[Spuyten Duyvil; 2022]

In September 1947, Nikola Petkov, leader of the largest political opposition bloc in Bulgaria, was hanged, following a show trial, by the newly insurgent communist forces. Branded a traitor, an anti-Soviet agitator, and enemy of the free world, Petkov was hardly alone in paying for his misgivings about the new world order with his life. The early postwar years in Bulgaria, a country historically controlled by one monarcho-military autocracy after another, saw thousands of so-called dissenters imprisoned and murdered, mirroring the Red Terror. Some historians have estimated that as many as thirty thousand Bulgarians—teachers, state officials, military officers, priests, doctors, lawyers, members of the intelligentsia, et al.—were snuffed out during this wave of carnage, but the exact toll, even in the aftermath of glasnost and perestroika, continues to be something of a mystery today.

Nearly forty years later, in 1987, the writer Thomas McGonigle, apparently roused by this act of ideological malfeasance, used the Bulgarian party leader as the subject for his first novel, The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov, a terse rendering of Petkov’s final minutes. An American of Irish descent (born in Brooklyn, raised in Patchogue, Long Island), McGonigle himself has referred to The Corpse Dream as the first novel by an American to take place in Bulgaria. On the surface, this would sound like a rather prosaic accomplishment if not for the fact that Bulgaria hardly exists, historically speaking, in the literary constellation of the American writer. Paris, yes, Italy, sure, but Bulgaria? There is simply no precedent, although the recent work of Garth Greenwell suggests a change in tastes. McGonigle’s unconventional subject was not lost on discerning readers at the time. “Why a young American writer in the 1980s chose to imagine seriously the end of a Bulgarian revolutionary is cause for wonder in itself,” wrote Andrei Codrescu in a review of the book for The New York Times.

Nowhere is Petkov explicitly mentioned in The Bulgarian Psychiatrist, a new novella by McGonigle, but the murderous logic and hypocrisy of communist rule in Bulgaria (and, in turn, the Iron Curtain at large) serves as a haunting backdrop to this dense and caustic piece of fiction that treads along unsettling nihilist pathways. If the book had a subtitle, it may very well have taken after several of E.M. Cioran’s scathing lucubrations, say, The Trouble With Being Born, or On the Heights of Despair, or A Short History of Decay.

The novella is set in a distinctly high modernist key: stream-of-consciousness in the mold of Céline and Thomas Bernhard. Those accustomed to certain guardrails in their fiction may find themselves temporarily numbed by McGonigle’s stark rejection of the traditional narrative rules of engagement. Quotation marks are eschewed, thus blurring the contours separating narration from dialogue, characters appear (and disappear) without much preamble, and temporal distortion predominates. But accepting these terms, or strategies of indirection, to lift a phrase from David Milch, is a prerequisite to appreciating the fascinating compression of time and consciousness that is at the root of The Bulgarian Psychiatrist.

The protagonist is George, a hardheaded, disaffected Bulgarian émigré who runs a psychiatry practice in Greenwich Village, New York City. George arrived in America (via Germany), in conditions well beneath his educated standing (“with only a suitcase stuffed with neckties”), along with his wife Vera, sometime before the fall of the Berlin Wall, probably in the late 1970s, early ’80s. (McGonigle is deliberately hazy on dates). It was, in any case, the era of Trans World Airways and PANAM, bygone relics of the skies. When George passes through customs unharassed and unscathed—the agent behind the desk at JFK International Airport reaches out to shake his hand and tell him “Welcome to the United States of America”—he is left mystified, slack-jawed by the amiable nature of that exchange, in contrast to his experience with red-tape protocols in brutal Bulgaria. George can never get Bulgaria out of his head, can never shake his sense of otherness. The novella branches out from this initial episode, backwards and forwards, blending past and future in a temporal amalgam that brings to mind the William Faulkner remark, “There is no such thing as was—only is.”

George’s calling is to listen to people, to take in all kinds of kvetches, despite his admittedly perfunctory relationship with his patients, but it turns out the listener needs his plaints to be heeded as well. So George has weekly meetings at his favorite watering hole in the East Village, where he knocks back glasses of scotch and spins yarns to his friend “Tom,” the novella’s not entirely reliable narrator, about sundry topics, many of them brooding contemplations on what it means to be Bulgarian, and, by extension, what it means to be Bulgarian in America. In this way, the book latches onto a familiar literary trope, the European diagnosis of America, as taken up by old hands such as Uwe Johnson, Knut Hamsun, Albert Camus, and Max Frisch, who happens to be mentioned several times in The Bulgarian Psychiatrist. George may be no Tocqueville or Baudrillard, but his observations about his adopted country are frequently wry, if at times ambivalent and oblique:

The world is full up of people who are destined to be Americans and are saturated with the idea: life is going to get better and better no matter what either life or experience teaches them: isn’t it a wonderful country where people in their eighties are thinking about, as they put it, career changes.

