7 Books about What Happens when Your Identity Falls Apart
Abbigail N. Rosewood, author of "If I Had Two Lives," recommends fiction from around the world about psychic splits
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I like to think that I’ve become more whole having written my first novel If I Had Two Lives. After moving to the United States at twelve years old, I’ve not lived anywhere for longer than five years, moving from one state to another. My connection to place is tenuous, my relationship to people transitory due to geographical circumstance; my ability to hold together the various fragments of my identities loosens with time. I am perhaps lucky to have lived more than one life, yet as my life experiences gain in layers and textures, my sense of self grows all the more opaque.
If I Had Two Lives is a work of the imagination that has autobiographical consequences. I wrote it in bursts and out of order. When I had all the crucial moments, I began stitching them together, writing into the empty spaces, between voids, assembling coherence. Meaning is the magic potion that unites seemingly random series of events. Narrative gives meaning. I’ve not suddenly become surer of myself, but I’m more comfortable living with stitches, breathing in the seams.
Below are seven works of art that investigate powerful psychic ruptures. Often it is the protagonists themselves who undergo this split. They are not easy books and they shouldn’t be. Like most great works of literature, they ask difficult questions⎯How does a psychic split happen? Can a person survive it? How many masks can one wear before getting crushed beneath their weight? Is coherency an illusion?
The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe, translated by E. Dale Saunders
An accident burns off the face of a scientist. Disfigured, he loses his connection to his wife and the world. To find his way back into society and win back his wife’s love, he creates a mask⎯a dangerously convincing mask that manifests its own destiny. An intellectual exploration of what it means to lose one’s identity and the perils of living with a crafted identity.
My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump
Nadia and her husband Ange are bewildered to find that they are loathed by everyone, their neighbors, their friends and family. Their world begins to deteriorates physically and mentally. The more they seek the reason for their ostracism, the more punishing their reality gets. As Nadia retraces her steps into the past, it becomes apparent that she has been keeping ugly secrets⎯lies that are soul-severing.
The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie by Ágota Kristóf, translated by Alan Sheridan, Marc Romano, and David Watson
The trilogy follows twin brothers Claus and Lucas who were torn apart in World War II as were Western and Eastern Europe. The brothers abuse as much as they are abused by others. Cruelty is weaponized as a survival necessity. This postmodern saga dives into the ruthless products of psychic fracture and the consequence of political division in private lives.
Missing Person by Patrick Modiano, translated by Daniel Weissbort
A psychological detective novel. Guy Roland, a detective who has no memories of his own past, is on a search for a man named Hutte. Guy follows directories, yearbooks, photographs, clues that lead to other clues, birthing more mysteries than conclusions. As Guy chases the trail of another man’s life, he meanders deeper into the mazes of his own repressed memories.
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball
In this dystopian world, there is a cure for those who have lost the will to live. Like children, suicidal patients will be born again without past pain and disappointment. A voluntary amnesia⎯their memories are erased so that they have another chance at a life they might actually want to live. The novel asks potent questions about the nature of memories, and the cost of forgetting as well as remembering.
Dandelions by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Michael Emmerich
Ineko suffers from somagnosia, a condition that makes her unable to see the bodies of others. Her mother and her boyfriend commit Ineko to a mental hospital. This final and unfinished work by Kawabata who himself committed suicide is a philosophical contemplation on the nature of madness and the disappearing self.
No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai, translated by Donald Keene
Oba Yozo always wears the pasted smile of a clown. He has learned this trick early on in his childhood and realizes its power to fool those around him. Yozo’s inner life is starkly different from the face he shows everyone⎯anguished, resentful, alienated from others and from himself. Yozo’s mask serves as powerful reminder of a person’s inner and outer self, which when lacking congruency could prove deadly.