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Jasper Gibson on His Favourite Novels That Reflect on Mental Health Issues

Posted on 8th January 2021 by Anna Orhanen

In his new novel The Octopus Man, Jasper Gibson– the author of A Bright Moon For Fools (2013) and the co-founder of the UK's largest comedy site The Poke  maps the tentacled story of a once-brilliant law student who, seeking to silence the voice in his head, partakes in an experimental drug trial. At once compassionate, witty and humane, it is a novel peppered with piercing observations on the British mental health system and our society's fixation with 'normality'. In this exclusive piece, Gibson talks about how the idea for The Octopus Man was born and recommends five novels, each of which explores mental health issues in a unique and powerful way.

This book [The Octopus Man] 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, her 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 to me to take our luggage and get off the train. We weren’t going to Glasgow anymore. My cousin Ed 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.

Ed, once a handsome and brilliant law student (both my sisters were utterly in love with him), had suffered under a schizophrenia diagnosis and the effects of long-term medication for twenty years. His experiences became the inspiration for Tom Tuplow, the protagonist of The Octopus Man.

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?

I always knew this book had to be first person, present tense. Yet though we see the world through Tom’s eyes, I hope too that the thoughts and feelings of the other characters, particularly his long-suffering sister Tess, are just as real, just as valid. 

This is not 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. 

Unlike so many portrayals of people with mental health difficulties as either psychopathic killers or 'Rainman'-type idiot savants, this novel hopes to bring a little more reality, and humanity, to those in touch with dimensions the rest of us cannot access. If just one reader doesn't move seats next time they see a person apparently talking to themselves on the bus, but instead wonders what happened to them, what have they suffered, what have they seen, then this book will have been worth it.

The other thing is that it's meant to be funny. I do hope you like it.


Broken Ghost by Niall Griffiths

Three hundred and fifty pages of pure magma. Three wrecked and traumatised characters glow white-hot with fury, love and oblivion as they glimpse the eerie prospect of transcendence. Did they all see the same vision, trudging outwards from the night along that Welsh mountain?

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Hypnotically driven by vernacular voices, Griffiths’s story of a Welsh community witnessing a strange collective vision is a staggering exploration of humanity's need to live a meaningful life.
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Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Why hasn’t Lowry got a statue? Swirling with voices and visions, the Consul, in Mexico, driven mad by failure and drink, is incapable of reaching for redemption even as it offers out its delicate hand. Ever-present, the Popocatepetl volcano crushes his horizon while bequeathing him its grand and mythic shadow. This is the day he falls in.

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The final hours of the doomed British ex-consul Geoffrey Firmin in the swirl and swelter of Mexico’s Day of the Dead festivities are a fever dream of pirouetting prose and delirious imagery in Lowry’s outstanding tour de force.
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The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

A masterpiece. Glaswegian teacher moves around the outlines of her life, all but blown away by grief and despair. Into a psychiatric unit and out again. One breath after another. A story of pure heroism that reminds you how often victory can look like defeat.

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A taut and extraordinary unveiling of the mental breakdown of a teacher, The Trick Is to Keep Breathing is a powerful and beautifully written reminder of how close we all are to insanity.
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Hunger by Knut Hamsun

A powerful influence on The Octopus Man. The intense interiority of Hamsun’s impoverished narrator as he staggers around Norway’s capital city looking for something to eat is overwhelming. Pride and need conspire to gnaw away at his body and mind, his sense of self slipping, stumbling, starving.

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Following a struggling young writer in nineteenth-century Oslo, Hamsun paints an arresting portrait of a mind descending into despair and delusion in this visceral masterpiece about being starved out of your ideals.
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The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

A schoolteacher from Tokyo visits a remote coastal area to collect insects. He finds a village almost completely covered over by the dunes. When he misses the last bus the villagers invite him to stay the night, but so buried in sand is the house that he must descend a rope ladder. Next morning the ladder is gone. He is expected to stay with the woman who lives there, and to produce children. A story of collective insanity that works as powerfully on the reader as it does on the schoolteacher – how much real freedom is there back home anyway? In that old life, the one that we keep insisting is real? 

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A shimmering example of the Japanese existentialist novel, The Woman in the Dunes is a macabre and endlessly thought-provoking exploration of the lunacy of an entire community and the art of enslavement.
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