Book Review of Wally Lamb’s I know this Much is True: The Best of Psychological Fiction

Wally Lamb’s second novel, I know this much is true, sets the bar very high for contemporary psychological fiction. Today’s readers have little patience with this genre. The best-known authors of psychological fiction, Henry James and Marcel Proust, have become relegated to the pages of literary history. Sure, we regard them as giants in the literary canon. But from that to actually having the patience to read them… Few contemporary readers take the time to appreciate all the nuances of James’ minute descriptions of gestures, gazes, hidden undercurrents and how each movement reflects the depth of human feelings and desires. Yet fewer take the time to follow all of Proust’s minute analyses of human motivations and page-long, tortuous sentences.

In his first two novels, Wally Lamb makes this now arcane genre palatable to contemporary readers. “I know this Much is True” traces the lives of two twin brothers: the narrator, Dominick Birdsey, an English teacher who has suffered through a troubled family life, an abusive stepfather, a failing marriage, a pathological relationship with his younger girlfriend (and her lover), and, above all, the burden and duty of taking care of Thomas, his fraternal twin who develops paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 19.

This novel is a psychological tour-de-force, both in its vivid characterizations (even Dominick’s sleazy friend and foil, Leo, is completely believable) and in its detailed descriptions of mental illness and how it affects both the individual who suffers from it and those who care about him. To describe mental illness in a way mainstream readers have the patience to read is no easy task.  Lamb does a masterful job of giving us a multidimensional picture of paranoid schizophrenia both from within Thomas’ deteriorating mental state and from without. He describes not also Thomas’s suffering but also Dominick’s struggles to save him from the illness that overtakes his life and protect him from the reactions of others. By showing us a before and after schizophrenia picture of Thomas, we can relate to him as a human being and follow the painful challenges he and his family face in dealing with his mental illness. Finally, Lamb’s style–accessible yet sophisticated–renders the lost genre of “psychological fiction” what it really should be: mainstream literature of the highest caliber.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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