Juliann Garey has written a great debut novel called "Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See" and I hate to tell you too much about it. Because part of what makes it so great is the way it unravels. How you have to figure it out in a way that eerily echoes how the protagonist is figuring things out, too. You don't really know what you're in for until you're in it waist-deep. By then, you might be asking yourself, what did I get myself into? But once you're in it, you can't look away. Ms. Garey's made it too compelling.
"TOO BRIGHT TO HEAR TOO LOUD TO SEE"
By Juliann Garey
Soho Press/Random House ($25).
Which, in my estimation, is a pretty brilliant way to tell a story about a guy with mental illness, in part because mental illness itself can be exactly that sneaky and insidious. Plus, if you knew it was a close-up look at a guy losing his grip, it might not necessarily make it to the top of your reading list.
It should, though, because this book is, among other things, wickedly funny.
Ms. Garey's protagonist, Greyson Todd, is a Hollywood insider, an agent turned studio executive with a great track record career-wise, and a hell of a gripping back story. Which is a good thing, because what we get is mostly Greyson's back story, recounted in flashbacks while he undergoes treatment for bipolar disorder in a psychiatric ward in New York.
If flashbacks sound dull, then let's call them something else. Let's call them vignettes, because they're anything but dull. The story we get, in snippets and threads, is the story of a man who abandons his life -- his wife, his child, his career -- in the grip of bipolar disorder, and sets off on a trip around the globe because he wants to and he can:
"I have to get out of here. Now. Where I go and what time I get there are largely irrelevant. I am never in the right place. The present, here, is just an anxious pit stop I make between memory (which is to say regret) and the dreadful anticipation of hoping there will be better but knowing it won't."
I'm not doing a good job of convincing you it's funny. But the funny lines will fall flat out of context and the best ones are off-color. What I can tell you is that Juliann Garey has written a truly great voice for the voice of Greyson Todd. It is a voice that pulls you in from the very beginning, so confident and smart, gorgeously articulate, cruelly self-aware. Here he is returning home to his wife and daughter after a day at the office as a movie studio bigwig:
"I use the front door less and less these days. Want the ritual welcoming of the hunter/breadwinner less and less. Instead, most nights I let myself in through the little gate that leads to the backyard. I desperately need a solitary hour to catch myself by the scruff of the neck and stuff myself back inside that hollow glad-handing shell. He is all style and glitter and fast-talking charm. I cannot stand to be inside him when he does it. Now, the best I can do is stand next to him and watch."
Still not funny. You'll just have to take my word for it.
But I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that this savagely unfiltered narrator's descent into worsening untreated mental illness is also scary, creepy and uncomfortable, not least of all because Greyson Todd is so utterly human and not a whole lot different from people you know, and perhaps eerily similar. Which is one of the things that makes bipolar disorder such a hard thing to look at. Which is why this book is so great. Juliann Garey gets right up inside the disease and, with the sheer force of her talent, she makes us want to look. And she makes us laugh. And she helps us understand and feel compassion.
Which is about the most I could ask of any book.
Judy Wertheimer is a writer living in Squirrel Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A Conversation with Juliann Garey
Los Angeles native Juliann Garey lives in New York and works as a screenwriter and journalist. Judy Wertheimer spoke over Skype with her from her home in New York. Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity.
Judy Wertheimer: Let me start by telling you that I loved your book. I thought it was amazing.
Juliann Garey: Thank you.
JW: I didn't know anything about it when I came to it, which is by design because I like to be surprised. It took some figuring out then as to what was happening with the electroshock treatment and the flashbacks. But in the end, I thought the way that you structured it made perfect sense. And I was wondering if you could talk to me about how you arrived at that structure.
JG: [laughs] With great difficulty. First of all, the book took a long, long time to write ... This book started as a short story in the first fiction class I ever took in my whole life, and then it got put away for years before it became anything else. So, from the time it was a short story until the time it was published was seven years. I worked on it steadily probably for the last two or three years but really, beginning to end, seven years. I did not have a structure until year five and I really didn't know -- I had all these pieces. I had these three different timelines. I tried a chronological structure. It didn't work. ... I didn't know what I was going to do.
And then, bipolar disorder runs in my family. Mental illness runs on both sides of my family. We are all basically crazy. [laughs]
JW: That's generous of you to share [laughs]. I wasn't going to ask you that because I was thinking, if I was reading a book about a one-legged man, I wouldn't ask [the author] if he had one leg. So that felt really like stepping over the line for me to ask you that. But I appreciate your volunteering it because I was curious, because your book was so insightful. I thought how else do you understand it so well? So, I appreciate that.
JG: Well, at this point, I am sort of out of the closet. I mean, I have bipolar disorder. There's like-he wasn't diagnosed but there's a good chance that my father had at least medication-induced mania. He committed suicide. There have been five suicides in two generations in my family. So it's pretty clear that there's a genetic component.
And though I don't think he was bipolar his entire life, I think that the medication that he took near the end of his life induced a mania, which probably led to his suicide. So it's something that clearly I was interested in writing about. And ultimately, I was hospitalized in 2009 and I had tried pretty much every drug. ... By then, I had treatment-resistant bipolar disorder and had tried pretty much everything every doctor could think of and the doctor I was seeing insisted that I needed ECT [electroconvulsive therapy].
