The Damned

The Inner Room

by Vera Randal
Knopf, 194 pp., $3.95

A fascination with the interior consciousness to the exclusion of social forms and relations and without reference to moral imperatives has enabled Vera Randal to produce a novel that is affecting and yet somehow fraudulent. Given her purpose—to expose the insane consciousness so that it will be understandable in its own terms—Miss Randal sometimes writes with sensibility. She describes the oppressive dislocation of the mentally ill but then bows out, leaving the reader holding the guts of her characters in his hands, without the faintest view of their destinies, their personalities, their conception of themselves, or the significance that their experience with insanity and mental hospitals has had and will have. There is little more to grasp in her book than a sense of a state of being, and little more to fathom than the bald fact that people go crazy and suffer. I quarrel with the way Miss Randal has fulfilled her purpose and I’m not sure that she really has written a novel after all.

The Inner Room is a series of sketches of five different levels of mental illness camouflaged as five different women. The distinctions between them are almost entirely blurred and although biographical details are included, presumably to separate them from one another and explain the source of their psychological debilitation, the book could easily be understood as a description of insanity as such, without reference to person and place. The description falls short of the mark. Both the institution and its occupants are virtually anonymous. In this respect Vera Randal reflects the common view. Insanity is a state of possession in whose grasp someone may be caught struggling and writhing in incomprehensible delirium, while the institution in which he is trapped for the duration of his cure is an impersonal edifice representing methods and techniques of strange and incalculable stupidity, or horror, or assistance and care, and somehow this union between the mentally ill and the institution gives rise, when it is successful, to another higher condition called sanity. The process is mysterious.

Through Katherine Barr, Miss Randal precisely describes the self-consciousness of a woman about to lose hold of her sanity: the blurred images, the world literally out of focus, the strange and surprising encounter with the water faucet that, wonder of wonders, still feels like a water faucet, the table still incredibly a table, the sense that the autonomic nervous system will not function, that a great assumption of intellectual will is required simply to move one foot before the other, the sense of a loss of will and direction. A scene of a group of women, terrified and impotent, stripped of all authority over themselves and treated with little courtesy or concern, waiting trembling for shock treatment, is a scene of abject capitulation. Miss Randal here penetrates the quality of the psychotic’s position in a mental hospital. But psychiatrists defend shock treatment professionally as a therapy. It is therefore beyond the moral judgment of the novelist and the reader, and so…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.