And later:

I wonder if everything was wiped out in the United States if it could all be re-built. To think of the United States broken into pieces and then divided into two competing systems and then re-united! Americans do not know what it means to lose. Bulgarians only know about loss and it is nothing to be proud of, nothing is gained from the experience.

McGonigle possesses a highly attuned affinity for gallows humor, a type that readers who are fond of the works of Lazlo Krasznahorkai and Elfriede Jelinek will be able to appreciate, so it is not surprising that George is an especially dour, sardonic raconteur, and that The Bulgarian Psychiatrist is rife with his hard-bitten expressions. Some are aphoristic: “People live, people die. It would be awful if everyone lived forever . . .” Others more abstruse: “Francis Bacon liked old photographs of masses of people because all the people in the photographs were dead, now, and I am alive looking at them.” If death is a persistent theme, it is for reasons that are biological as much as metaphysical: George goes under the knife to have his heart valves replaced with porcine ones, a condition that presumably compounds his obsession with mortality. Nietzschean by temperament, George views his chosen profession with blood-rimmed cynicism, as a symptom of a sick culture, Freud and Jung be damned. “No stupidity surprises me,” he says. “This has been a century of murderous stupidity and it is no wonder psychoanalysis came along at the time it did. One form of nonsense to answer the many nonsense proliferating in Vienna: a Petri dish of stupidity, foolishness, and not so clever nonsense.”

George, it turns out, suffers from a form of PTSD, an irony given his métier catering to ailing psyches. He wants to forget the past—that is, Bulgaria—but cannot. Of the time his daughter’s elementary school once hosted an “ethnic festival,” he remembers telling her, “You do not have any ethnic foods, any ethnic costumes, because you are American even though your parents were born in Bulgaria, you are an American.” But as George keeps talking, and Tom keeps listening, Bulgaria inevitably floats back up to the surface of conversation. George recounts a disturbing episode all those years ago back in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, when a high-ranking bureaucrat from the Central Committee summoned him to his apartment to talk about treating his troubled wino son. The home, as George knew at the time, previously belonged to a man whom the state had executed—murdered. Now it, along with “the furniture and rugs, the pictures on the walls, the glass chandelier,” were in the sole possession of an apparatchik, who not only “probably had a hand in” the murder, but also was wearing the clothes of the dead man. The bureaucrat is the picture of amoral complacency, the kind of person Hannah Arendt may have had in mind when she formulated her well-wrought expression, banality of evil. “Nothing was to be thought unusual about any of this,” observed George, who admits that his decision to essentially rebuff the functionary’s request could have triggered a lethal reprisal. George would later learn that the embattled son was eventually shipped off to The French Riviera. He notes mordantly, “No one will believe you as you write about Bulgarian communist children living on the Riviera. It sounds too fantastic.”

A trip to iridescent California leads to the realization that there is no staving off the past, as if through amnesia. He will have to carry Bulgaria with him for the remainder of his days. George, Tom recalls,

discovered that it was nearly unbearable to use the verb, remember, because he was aware in California and in particular in Los Angeles: all you were supposed to do was think about other places, other times . . . If people could train themselves not to compare where they were at the exact moment with what was in their pasts, train themselves to avoid running the peripheral slide show as they drove those beautiful freeway—Los Angeles would appear as the wonderful place where he knew he might have even been happy, but now it was too late . . .

There is some relief to be had in New York, however, where the city’s perpetual sense of immediacy acts as a salve for George and his tortured reminiscences. Unlike California with its endless vistas and languid pace, in fast-moving Gotham, the past is more easily kept at bay. “No one walks around in New York talking: do you remember when . . . the city is a wonderful drug wiping itself clear and wipes away those thoughts from the people who find themselves living here. And it’s something to be proud of, not scorned like some pretend.”

The Bulgarian Psychiatrist is McGonigle’s fourth book. As with his earlier efforts—The Corpse Dream, Going to Patchogue, St. Patrick’s Day—it has an autobiographical bent, so there may be a temptation to regard its author as a practitioner of that ubiquitous catch-all, “autofiction,” seemingly the dominant mode of American prose. But to do so would be to suggest that McGonigle is involved in the mainstream of literary production, or obsessed, above all else, with what is topical and timely (See Giles Harvey, in The New York Review of Books, on the “rapid-response novel”). Neither implication would be accurate. As he shows in The Bulgarian Psychiatrist, McGonigle answers only to the cogency of his own emotions: the impulse to hack away at the human veneer, to get past the dross and into the marrow of the bone, to achieve writing that, as the French confessionalist Michel Leiris once described for himself, enacts “a drama by which I insist on incurring, positively, a risk—as if this risk were the necessary condition for my self-realization as a man.”

Sean Nam is the author of Murder on Federal Street: Tyrone Everett, the Black Mafia, Fixed Fights, and the Last Golden Age of Philadelphia Boxing, forthcoming spring 2023.

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