‘Restless Souls’ is a War Story and Journey Epic that Fights for a New Masculinity
Dan Sheehan’s debut novel follows three Irishmen on their way to an experimental PTSD clinic after fighting in Sarajevo
The first work by Dan Sheehan that I ever read was a visceral and twistedly comic short story set in Ireland about a man inheriting his infamous and imprisoned father’s urge to murder. The title, “Our Fathers,” was a double entendre, invoking the Lord’s prayer. I was engrossed. I met Sheehan a few years ago while we were both in New York and he was working as a contributing editor for Guernica Magazine. He had a joyfully hungry ear for a story and a genuine enthusiasm for discussing various pitches and experiences of reporting. He was about to head off to the West Coast to do research for what would become his first novel. A surreal and poignant debut, Restless Souls charts the journey of three young men from Dublin — Tom, Karl, and Baz — who are hoping to find redemption at an experimental PTSD clinic on the edge of a cliff in California.
The shifting narrative flickers between this strange road trip and intimate vignettes from Tom’s memory of the haunting three years he spent in Sarajevo while the city was under relentless siege. Their odyssey from Tom’s mam’s house in Dublin to the Restless Souls clinic, via a random desert commune, is a last ditch effort to save Tom’s unraveling mind. But it is also an unspoken and desperate pact to save themselves from a churning guilt, an exorcising of the collective grief that all three are barely enduring following the suicide of their childhood friend Gabriel.
At the Dublin launch for Restless Souls in The Gutter Bookshop, self-deprecating and unfeigned in front of an audience thick with family and friends, Sheehan read out the first chapter. Even in the first few lines, I was struck by the focus on the act of bearing witness and what that means, a question I would return to time and again reading the book. I had recently returned from an assignment in Syria and had seen the devastation that an intractable war causes up close, but also the resilience of the mundane, the everyday life that continues regardless.
Amidst cruel losses and the most brutal of wars, the three laddish anti-heroes of Restless Souls are animated by a genuine humanity. I spoke with the author about exploring trauma and grief without shying away from the surreal mundanity, imperfect relationships, and strange humor that percolate through these experiences.
Caelainn Hogan: I was expecting to focus these questions on the more concrete themes of male friendship or the trials of survivor’s guilt, both central to Restless Souls and worth exploring. But what fascinated me most about your book was the way it explored ideas of perception, experience, and the concept of bearing witness. You completed years of research and you are writing about two very factual crises. Was the Restless Souls clinic always at the center of the novel? Did these more intangible subjects surface out of the process, or were they always fundamentally what you wanted to raise through the narrative?
Dan Sheehan: I knew that I wanted to find something less grounded in reality, more outlandish, to place at the end of what is essentially a quest narrative. The realities of adult life have been so brutalizing for these men, who, in their teenage years — in a way that many of us do I suppose — assumed that they stood together on unshakable foundations, and always would. They now feel that all of that promise and hope and invincibility has been stripped away and that the last chance to retrieve it is through a bold move, a grand gesture. Having said that, these Californian cliff side facilities do exist (they just usually house Don Draper-esque meditation gatherings rather than PTSD clinics) and the futuristic-seeming memory treatment detailed is real (it just hasn’t reached the human trial phase of research yet).
I had been researching the different therapies available to returning soldiers and trauma victims for a number of months when I came across a fascinating New Yorker profile of a neuro-scientist named Dr. Daniela Schiller and her pioneering work on memory reconsolidation (the process by which fixed long-term memories can be recalled and modified in order to dampen the intensity of their emotional impact, to essentially rewrite the memory). There can be a wariness in people with regard to manipulating memory because we tend to picture mad scientists and cold-blooded dystopias, but there are many out there, like Dr. Schiller, whose cutting-edge work comes from a place of deep compassion and an abiding belief in the duty of care we have toward those sufferers for whom all conventional treatment options have been exhausted.
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CH: These treatments seem so alien compared to the mental health care available in Ireland, basically as surreal as zebras in a garden…
DS: Absolutely. The fact that in Ireland we’re only now, deep into the 21st century, coming to the realization that a national, multi-faceted approach to the mental health crisis is required, is pretty disgraceful. The bottom line is that before you can address a problem of this magnitude, you have to admit that there is one. You have to cultivate an atmosphere where that discussion can be part of the public discourse, and it took us a long, long time to do that. No country’s mental health services are perfect, of course, and, God knows, if you’re poor in the US, your chances of having access to adequate care are slim to nil, but there has at least been a reckoning with the existence of the problem for some time now, which is more than we in Ireland could say in the nineties and previous years. That’s been no secret of course, but I think spending time with these characters and considering the options they would and would not have had in the Ireland of the early nineties brought it home to me in a deeper way.
