By Herman Koch
Hogarth, 292 pp., $24
In this novel imported from the Netherlands, two brothers and their wives sit down to dinner at an expensive restaurant. One of the men is a prominent politician, widely considered the likely next prime minister. The other is our narrator, whose sarcasm aimed at the pretentious food and service — “the exaggeratedly detailed review of every pine nut on your plate” — initially wins us over to his side of what appears to be a longstanding fraternal rivalry. As the meal continues, we learn that the couples are also linked by their sons, whose involvement in a horrible act emerges, detail by crushing detail, as a threat to both families.
Like the meal it describes, the book is often uncomfortably tense, as secrets unfold and personalities unravel. Revelations about the boys’ crime occur simultaneously with a creeping realization that our narrator — the good brother! — is himself quite seriously troubled. Readers who relish psychological thrillers may find this quite satisfying, but for those who want to like at least one character, “The Dinner” may be a little too unsavory.
How Everyone Became Depressed: The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown
By Edward Shorter
Oxford University, 256 pp., $29.95
Over the course of their lifetimes, “one American in five will receive a diagnosis of depression,” writes Edward Shorter; what’s more, he argues, most of them do not suffer from depression at all. In this harshly critical history of what he calls a “public health disaster,” an eminent historian of psychiatry takes aim at the everyone — from doctors to therapists to pharmaceutical companies to the media – whose work has convinced so many that they are depressed when what they really suffer from is nerves. Described in medical histories since the beginning of time, found in every culture, the malady blends depression and anxiety, fatigue, physical aches and pains, and obsessive thoughts. It’s an illness of the entire body, Shorter argues, not a mood disorder, and not the same thing as acute depression, which used to be called melancholia.
How and why we abandoned these useful terms for readily observable illnesses and replaced them with the catch-all diagnosis of depression is the story Shorter tells here. In this witty, intimate chronicle of psychiatry and its controversies, Shorter indicts changing tides in the entire field — a move toward psychoanalysis, which ignored the body in favor of the mind, and then psychopharmacology, which sold antidepressants to a public impressed by products built upon the “unshakable foundation of neuroscience.” Above all, he lambastes the contentious process that led to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) III, published in 1980, calling it “a political not scientific exercise,” which “ended up as a real dog’s breakfast.” Despite an abundance of inside baseball details, Shorter’s book should find its place among others that question just how we define what ails us — and how we can overcome it. If a good, old-fashioned case of nerves responds inadequately to commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs (as many scientists now believe), Shorter assures us, “it responds to exercise. It responds to the skills of psychotherapy.”
Holding Silvan: A Brief Life
By Monica Wesolowska
Hawthorne, 201 pp., $16.95
Sometime just before or during his birth, Monica Wesolowska’s first son, Silvan, suffered a serious injury to his brain. Tests revealed the gravest of all diagnoses: All that remained was a functioning brain stem. “We already love him,” she writes, “ . . . his loamy-scented head, the soft heft of his thighs, the tiny thump of the heart in his chest.” It was out of this love that Wesolowska and her husband chose to withhold treatment, including intravenous food, and allow their son to die. His life lasted 38 days, during which time they held him, rocked him, and sang to him.
There is a stereotypical view of memoir that describes a genre that mines tragedy for book sales. It’s true that any writer could make Silvan’s story sad. But only a writer with Wesolowska’s enormous talents could render her tale with such intelligence and grace, bracing honesty and even humor. In precise, luminous prose she chronicles an unbearable loss that nonetheless was filled with the joy she felt in being her son’s mother. “I’m trying to find the story of Silvan that I’ll someday tell myself,” Wesolowska writes. “I want it to be a story that I can bear to hear, a story of loving him well.” It is.