Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Self-Help Superhero Style - "From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain"

Minister Faust is at it again.
Three years ago the Edmonton, Alberta author unleashed his hilarious, frightening and poignant “The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad” upon the speculative fiction scene. It was an epic tale of two regular guys with big dreams trying to understand their lives and come to grips with their relationships with each other and those around them, and who, along the way, just happen to stumble into the roles of superheroes as they’re thrust into an adventure that would make Jack Burton or Indiana Jones think about throwing in the towel.
Now Faust spins us a different yarn: that of superheroes cast into the relatively normal realm of people in need of counseling… with a civil war thrown in for good measure. And it’s all taken “From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain”.
I’ll whole-heartedly admit that I couldn’t get into Faust’s latest book fast enough when it hit the shelves last month. And it didn’t disappoint. “From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain” tickles the funnybone even as it “punches you in the soul” (to borrow from Faust – and his sister). True, the city of Los Ditkos and its alternate version of Earth are populated with “hyperhominids” who, on the face of it, are often so silly in their names, costumes and powers that they should be rubbing shoulders with The Tick, the Mystery Men or the denizens of the old Normal Man comic. But this book isn’t just a 387 page comic. Rather, in true comic fashion, it’s a crossover. It’s a collision of the comic with popular, flavour-of-the-week self-help books (or “self-hurt books” as an old friend of mine once wryly observed), and more subtly, it’s very much a Shakespearean tragedy.
Presented as a self-help book written by Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman (foremost psychiatrist for the extraordinarily abled, headquartered at her Hyper Potentiality Clinic) for superheroes battling psychological and existential issues, the story introduces us to a group of ubermensch tossed into group therapy by their organization, the FOOJ (Fantastic Order of Justice), in a last-ditch effort to exorcise their disruptive behavioral traits. To make matters worse, one of their most respected allies has been murdered, they’re at the centre of a criminal and political plot whirling towards a civil war among superhumans, and one of them is the arch-villain behind it all.
There are a lot of reasons why this novel excels with all the force of a spandex-clad, genetically-enhanced vigilante.
The heroes themselves are brilliant caricatures of classic pop culture stereotypes: the Super Man, the angry black man, the cut-throat industrialist, the frosty goddess, the jive-talking hipster and the pop-star airhead. But while it’s fun to laugh at their flaws, there is something sympathetic about their suffering. Despite the psychobabble labels slapped on them and the supernatural means that they came about, these people’s problems (like substance abuse, relationship issues, coming to grips with sexuality) are very real and very common.
And yet that’s not enough to propel these people (and the story) beyond the comic book level. What’s more interesting than the details of their alleged conditions or the roots of their personal pains, is the decisions they make outside of the therapy sessions that result from the fundamental natures of their personalities, rather than from their mental illnesses or social defects. It may seem clumsily obvious to state that the book would not have ended the way it does if the heroes’ personalities were not fundamentally predisposed to make the decisions they do. If some would have been less narcissistic or distracted or petty the balance of power might have shifted, if personal ambitions and grudges had not led to brinksmanship and scheming, and most tragically, if the person cast as the canary-in-the-coal-mine was less of a boy-who-cried-wolf, more would have paid attention to the warnings and evidence and the slaughter of the civil war might not have happened. But as much as these people live in a fantasy world of super powers, these are the very flaws that make their actions inevitable despite the tantalizing hope of something better, making them three-dimensional humans and making the novel a work of substance.
But of all the characters in Faust’s novel, it is the narrator herself, the “author” of the “notebooks”, Dr. Brain, who really gets inside the reader’s head. She is more worthy of study than her self-help book.
Faust takes us down a winding, contradictory track over the course of this novel in his portrayal of Dr. Brain. The reader is at times suspicious of her, in agreement, forgiving, dismissive and unsettled. And it is this difficulty in pinning her down, in labeling her the way she labels others, that makes the doctor human and dangerous.
Right off the bat, this character is overtly sinister because of her name: Eva Brain-Silverman, generally shortened to either Dr. Brain or Eva Brain. Eva Brain being disturbingly (and deliberately) close to the monicker of Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun. The Silverman part of the last name may initially take the edge off, but the sourness of the Nazi connotation never goes away. Dr. Brain sounding like the tag of some mad scientist from an over-the-top 50’s sci-fi flick about giant beerbugs manufactured in a lab to corner the market on pilsner; reminiscent also of “The Brain”, an intellectually-enhanced lab mouse bent on world domination (from “Pinky & The Brain” by Spielberg’s crew – one of the best cartoons ever). “Dr. Brain”, as a title, also has an elitist ring to it, as though the person possessing the name were trying to put herself in a superior, judgmental position above others – which Eva Brain does as she probes and evaluates her subjects.
Dr. Brain’s job also imbues her with a fair share of untrustworthiness. In general, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, therapists and others in the mental health field are, in fact, trustworthy and do an admirably job assisting people in overcoming their emotional challenges. But Dr. Brain isn’t some clinician in a hospital psychiatric ward or a dedicated school counselor. No, she’s a mover and shaker and outright promoter of psychological quick-fixes in the cult of therapy that’s latched itself onto western culture in recent decades, a fad-book-of-the-week and live-analysis-on-TV movement that’s cheapened the image of legitimate practitioners.
More to the point, Brain’s professionalism is questionable at best. She is all cold intellectual dissection and no empathy as she badgers her clients, drops them into potentially emotionally dangerous confrontations which she fails to resolve or include support or final safety check, and, horrifically, she ignores clients when they reveal serious trauma (such as sexual abuse) which is not part of her therapeutic agenda. This often leads her to completely misinterpret why one of her clients has made a comment or done something, and by extension, she doesn’t place appropriate value on that comment or action. One gets the sense that “healing” to Dr. Brain is a mechanical function leading towards validation of her own “expertise” and allowing her greater self-promotion.
And in the end, it is Dr. Brain’s single-minded drive to demonstrate her expertise to the world that is most chilling. She closes her book by explicitly choosing self-promotion over what’s right. Dr. Brain does not call attention to the facts of the final battle, they are stated and left behind, much like the afore-mentioned sexual assault revealed by one of the heroes during a therapy session. She does not emulate what are supposed to be the finest qualities of her patients – she does not make a call for truth to come out and justice to be done. She fails to do what she has constantly pontificated about throughout her narrative – she has not exposed the ugly truth in order to bring it into the light to study and overcome it so that it will cease to be a problem. No, the truth behind the civil war is not as important to Dr. Brain as her closing claims of how much she’s helped her patients overcome their emotional obstacles. By allowing the politically convenient story of the winning side to go unchallenged, Dr. Brain is complicit in a murder and its cover-up, and a lie to the public and the damage it will do to society by allowing the wrong people to run the show.
In this, “From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain” is Faust’s timely warning to the reader about the responsibilities of citizens (whether they be heroes or normal people) to care about what happens to each other, to make sure the truth is known, and to question those in authority and hold them to account.
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