CH: This was a project that spanned five years and we have discussed your trips to Bosnia and the way you researched the conflict there, speaking directly with people preserving that history and visiting sites. You said that, when you were young, you were fixated by the images on the TV of the Bosnian war but also felt a sense of shame for being so eager to learn more about the horrors that befell Sarajevo. I sometimes grapple with this in my own work. Looking back, in what ways did the novel and your expectations of it shift? Did you always have that self awareness of the thin line between bearing witness and “disaster tourism” as you described it?
DS: I like to think I did for the most part, but that’s probably not true. From my experience, we (and by “we” I mean tourists, rather than journalists) tend to assume that if we briefly perform our grief — whether in the company of others or just as a sort of montage in our own heads — at one of these sites of recent tragedy or destruction, that we’ve done our job as empathetic, informed human beings. We give ourselves permission to revel, for want of a better word, in the rawness of the experience, as if our moment of silence or sorrow gives us the right to pass unjudged and unimpeded though the wreckage of other people’s lives, other people’s memories, without actually doing anything about it. I look back on my first visit to Sarajevo and I remember my genuine fascination with the food, the buildings, the history, but it’d be a lie to say that there wasn’t also a macabre interest in the conflict that had only ended a decade previous, a desire to suck up as much of that recent tragedy as I could. I still feel a little ashamed about that impulse, to be honest, but I’m glad that I’ve moved, and am hopefully still moving, in the right direction.
We tend to assume that if we briefly perform our grief at one of these sites of recent tragedy or destruction, that we’ve done our job as empathetic, informed human beings.
CH: By the end of the book, there is a distinct sense that no witness is reliable, but that we should perhaps embrace this. We are reminded of the strange power of a eulogy to reanimate a person we have lost, or a single frame of memory that can give us solace. It gives us the sense that we can, in some way, shape our own reality. That surreal monologue at the desert pitstop particularly struck me, with Karl putting himself on trial through the reincarnation of Gabriel, projecting his own guilt through some form of hallucinogenic ventriloquism. These days we seem to live in a state of constant staging and performance. How important was form for you in representing this state, and did you experiment with different approaches?
DS: There’s relief, and escape, to be found in stories, and I think one of the things that’s so fascinating and heartbreaking about the idea of a eulogy is that it provides a loved one the opportunity to briefly bring a person back to life though story, even if it’s only for a few minutes, even if that story is only the half-truth. There’s such a bewildering senselessness to so many deaths, but eulogies give, or can give, a coda to a life in a way that feels right to us, I suppose because we’re a species that needs stories in order to understand the world and our place in it.
I think the fact that these men are so dependent on, and paralyzed by, their memories meant that flashbacks were always going to play a major role in the structure of the novel.
CH: The novel takes on two brutally real crises: suicide and war. You decided to write these experiences through a fairly experimental fictional account, with a solid dose of humor. The sections recounting Tom’s narrative, and indeed his whole character, raise quite a few questions on the futility and limits of journalism. I think the scenes in Sarajevo captured the surreal and intimate mundanity of everyday life within a conflict. The way Tom involved himself in peoples’ lives was ethically complicated and he admits repeatedly he was chasing an experience. You referenced the work of journalists like Janine di Giovanni as important to your research. Her knack for highlighting the everyday humanity within even the most inhumane of conflicts is something I admire. How and why did you decide to make Tom a failed journalist, one who is broken by witnessing, and at the same time, unable to put his observations to any use?
DS: I think you highlight a very important point about di Giovanni’s journalism, and it’s something I greatly admire in your own work — that ability to capture the complex humanity of individual lives alongside the broader sweep of a brutal and dehumanizing conflict that threatens, in the eyes of world only fleetingly interested in their plight at least, to subsume that individuality. I suppose I saw Tom not necessarily as a failed journalist, but more as someone who naively thought he could throw himself into the deep end without pausing to consider the kind of emotional and experiential work required.
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CH: Throughout Restless Souls there is an obsession with the act of recording and also a tension between the importance and the inefficacy of witnessing. Karl is a photographer and Tom a writer. We see a mother risking her life to save books from a burning building surrounded by sniper and mortar fire. A young boy is sent to fetch reporters despite the dangers. At the same time, people are burning obituary sections of newspapers to stay warm. In our so-called post-truth era, can fiction address societal and political issues in a way that nonfiction is unable to?
