“Playthings” by Alex Pheby: An Intense Exploration of Paranoia and the Abuse of Power

Galley Beggar Press

I have been hearing quite a lot about Galley Beggar Press, an independent publishing house based in Norwich (@GalleyBeggars, @gallerybeggars). They were open-minded enough to publish a heavy novel called We That Are Young (a retelling of King Lear set in a corporate family in modern-day India) by British-Indian academic and human rights activist Preti Taneja (an expert on Shakespeare). “It was rejected by all mainstream London publishing houses,” Taneja said in an interview just two days ago. The novel will be published in North America by Knopf next year.

I have not as yet read We That Are Young but the buzz around it has made me interested in Galley Beggar. They have stated that they are:

a company specifically set-up to act as a sponsor to writers who have struggled to either find or retain a publisher, and (most importantly) whose writing shows great ambition and literary merit. Our primary questions are not who someone is, or whether something is going to make it into the supermarkets. Rather, it’s whether this is an author we want, a novel we love. If the answer is yes on both counts – then, no matter how challenging a read the book is (or how obscure the author), we will set about bringing it to the widest possible public.

Playthings by Alex Pheby (2015, Galley Beggar Press)

As I was checking Galley Beggar’s catalogue, there was one novel that particularly caught my attention: Playthings (2015) by Alex Pheby (@alexpheby), a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Greenwich. The book has been described by the British magazine Literary Review as “the best neuro-novel ever written” and it was shortlisted for the £30,000 Wellcome Book Prize in 2016—this is an award that celebrates the topics of health and medicine in literature (fiction and non-fiction).

Playthings fictionalises the story of Daniel Paul Schreber (1842–1911), a German judge suffering from schizophrenia, who authored the book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness that was interpreted by Sigmund Freud and became quite influential in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

Daniel Paul Schreber, Wikipedia [Public Domain]
Not every page of Playthings was engrossing but overall, I can say, it was really my kind of novel. Bold, deep, terrific. Reading it was an intense, even scary experience. It was definitely gruelling—the last time I felt so drained was while going through The Melancholy of Resistance by Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai. Nevertheless, I found the novel thrilling and didn’t feel like keeping it away.

The official description mentions that the book “delves deep into a disturbed mind” and it also has a political side—according to the publisher, it “explores the roots of the great ills in the twentieth century, the psychological structure of fascism, the cancer of anti-Semitism, and the abuse of institutional power”. The anti-Semitic bit I won’t cover here, let me just concentrate on the psychological structure of fascism as it is unravelled in Playthings.

As the story begins, we find Schreber—retired Senatpräsident of the High Court of Saxony—as a man with a weak grip on reality. He is not sure what illness he suffers from, he is not even sure that he suffers from an illness. He experiences a “poverty of will”, an “impotence” as he goes about doing daily tasks. It is written: “he ran down the stairs, heels clacking loud, with his hand on the banister and each foot kicking out to the side. They threatened to slip on the varnish, to send him falling back, to crack his skull. Clumsy brute. Silly man.” He finds it difficult to recognise and connect with his wife Sabine and their adopted daughter Fridoline.

 

“…he ran down the stairs, heels clacking loud, with his hand on the banister and each foot kicking out to the side.” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

In Schreber’s eyes, the world with all its components loses its soul and substance. For him, there are no houses, trees, railings, streetlamps—in their place are only “the representations” of these things. Even human beings are nothing, they are clicking and whirring puppets, fleetingly improvised soulless automata, “playthings of the Lower God” who makes and unmakes them for the purpose of deceiving Schreber—the man keeps mumbling this to whoever he meets.

Who is this “Lower God”? At one point, Schreber reveals: “Like Sabine, like Fridoline, like the little ones – you are playthings of Ariman, the Lower God.” Ariman, I believe, means “Ahriman” (aka Angra Mainyu), the omnimalevolent destructive spirit of dualistic Persian/Zoroastrian mythology, the evil twin of the omnibenevolent creative spirit Ahura Mazda. The Lower God of Schreber may be read as a metaphor for a worldly dictator.

 

“I fear they are temporary things made up from the dirt,” he said after a long time. “Like you, they are soulless. God makes them and unmakes them for the purpose of deceiving me. Like Sabine, like Fridoline, like the little ones – you are playthings of Ariman, the Lower God.” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

Schreber is committed to an asylum. He recalls his past traumas as his mind continues to disintegrate. The memories of a strict father come to him along with mechanistic imagery—visions of clocks, dreams of cloned men. Extreme discipline and order and obedience and repetition. A revelatory moment for me occurred when Schreber says:

“Fridoline! Listen to me! My papa – he knew how terrible the world was. The things inside: inside his head, inside the belly, everywhere. You must remain strong, Fridoline. Take your mother’s example! You must take the world and write on it – make it obey your will. Do not obey its. Do you understand me?…The world cannot be allowed to dominate you. Other people cannot be allowed to dominate you. You must dominate them! Do you understand me, Frida? This is what my father knew…there is no choice. The world is chaos, there is no justice, you must enforce yourself on it. There is no other way.”

This is what, I suppose, is the heart of fascism—acute insecurity turned into an absolute imposition of power.

 

“The world is chaos, there is no justice, you must enforce yourself on it. There is no other way.” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

I will not give away too much of the plot and reveal what happens to the protagonist but just end with a comment on why I think books like Playthings must be more popular. A lot of big publishers maintain that readers prefer something “relatable”, that they only want to engage with characters in whom they can see themselves immediately.

Well, fine—but that’s only one purpose of literature—to offer assurance that we are not alone in whatever we are going through. Literature must also be allowed to give us an insight into experiences and emotions that are particularly foreign to us. Or how else will we develop empathy? How would we reach out to those with needs different from our own? In the character of Schreber, I found somebody who was alien to me in many ways. And I am certain that if I ever encounter an individual like him in real life, I would look upon and treat them with a greater degree of compassion.

I would recommend this novel to those who are looking for a challenging read, and of course, to lovers of psychology and political science.

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