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(REVIEW) I will show you the life of the mind (on prescription drugs) by SJ Fowler

Dan Power traverses the networked narrative of SJ Fowler's I will show you the life of the mind (on prescription drugs) (Dostoyevsky Wannabe Original, 2020), drawing out the direct implications of the reader in the story and the illumination of the brain's structures through the deconstruction of the text.

> So what’s the deal with your brain? Don’t think about it too much. In fact, don’t think about thinking at all – it’s a trap. A thing unravelled you can’t re-ravel. That’s a major vibe of SJ Fowler’s dizzying and sickening I will show you the life of the mind (on prescription drugs), an electric chaotic assemblage of poetry and prose and found text, where the barriers between forms are as porous and paper-thin as the walls of a mind.

> Your brain is always up to something. It’s thinking so much stuff that there simply isn’t time or space enough for it to process itself. Not entirely, at least. That would require a separate, identical brain, with the sole task of interpreting the first. An outsourcing of thought, which is how the internet works in its nebulous but fully-networked expanse, and how this book works also, locating us in the mind of a patient fostering a dependency on various prescription drugs, and guiding us through their rhizomatic spirals of concern, revelation, self-doubt and frantic research, one burning synapse at a time.

> The mind, or brain (already there’s ambiguity, neither conception fully fits) is an impossible rubber ball, at once a 'dreary sponge that probably smells like wee', and also 'an unexpected desert' where 'everything ever resides' (p.7). How it works is a big unknown. That is, 'until it don’t work no more' (p.9). The book pulsates absurdly, fatally, with humour both dry and wet, as it unspools the threads of consciousness. To shine a light on the inner workings of the mind, Fowler peels a few layers back. You can’t make eggs without breaking eggs, and here the eggs are trepanned, scrambled, and sizzled, in equal parts delicious and grotesque.

> Using the second person throughout, Fowler directly implicates you, the reader, in the story. He speaks as your mind speaks to you. Considering this book opens by addressing the unknowability of the mind, what’s surprising is how relatable so much of this is. Is there a universality to even the most intimate experiences that we might prefer to ignore? Are everyone’s anxieties and anguishes the same under late capitalism? Are we wired up to process life in symmetrical ways, or do the drugs standardize our experiences in-house, making ideas digestible and easily transferable, while at the same time neutralizing them?

> It’s also a choose-your-own-adventure! So Fowler gives us a sense of control, the option to use our unique and free decision-making skills to try and steer ourselves back into the light. Of course, this also means that every terrible thing that happens to you is your own fault, the result of poor decision making, of failing to understand the thing that lives inside your skull. But at least you’re free to choose.

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> You are doomed. At the start of the book you are given a choice: collect your first prescription, or shut the book and throw it away. The decisions you make after that, and any sense of control you might have over the situation, are delicate illusions. Slow decline begins and is inevitable - you get the option to delay, to replay online comment sections or mournful affirmations of self, but eventually you have to move on, and begin new courses of treatment. As Fowler tells us, 'This story takes place in a state of extremely slow emergency' (p.30). You are caught circling the plughole, the only decision you get is when you plunge into its sticky depths.

> When your doctor is substituted for an online survey, the futility of choice becomes absurdly apparent. In the cold and sterile plaza of online consultation you’re a case number, alienated from your humanity, with everything subtracted but your symptoms (Also at points we ‘play the patient’ IRL, and are alienated from our situation again by assuming the role, predicting and second-guessing the doctor’s responses, becoming performative putty in the hands of Big Pharma). In the survey, choices move from pragmatic (tidy the house or burn it down) to bizarre (ride into battle or start a glue factory), and then cave into nothing, as each new question peels back a layer of certainty, thinning the veneer of an identity, exposing the head’s soft core to the elements. When weighing up your options you can thrash wildly and reach out for something RealTM, or you can retreat into yourself, and elect to do nothing. Ultimately, 'what difference does choosing make when the end is the same?' (p.54). Fate is fatal. From the word go we’re left with no choice but to race towards collapse, or torment ourselves attempting to push it back. Because once you take the first pill, you’ve admitted to yourself that your mind might not be working as it should, and committed to a course of treatment which will steer it further from its comfortable path. Insanity is an idea, a brain-meme that replicates, mutates and spreads, and now it’s taken hold.

> When Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Wreck of Deutschland’ is filtered through a mind on citalopram, lines from the seed poem blossom into new poems in the sequence. 'lean over an old / and ask / remember? / can you raise / the dead?' (p.29) is almost the ghost of a thought, coming in blips like a distant transmission. But even when the connection is shaky, the consciousness is definitely streaming. Fowler illuminates the structures of the brain not only through the structuring of the book, but through the deconstruction of the text. Ideas spark up and fizzle away, lines bleed into one another. Like the mind, language is an internalized and navigable structure. when one breaks down so does the other. definitions shift across words, syntax dissolves letters drawn to their nearest partners like magnets. disjointed ideas meet / neurons collide at random when their paths are eroded. incoherence, fractured and erratic decision making. brain structure determines bodily action determines brain structure. We are trapped in constant orbit of ourselves.

> Taking in found text, displayed among the already disjointed stream of poetry, prose and image, shatters the voice, splatters the identity behind it. Narration is layered and omnidirectional. The splicing of the voices is chaotic, and opens the door to gleeful frenetic energy as well as bewildering and alarming disjuncture. When all the neurons link up, when every page every monologue refracts the others, nothing is clear. Like a dot-to-dot where every dot links up to every other dot. A CBT group becomes an extension of internal dialogue, TV shows are always about their viewers and everything else just falls away, advice is taken in dosage, vibes change by prescription. This is a dismantled self, a self that can project onto other things, a self that no longer recognises its own form. The doctor becomes 'the human doctor' (p.71). It’s a kind of cabin fever. You’re trapped in this dense and turbulent self-inquiry. You bargain with yourself, until questioning your sanity becomes its own form of insanity. 'least said soonest mended. least written soonest mended' (p.72). It’s hard to say nothing over the babble of intercutting voices - spliced together webpages and conversations, consultations, internal monologues of varying coherence and tone all fight for space in your brain, a flurry of distorted whispers, a siren babble like you’ve taken the whole internet into your mind, like your world is buffering.

> The book is also very funny (I should have spent more time saying how funny it is), it’s wry and sharp in a way that allows you to chuckle with the protagonist at their terrible situation, and without undercutting any of the effect. It’s an infectious humour that’s both sincere and playful, frenzied in a way that lets it emerge seamlessly from the ever-changing currents. It does the essential job of keeping the reader afloat through turbulent waters. This book goes to places which are unstable, alarming, vacuumous, but never beyond seeing in a comic, self-deprecating, self-affirming light. Fowler grins into an abyss of his own making. He shouts into the book and the book echoes back, circles itself, ideas like pages are turned and turned over long after it’s concluded. You feel your brain sloshing about in your skull. It does a backflip.

[photo credits]


Text: Dan Power

Published: 24/7/20


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