I really didn't want to do that because being a writer, I was worried about memory issues and my memory is terrible enough as it is. And it turns out that I was rejected because the kind of bipolar disorder I have is called ultra-rapid cycling and it just changes too quickly, and ECT wouldn't have been helpful.
But while I was in the hospital, I did observe a lot of patients who were having ECT. And a couple of weeks after I got out of the hospital, I was in a yoga class and it just suddenly dawned on me that this would be a good structure for the novel and I tried it and it seemed to suddenly be a much more organic structure for the novel than trying to do it in a linear way, that this fragmented structure worked much more naturally and organically for the novel.
JW: I thought it made so much sense just because it sort of comes to the reader in pieces. ... You have to figure it out, which kind of felt to me almost like what might be happening when you are bipolar ...
JG: ... That is the experience. It is a very fragmenting experience when you're going through it. And I wanted to get that across.
JW: Talk to me about your protagonist, Greyson Todd. He's such a great character. Where did he come from?
JG: Gosh. He is an amalgamation of a lot of things. A lot of what he felt, a lot of what he went through over the course of the book is what I was going through over the course of this sort of seven-year episode of bipolar disorder that I had that doctors couldn't figure out how to stabilize. So, when I had a really manic episode, I wrote a really manic scene that he was -- a period that he was going through. When I was really depressed, I wrote Greyson really depressed.
I started out writing Greyson as a child, and that was very, very loosely based on what I imagined my father's childhood to have been like. But my father died when I was 16 and I really didn't know very much about his childhood.
So the structure of [Greyson's] family is based on the real structure of [my father's] family. I mean the same number of siblings and basically, where they lived and that kind of thing. But his father, my grandfather, wasn't that horrible person and where that kind of spun off into is really fiction. But then I kind of imagined what would that boy, having grown up in that family and with that father, what kind of man would he turn into?
JW: It was obviously very dark and scary and raw, but I also thought it was really funny in places.
JG: I was hoping. [laughing] I was hoping.
JW: Well, I have to say, I never read other reviews before I write my own review just because I don't want to be influenced, obviously. But then after I wrote my review, I went back just to-searching for different pieces of information or whatever, and I glimpsed a couple other reviews, and everyone's talking about how dark, and intense, raw, all that. And, of course, it is all that, but I didn't see anybody talk about the fact that it was funny. And I thought, 'Wait, it was supposed to be funny, wasn't it?' I thought it was so funny. I was laughing out loud.
JG: Thank you [laughing]. I have a really dark sense of humor, but I hoped that it was, that it came across. For better or worse, that's what I think is funny.
JW: I thought it was hilarious.
JG: It was intended to be funny. I just think that there are some people who appreciate the darker sense of humor and others who just don't. [laughing]
JW: I guess that must be the case. You took Greyson to Rome, Israel, Santiago, Thailand, and Uganda, and it was really convincing how you wrote about those places, and I was wondering if you actually went there, if you traveled there before you wrote about them.
JG: Very few of those places. Some of them I've been to. I've been to the Negev in Israel. I was in Rome a long time ago. But the other places I just did a tremendous amount of research on, which I love doing. Research is a great way to procrastinate. And I procrastinated and researched in great detail. And I interviewed friends, men, who had been to sex shows in Bangkok. And I just, I did a lot of research.
I love that part of the process because it really does give you something very specific to write about. And I guess that's partly the journalist in me. I feel like I need to have something -- I can't make it all up. There's got to be something that is really true, to put the fictional characters in a very real setting.
JW: Well, that's really impressive that you hadn't been to Thailand or Uganda, because that felt very convincing, very authentic.
I read in your bio that you've written for magazines. You've written TV pilots and screenplays. You've taught creative writing, you've edited non-fiction anthologies. And I was wondering, with so many creative outlets, why, why did you want to do this book? Obviously, you started a long time ago. Why was it important to you to finish it?
JG: There was just something about this character that really became very much a part of my inner life, which was not always a great thing. ??? I was not exactly going through a terrific period while I was writing it, and I'm not sure whether he was the cause or part of the solution [laughs] but I felt very close to him.
And so a lot of him is me, too. Not that I wanted to necessarily desert my family, but I just felt very close to him and his voice. And it was really sort of the most important thing to me to see it through to the end. When I started, I really didn't think that I was going to write a novel. It took me two or three years before I even used the n-word. ... Certainly, I didn't set out to do that. But it was really important to me that this story have a beginning, middle and an end.
JW: How has it been received since it came out?
JG: So far, it's been really pretty well-received. I don't know how that will translate into sales. I mean literary fiction about a bipolar studio executive, I'm not sure exactly how commercial that is. [laughter]
JW: How did you know everything you knew about Hollywood and all that? Where did that come from?
JG: I grew up in West Los Angeles. I went to Beverly Hills High School, which is sort of like the company town school for Hollywood. My father was an entertainment lawyer. So, I grew up in and around the whole scene. And especially, the stuff written in the '70s, that's when I grew up. And a lot of that stuff is kind of pulled from childhood memories.
My father represented a bunch of actors and directors and people who were kind of [barking in background] -- sorry, that's my dog -- kind of at the forefront of Hollywood moviemaking in the '70s, like Francis Ford Coppola and people like that. So, I know about it that way.
JW: Wow. Sounds like for better and for worse, you had a lot of material to work with.
JG: Yeah, I had a lot of material.
JW: Well, like I said, I just thought it was great. I'm going try to sell some books for you in Pittsburgh.