearly struggles with alcohol and, probably, sex addiction; even in the ‘60s, that would be reason enough for Katharine to leave him. Locking him up in a mental hospital, though, seems like an overreaction. But not much was known about manic depression then.
Over the last few decades, the stigma against bipolar disorder—and other behavioral and psychological conditions—has lessened greatly. Both Katharine and Frederick seriously question his sanity. And the doctors who oversee Frederick’s care—the experts upon whose word Frederick stays or goes—are convinced that his problems are more deep-seated than he lets on. For the most part, Katharine believes the doctors, but at times she questions their expertise:
“But isn’t this how indoctrination always works, an entire deferral of your own judgment to a higher authority, whom you are instructed not to question?”
Shlomi Schultz, one of the patients Frederick befriends in the hospital, is the shining accomplishment of the novel. He is compelling and enigmatic, and I was fascinated by the ties between language and schizophrenia that Block skillfully displays.
Schultz believes that the secret language only he can hear—the sounds so easily diagnosed as schizophrenia—is the pre-Babel language of his ancestors. Here the book takes on an almost magical realist element. Schultz’s pain at losing everyone he has ever loved is palpable, so a diagnosis of schizophrenia seems logical. But what if the doctors are wrong? What if there really is a language, as old as God, that he has been given in exchange for everything that has been taken from him?
In prose as ornamented as a Christmas tree, Block navigates between the reality of what happened to his grandparents and his imaginings about what happened between them. Though the narrative occasionally seems a little too slow-paced and overwrought, his insight into human nature is striking, as when Katharine observes the bridge parents construct to convey children to the adult world: “Most adult failures, Katharine believes, can be attributed to the failure of that conveyance, adults marooned at the age at which their parents failed them.”
Katharine reminds me, strangely, of the main character of Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere (my review here). Both are young women held captive by madmen, afraid of what will happen if they stay and even more afraid of what would happen if they left the men with such strong holds over them.
I was curious the entire time how the author and narrator of the novel, Stefan Merrill Block, would fit in to the narrative. It reminds me of Chekhov’s gun theory: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Though Merrill appears in the beginning and end of the narrative, he never has any significant role in the story aside from being the curious descendant of a man long gone. I wondered if perhaps the story would not have been stronger as a pure novel, without bringing in the grandson as narrator; an epilogue explaining that many elements of the story took place between the author’s grandparents might have sufficed.
However, I enjoyed the story that Block has captured of the post-war generation grasping for normalcy and happiness. Perhaps it is true, as Aristotle has said, “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.”
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