For many people with psychotic illnesses and their loved ones, there is a period of wondering where things went wrong. Was there a way to mitigate mental illness’s destructive effects? What could have been done to avoid psychosis? Who could a psychotic individual become, had he or she not become ill?
Identifying and reliving this moment in the past where things could have gone another way and a severely mentally ill person could have eventually lived up to his or her talents can become something of a painful and futile exercise in “what ifs”. Mark Ferguson takes the pain of all this speculation and turns it into something revelatory and wonderful in his genre-bending debut novel, The Lost Boys Symphony.
The novel, which mixes a coming-of-age love triangle with existential mystery and time travel, is told from the perspectives of three characters: Henry, Gabe and Val. Henry is an intense and eccentric young man with musical gifts. Gabe is Henry’s best friend since childhood, and is also his roommate during his first year in college. Val is Henry’s girlfriend in high school, and becomes an indispensable part of Henry and Gabe’s lives.
A section told from Gabe’s perspective describes the closeness of these characters by explaining that the threesome’s “inside jokes evolved into a whole private vocabulary.” Gabe keeps his growing romantic feelings about Val to himself so that their friendship can continue in the same vein when the three of them leave high school to attend Rutgers.
This arrangement creates a cocoon in which, thanks to Gabe, Val is buffered against Henry’s intensity. However, Val eventually feels conflicted about her feelings for Henry—an amalgam of love and suffocation. She transfers to NYU. In response to the loss of his girlfriend, Henry falls apart. He stops bathing and starts hearing things. A year later, he suffers a clear psychotic break that leads to a schizophrenia diagnosis. He leaves the place he shares with Gabe and returns home to live with his mother, who agonizes over the possibility that had Gabe identified Henry’s mental illness for her sooner, Henry could have been saved from it.
The book opens on Henry leaving his mother’s house in the suburbs because he hears a “bright green spastic low vibration” like “cicadas at the height of a seventeenth summer or a dense forest being chewed apart by wildfire.” He hopes to find Val; he hopes she’ll save him. Henry arrives at the George Washington Bridge and hears ghostly music that grows in power and volume as if the bridge is a massive orchestra. He collapses from the force, and wakes up in a dark room. He hears two men, evidently his kidnappers, having a conversation. The older man tells Henry to trust him; he asks Henry to call him 80.
Henry’s story is one of time travel, and the author leaves it nicely ambiguous as to whether the events that happen to him are one giant hallucination that is part of his psychosis, or actual time travel. Although at the outset his condition seems to be psychosis, the novel unspools so that you can’t really tell from scene to scene whether future iterations of Henry have traveled back in time and actually made changes that affect reality for Gabe and Val.
From the moment Henry is kidnapped to the end of the novel, the sections involving Henry feel vaguely like a mash-up of the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Auster (during his The New York Trilogy period) and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. These scenes are brilliant and lightly philosophical. It’s difficult to properly dramatize someone’s mental illness, rather than write about it in an expository way, but Ferguson’s solution makes for wonderful reading.
Meanwhile, with Henry missing, Gabe and Val are drawn together. In the sections told from Gabe and Val’s perspectives, I felt as if I had time-travelled back to my own early college years and this experience was more of a mixed bag. Like Henry, I went to college with my high school boyfriend and one of my best friends from high school, as well. The detail about what it’s like to be young and in love with the wrong person, the pain of that first breakup, as well as the difficulties of maintaining intense friendships when you’re changing, is vivid and accurate and heartbreaking. Even the setting of Henry and Gabe’s apartment was described to (collegiate) perfection:
An old TV blared from a particleboard stand that had been sitting in the same fetid corner since before they moved in. Mounted into the ceiling was a fan that had never been turned on. Even the slightest breeze would have disturbed the delicate ecosystem of the big wooden coffee table that dominated the center of the room. It was perpetually covered in takeout menus; napkins, paper bags and plates from Tata’s Pizza; scraps of paper; loose change; dusty-looking Ziploc bags; empty Arizona iced tea cans with blackened joint roaches teetering over their sharp mouths.
Occasionally, however, Gabe and Val have problematic perspectives. Although I sympathized with her, I didn’t get a strong sense of Val as an individual character—at times she felt more like a plot device than a person. More of a challenge were some of Gabe’s descriptions related to social outsiders, which lapsed into cliché or worse. I was made uncomfortable by Gabe’s description of a “disgusting” fat homeless woman whose smell is described as “putrid mix of crotch sweat, beer breath, stale cigarettes, and strong perfume.” Gabe’s disturbing lack of compassion in this description and in certain other scenes stood out to me in what is otherwise, on the whole, an empathetic and powerful novel.
In spite of realistic portrayals of the growing pains of early adulthood in the Gabe and Val sections, I was propelled forward by Ferguson’s careful use of suspense throughout the novel. As a reader, I was told just enough at each twist and turn to feel like I needed to know what happened next and how it all turned out. This was especially true in Henry’s scenes; he has the most interesting storyline and he is portrayed in a sympathetic and understanding way, but it was also true of the later scenes with Gabe and Val.
The Lost Boys Symphony has a fascinating and memorable concept, strong plotting and a page-turning pace. Perhaps most importantly, Ferguson is masterful not only at describing his characters’ emotions, but also at evoking them in the reader.
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