Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Devilish Tricky, These Mind Games

Last week, for no apparent reason, Carolyn Crane started to follow me on Twitter.  Which is, of course, perfectly acceptable.  But then I remembered that I had her book Mind Games tucked away somewhere in the approximately 9 cubic feet of books on my TBR bench.  It just seemed rude not to read her 371 page novel if she's unaccountably willing to read my 140 character tweets.

There is so much I can't tell you about Mind Games, and preciously little I can.  Other than the obvious: read it, if you haven't already; it's a heady trip.  Justine Jones has debilitating hypochondria; she's convinced she's going to die of "vein star syndrome."  (Don't worry, all the medical conditions in the book sound a bit like side effects that the writers of the Colbert Report have rejected for their Prescott Pharmaceuticals plugs as not funny enough: clearly not real but suggestive of some hypothetical medical malady.)  She comes to the attention of the mysterious Sterling Packard, who offers her a "cure" for her condition.

It works, but at a price and not a monetary one.  Justine finds herself working for Packard but she has serious misgivings about the nature of the job.  She's charged with "injecting" her own neurosis into people predisposed to suffer from hypochondria.  These injections of fear and panic -- the titular mind games -- serve to disillusion those people in the world who feel entitled to destroy others and who get away with it.  These murderers and con artists, once disillusioned, go from feeling invincible to extreme panic and imbalance.  The specific disillusionment varies for each target.  Justine has colleagues, also working for Packard, who can "zing" targets with ennui, gambling or alcohol addictions, weltschmerz, and so forth.

The initial promise is that Justine, by administering these quanta of anxiety, can free herself from her own insanity.  And it all works just as it should  . . . until it gets too complicated to be described here.  So, go read the book.  And then you too can be awash with panic about how long we have to go before the next book in the series.  (See how Carolyn Crane has infected all of us with this panic?  More Mind Games. Bwa-haha...)

I had a profound reaction to this book for two reasons.  First, because I have the teeniest amount possible of mental acuity myself.  I "read" people.  No, nothing like The Mentalist.  I can't read minds or tell while blindfolded what object someone is holding up.  But on a relatively small amount of information, I can tell a lot about a person.  It's not that great an ability to have; learning to temper my remarks when a friend asks for advice is an on-going process, as is keeping my mouth shut when they haven't asked for my advice.

I need to say a couple things here.  First, I did nothing to acquire or hone this skill; it's the result of a Bad Childhood, the kind of upbringing that I've also learned people don't really want to know the details of.  Second, it ought to be an awesome skill to have in a lot of jobs, but again, not so much.  It ought to help me be a better writer and it's not quite having that effect.

All that is beside the point, except to explain why Mind Games totally blew my mind.  I had no trouble accepting the other-worldly elements, like DNA that produces a tofu-like mutation children can shape into whatever skill they most want, like telekinesis so that a toy just out of reach is suddenly close at hand.  Yup, I can buy that.

The hypochondria, which is real, was harder for me to understand.  One of the truly blissful side effects of a Bad Childhood is a relatively rational approach to medical ailments.  I get all the screening tests done because it's the right thing to do, but I have no particular fear I'll actually get cancer.  I have some faith that I front-loaded all the bad stuff I'll ever have to endure; it's blue skies & happiness (oh, and decades of therapy, of course) from here on out.

Here's the other thing about reading Mind Games.  Crane herself shifted in my perceptions.  It's a wonderful book -- good enough a debut novel that she transmogrified in my head from Nice Person on Twitter to A Real Author.  It was like an instantaneous Plexiglas shield sprang up between us; she was no longer someone dwelling on the same plane as I do.

This isn't a nice linear issue.  I don't want to write this sort of book, nor is it too hard to see how it was plotted and laid out.  I might even be able to find a tiny filament of fault somewhere, as if that would show me she's not really Harry Houdini while I'm still practicing with a magic kit purchased from an ad in the back of my comic book.  I suspect she has bad hair days, or gets grumpy just like the rest of us.  And who knows, maybe I write well too.

No, this is my mishegas, my insanity.  I have written earlier on the Reader-Author Barrier, and my experience with Mind Games is another variation on that theme.  Because I went from casual acquaintance on Twitter to reader, my perception of Carolyn Crane also changed.  She's now the author, and as such is entitled to some psychic distance from readers.  I tease my friends on Twitter (yes, I'll say it: I twit them) and they tease me back.  But I wouldn't contact an author -- even one with a book as good as Mind Games -- and presume to behave as if I know her.

I am not postulating some rule of reader etiquette, or authorial responsibility.  Because this is about inchoate judgments, it must surely vary from person to person.  I can imagine other ways for reader-bloggers to behave; this is just the way I choose for myself.  So I contacted Carolyn Crane privately to ask if it was okay to write about her as a person, and not just tangentially as the author of a book I was interested in.  She was extraordinarily gracious and had no qualms.  And I do know a lot of people who might be horrified that I would suggest an author have the opportunity to affect the content of my blog.

I acted from a selfish sense of my own comfort.  I would not be comfortable presuming that I could write about an author as a person -- even if all I know about her is that she got confused one day and is following the wrong Magdalen -- unless I knew her very well, or not at all.

It's in the gray area between "very well" and "not at all" that the moral conundrums arise.  That's another thing to be learned from Mind Games.


  1. I just recently saw an article which suggested there really is a link between mental health problems and extra mental powers, though admittedly not the kind Crane's written about in her novel:

    "Brain scans reveal striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with schizophrenia.

    Both groups lack important receptors used to filter and direct thought.

    It could be this uninhibited processing that allows creative people to "think outside the box", say experts from Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

    In some people, it leads to mental illness.

    But rather than a clear division, experts suspect a continuum, with some people having psychotic traits but few negative symptoms. [...]

    Creativity is known to be associated with an increased risk of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

    Similarly, people who have mental illness in their family have a higher chance of being creative."

  2. I finished MIND GAMES right before I left for BEA. Really enjoyed it!

  3. This does sound good. Authors can be nice people as well as good authors! So she's probably nice too in spite of her being a good writer. Doesn't seem fair does it?

    So glad heroines have the freedom to be bad and tortured in urban fantasy, less so in romance.

  4. Laura -- I wish there was a connection between mental illness and creativity: my writing might improve.

  5. This book blew me away in so many ways. I am in awe of Carolyn's writing and I am so anxious for the sequel in September.


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