Creating an Illusion of Reality in Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet
By Eleanor Bowskill, Victoria Bromley, Daisy Ward and Sarah Rosemary Lydon
The Booker Prize-longlisted novel Case Study is another smash hit for publisher Saraband, an accomplished independent press centred around authors with a keen interest in their hometowns' historical and cultural heritage. Graeme Macrae Burnet's fourth novel, the biographical account of fictional psychoanalyst Collins Braithwaite, is another accolade following his first novel His Bloody Project which made the shortlist six years prior.
Case Study presents a collection of six notebooks which once belonged to a pseudo-patient of Braithwaite who visited him under the alias of Rebecca Smyth. These notebooks offer the first-person account of an unnamed young woman, creating parallels with the narrator from Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, who's from a comfortable middle-class background and whose older sister has recently died from suicide. She has reason to believe that the notorious psychotherapist is to blame for her sister's death and soon books herself a consultation to discover the truth. In the hopes of gaining notoriety in the psychiatric field, Braithwaite underwent a brief mentorship under R. D. Laing, whom he would later accuse of plagiarism. Forced to explore a more unorthodox path, Braithwaite, whom Burnet described as "a radical, interesting thinker," establishes a therapist practice that boasts an impressive roster of famous clients until his inherent egoism soon undermines his success.
Our conversation with Burnet began with the abrupt realisation that none of the principal characters novelised throughout Case Study had any basis in objective reality. In other words, they were not real in the sense that the creative nonfiction genre had led us to believe. Perhaps to spare our embarrassment, Burnet took this blunder as a compliment to the book, although it would make his authorial role quite small. Moreover, this reaction is not one he is unfamiliar with. His Bloody Project has a similar set-up: the author claims to have found the documents in question that are later revealed to be a work of fiction. As a result, when he attended book groups and promotional events for the book, the first question was: "Did it really happen?"
From the outset of the biographical sections, the reader becomes aware that Burnet has done copious amounts of research about Braithwaite, evidenced by a blog post the author had written a few years prior. Not only is this article publicly available, but, by Burnet's own admission, "almost everybody who reads the book googles Braithwaite." Indeed, this outcome appears intentional, given his frequent employment of "literary journalism" techniques to give the impression that such a person could and did exist. From his interactions with "other real people, in real locations" accompanied with explicit references to his (fictional) works, Burnet has managed to create "an illusion of reality.”
We then questioned Burnet on his decision to present the journal entries alongside a preface and various authorial interventions rather than in a more conventional format. He explained that much of his stylistic inspiration derives from 19th century novel techniques, citing the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins and Daniel Defoe. With Case Study, he wanted to create tension between "the naive narration of the female character" and his biographical account of someone that turns out to be quite dangerous. The result is a knowledgeable reader that can relate some of Braithwaite's ideas to events taking place in the narrative present whilst recognising that our narrator may be getting "a little bit out of her depth."
Our conversation then progressed to discuss the intentions and potential ways other readers may dissect and find meaning in the book, to which Burnet replied: "I try not to intend anything." While this goes against everything we were taught from our literature teachers about unearthing the author's intentions, Burnet is an exception where he prefers people "to interpret it in their own way" and that he's "not interested in telling people how to think." As a reader, he's "not interested" in what other writers intend from their novels. It's the reader's relationship with the text that Burnet finds the most important. He found the idea of figuring out what a writer was trying to say "bizarre" and that Twitter is the best place to find out his thoughts rather than reading his novel.
To conclude our discussion, we turned to the positioning of books in bookshops and the privilege of prize nominations growing your audience. Having been a bookseller himself, Burnet "knows how important it is to be on the table in the front of the store" on two-for-one offers or the exposure of the cover face up in easy reach. He admitted that his book-buying habits are similar to many of us in that a "nice cover" can tempt him. Prize nominations often encourage readers to discover new titles, which can skyrocket sales from a few hundred into hundreds of thousands, as was the case for Burnet's debut novel His Bloody Project. The book itself doesn't change, "it's the same book, but more people discover it. No one buys a book they've never heard of."