Published by Soho Press
Publication date: November 12th 2013
And that’s how it happens. Like a broken record, warped and scratched. Once I was music, now I am just noise.
It requires a special gift to bring forth a largely unlikable character who can also evoke sympathy but Juliann Garey has done just that in her debut novel Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See. Greyson Todd is from one of the most unlikable genres of men in fiction and movies—a successful Hollywood executive (why limit ourselves, no one likes them in real life either). His success means he has a lot of money and a lot of ways to waste it—booze, drugs, women. He isn’t particularly nice to his wife, and his daughter is a bit of an afterthought. He’s intelligent and funny and makes a good party guest until he disappears under a neighbor’s beach house because he is certain that his vanishing footprints in the sand indicate that he too is vanishing. And, in a way, he is. After twenty years of managing his bipolar disease behind a Stanford law degree and a Hollywood career studded with Oscars, he is realizing that the noise inside his brain is making it impossible to front his act. So, on a September evening after he cleans up the dog poop in his yard, he gets in his Mercedes and leaves his wife and daughter behind.
I have to get out of here. Now. Where I go and what time I get there are largely irrelevant. I am never in the right place. The present, here, is just an anxious pit stop I make between memory (which is to say regret) and the dreadful anticipation of hoping there will be better but knowing it won’t.
His fractured, hyperkinetic travels take him to Kenya, Rome, Santiago, and Israel. These exotic locales are spliced together with scenes from his childhood and bits of his past as a student, husband, father, and successful Hollywood executive. Garey packages Too Bright into the twelve electroshock therapy sessions he undergoes after mentally and physically crashing. Doing so gives us twelve chapters, each one beginning with the soothing intonations of a nurse (‘relax, think happy thoughts’) as he is sedated and a structure one might expect as voltage courses through the brain and memories are retrieved and discarded at random.
Too Bright is compulsively readable. Todd’s highs are all-inclusive junkets into fantasy land where money will buy a sort of happiness, if happiness is an unending supply of booze and very young girls. Identities can be put on and shed like clothes. Todd’s mind is a super-computer and his banter charms. Even if one is wary of his energy, there is still amusement to be had. Right up until he crashes, at which point, there is sympathy. This guy may be a complete jerk but no one deserves this kind of pain; a mental and physical anguish so great that one wants to remove it by force.
Garey subsumes the reader in Todd and it is hand-over-a-flame irresistible. Someone else’s hand and you’re watching and you should be appalled but he’s laughing so it’s all right, right? Or is he crying? Her touch in playing out the events of Todd’s life from the innocence lost of childhood to the cynicism of having it all is deft. Her words are tender and tough, shocking in Todd’s ennui at what his money buys for him, and heartbreaking as we realize that he knows exactly how lost he is. She writes through Todd’s highest highs with panache and when he comes to rest after the last of his ECT sessions, she gives him back his humanity in slow sentences that reflect a mind so damaged on the way to healing it is uncertain if it will ever come back. In Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See Garey takes us on a journey of mental illness that is deeply unsettling at the same time that it entertains, making it one of my favorite books of the year.