DS: I hope that there’s still an important role for both fiction and nonfiction to play in spotlighting the most significant societal and political issues we’re facing today, although I regularly end up doubting this. The tsunami of information and opinion and rebuttal (content for content’s sake) that washes over us all these days — most of it designed to be hoovered up but not dwelled upon or considered in any meaningful way — can be overwhelming. I still hope that the best journalism, like the best fiction, works like an oxygen mask or Moses’ staff: it offers a bubble of respite from all this and allows us to breathe again, to really consider what’s happening, even if only for a few extra moments.
I hope there’s still an important role for both fiction and nonfiction in the societal and political issues we’re facing today, although I regularly end up doubting this.
CH: Karl, Tom, and Baz are all affected by trauma and the experience of survivor’s guilt. The varying ways in which the characters lose control, and the impact one person’s pain has on another, seems to illustrate the unavoidable domino effect of trauma. We are confronted with the irreversibility of loss, the way it changes us and the fact we can never return to the same “normal.” The war in Sarajevo and the suicide of a best friend are two very different means to expose these workings of trauma and loss. How did you decide to bring these two crises together and parallel them?
DS: Well it took a long time to figure out how to bring these two traumas — so removed from one another by scale and distance — together in a way that created a narrative that was compelling and coherent and, most importantly, greater than the sum of its disparate parts. I wish I could say that there was a grand plan from the outset — some initial reason why I felt these two tragedies had to speak to one another. But, in reality, the book began as two distinct images I couldn’t shake from my head. The first was that of the beautiful Neo-Moorish library of Sarajevo, which sits on the banks of the Miljacka river, engulfed in flames. The second was of a young man hanging from the goalposts of a football pitch at dusk. Once I decided that they were the anchoring incidents of the two main narrative strands, it was a matter of making sure the stories spoke to one another as they expanded outward.
CH: Self-help narratives, therapy, and the quest-trip to find oneself are so often associated solely with women. War trauma is often positioned as an exception, a socially acceptable reason for men to seek treatment. Perhaps this explains why three lads would go on an epic journey to a PTSD clinic when they never sought help for the more intimate trauma of suicide. There is a true spirit of “ladism” while the novel simultaneously peels back the defenses and reveals the fragility of these men. They seem surrounded by women they can’t fully connect with, from fussing old mothers who can’t seem to handle the world, to a topless tanned maternal figure in the desert, and countless idealized girlfriends. In the end, as Karl truly reckons with himself, he acknowledges a guilt that he has been trying to escape and wishes his friends had been “more to me than just supporting players in my own story.” It made me think about these men’s perceptions of themselves, the pressures they feel to be a certain kind of man, the ways male privilege can be damaging to men themselves. What were your hopes when you set out to explore the psyches of these three men? And what did you discover through exploring their experience of vulnerability and loss?
DS: I think, for the most part, the women in the novel, even the ones who only briefly cross their path, are far more emotionally attuned to the what these three men are going through than they are themselves, and there’s a shame attached to that for Karl that causes him to bristle and pull away; the shame of knowing that his psychological and emotional frailties — these aspects of himself that he has, at least up to this point, been unequipped and unwilling to come to terms with — are being exposed. We’ve entered an era where the stigma attached to admissions of anxiety and depression in men is dissipating, and that’s a wonderful and necessary thing, but it’s also a very recent development, especially in Ireland. The first time I ever remember encountering a mental health campaign aimed at young men was when I went to college, which was only twelve years ago, so it was very important for me in creating these characters that they exist in a landscape largely devoid of options in this regard, because that was the reality of the time.
CH: Finally, I’m curious to know what you learned about your own processing of memory through writing the book? As much as Restless Souls is a manic road trip through California, it is equally a very intimate ode to Dublin, and I’m sure drew on and resurrected many personal experiences. We spoke about an idea you had for a new novel, also set in Ireland and exploring aspects of bereavement. Are there any unresolved questions raised by writing Restless Souls that you are itching to work through?
DS: It’s funny (in a bleak way), I didn’t realize how preoccupied I was with the themes of bereavement, grief, and regret until I started writing this book. I don’t know whether that’s because eliminating most of the positive side of the emotional spectrum is sort of necessary to create interesting conflicts in fiction, or because that’s just where my brain goes. The scenes in Dublin in the eighties and nineties are fictional of course, but the writing and re-writing of them did at times feel like resurrecting actual memories. I don’t have enough distance from the book yet to know what that means, but it’s hopefully something that’ll become clearer down the line.