This novel started with a knock at the window. I was sitting in a train about to leave London for Glasgow when my girlfriend tapped on the glass, her face fallen, eyes brimming with tears. She had gone back onto the platform to answer the phone as the reception was so poor, and perhaps that was why they hadn’t been able to get through to my phone at all. The whistle blew. She motioned at me to take our luggage and get off the train. We weren’t going to Glasgow anymore. My cousin had been found dead in his bed. There was no disease, no suicide, no murder. At the age of 40, he had simply stopped living.
Once a handsome and brilliant law student (both my sisters were utterly in love with him), Ed had suffered under a schizophrenia diagnosis and the effects of long-term medication for twenty years. He had always talked of writing a novel, and when we cleaned up his flat I found an extraordinary pile of tickets, unopened bills, leaflets – anything but a clean sheet of paper – that had been scribbled on and, I realised, were in sequential order.
I began to type them up and sure enough the beginnings of a novel appeared, a story about a young man starting work at a sawmill in America, something my cousin had done in his twenties. Though this pile of paper was enormous, with sometimes only two words on the back of a tube ticket it wasn’t long before I realised a first chapter was all that was there. However, once the pile was done I moved onto a notebook and there found evidence of Ed trying to write himself out of an attack from the voice he could hear, an Indian saint, the paper torn through in some places such was his terror but then, in other places, prayers and affirmations of love. That’s when the idea of the Octopus Man really took hold: I had never read something that depicted this kind of experience from the inside. Both in books and film, characters with severe mental health challenges are often either violent psychopaths or idiot-savants, Rainman figures with one magical power. What about all the people I knew, like my cousin, that were simply human – sensitive, complicated, arrogant, witty? So often the brightest and best of us, so often those with an abundance of mental power, not a lack.
What does it feel like to hear voices? To see things no one else can see? To have beliefs which condemn you as mad? What is it like to be caught up in the British mental health system, at the mercy of a scientific consensus that fundamentally rejects your reality? What is it like to be on such heavy drugs that every day you wake up on the bottom of the sea? Wouldn’t this be the best way for me, the writer, to celebrate Ed’s life – through writing?
From the very beginning then I knew this book had to be first person, present tense. I knew too that it couldn’t be my cousin’s story, that if I tried some kind of biography it would fail, as I would too constrained by my own family politics, by all their versions of Eds life, and by my own worries when it came to portraying them. I needed to be free, and more importantly my character had to be free. So, taking my conversations with Ed when he was alive, I set out on a research journey that took me to psychiatric wards, support groups, voice-hearing conventions, academic’s offices and into the world of experimental drugs trials. Jacqui Dillon, president of the Hearing Voices Network for twenty years and a voice-hearer herself, was indispensable. In her company I really came to understand there is no single voice-hearing experience, there is no ‘getting it right’ – there are as many voice-hearing experiences as there are voice-hearers. There are, however, profound commonalities when it comes to interactions with mental health services, and only once I felt confident in my knowledge of procedure, of being sectioned, of acute units, hospitals and crisis teams, could my invention take over and fill Tom’s inner life.
This is by no means an anti-psychiatric or indeed political novel, in the sense that its primary concern is not another world is possible, but rather another possible world. However, if we book-lovers can argue that the novel is the most human of all the arts, and that the lodestone of this artform is the individual, then questions of human dignity are bound to rise when discussing mental health provision. Though for some receiving the label ‘schizophrenic’ is a relief, a label the world can understand, for many it means a catastrophic loss of power over oneself and one’s decisions. Art’s power, however, lies in empathy, in restoring connection, so if just one reader doesn’t move seats next time they see a person talking to themselves on the bus, but instead wonders what happened to that person, what have they suffered, what have they seen, then this commemoration of Ed’s life will have been worth it.
The other thing is that it’s meant to be funny. I do hope you like it.
(c) Jasper Gibson
About The Octopus Man:
Once an outstanding law student Tom is now lost in the machinery of the British mental health system, talking to a voice no one else can hear: the voice of Malamock, the Octopus God – sometimes loving, sometimes cruel, but always there to guide him through life.
After a florid psychotic break, the pressure builds for Tom to take part in an experimental drugs trial that promises to silence the voice forever. But no one, least of all Tom, is prepared for what happens when the Octopus God is seriously threatened.
Deeply moving and tragi-comic, THE OCTOPUS MAN takes us into the complex world of voice-hearing in a bravura literary performance that asks the fundamental questions about belief, meaning, and love.
‘An exceptional work . . . A brilliant and necessary book’ Douglas Stuart, author of the Booker Prize-winning SHUGGIE BAIN
‘THE OCTOPUS MAN reminds us that behind the words “mental health” lies a universe of WILD CREATIVITY, HUMANITY and SPANKING BIG LIFE. Now is the time for this book.’ DBC Pierre, author of the Booker Prize-winning VERNON GOD LITTLE
‘Funny. Disturbing. Brilliant’ Lily Allen
‘A joy to read’ Johnny Flynn
Order your copy online here.