In The Madhouse, TJ Benson brings the masterly technique of an old timer to bear on the story, and in how he alternates between the past and present. Here is a writer in complete control of his craft…
By Chika Chimezie
TJ Benson’s first book, a collection of short stories titled, We Won’t Fade into Darkness, evinced a writer of great promise. I noted that TJ Benson was an unusual talent, and predicted that he would go on, all things being equal, to become the quintessential Great Nigerian Writer. With the publication of his ambitious first novel, The Madhouse, Benson reaches new literary heights that assure the authenticity of my prediction.
For many years, in Nigeria, we have always produced a particular kind of novelist: the traditional one who basically tells a story and tells it well, conventional writers who have gone on to prove the great storytelling traditions of the Nigerian heritage. Only once or twice have we seen writers do amazing things with the novel form, such as in Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities. Rarely have we seen the kind of stylistic acrobatics that puts a novel in the postmodern mould. On this note, it is fitting to name-drop Teju Cole and Emmanuel Iduma as writers whose works conform in certain ways to this emerging tradition in Nigerian Literature.
One word that comes to mind as one begins to read TJ Benson’s The Madhouse is “inventive.” There is no end to the creative essence of TJ Benson’s romance with this novel. The story is as inventive as the language. The first thought one has is that this level of daring is not always something we find in African literature. We can look a little further to find authors who take risks and enact new things with the novel form. We can point to the famed French literary organisation, Oulipo, in the mid-twentieth century, of whom the likes of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec were members. We can also point to contemporary American writers such as Aleksandr Hemon, Gary Shteyngart, Mark Z. Danielewski, and others. On the basis of these comparisons, TJ Benson’s The Madhouse takes Nigerian literature to exciting new literary frontiers.
The novel follows the fortunes of an unusual family living in the penultimate house of Freetown Street in a place called Sabon Geri. There is no explicit attempt to situate ‘Sabon Geri’ as it is known in the history of Northern Nigeria cityscape; Sabon Geri here could as well be a wholesome town. However, this question does not matter much to the landscape of the hallucinatory tale we are drawn into. Even though the novel is set in Nigeria starting from the ‘90s, the landscape of the story feels entirely new, a strange world of tremulous reality. In this world, there is a feeling that anything is possible. One would not be surprised if the characters suddenly develop outlandish abilities. Indeed, the ambiance hints at it: “One day the house is devoid of people, the front door left ajar. Strained things relax, a silk dress stretched over the bedroom chair sinks in . . . a perforated sachet of powdered detergent deflates on the kitchen sink, and the curtains, freed from their tie-backs, stretch themselves freely in the afternoon wind. As the wind picks up, the curtains flail violently.”
From the first sentence of the book (“When they were young and still shared dreams, the younger brother woke from a nightmare . . .”), one is drawn into the near-dream world of the family, especially that of the two brothers, Max and Andre. We follow them as their fortunes change and alternate over a period of more than twenty years. The novel is more or less a family saga that seeks to understand the makings of an unusual close-knit family that chooses to live an isolated strange existence in a community where they could have been more.
There is a certain childlike strangeness in the bond between the father, the mother (whom they all call Sweet Mother), and the two boys. The games they play all seem strange, sometimes violent and perverted. In one instance, during the visit of their grandfather who spends virtually all his time doing chores, Sweet Mother decides to make him rest and ends up killing him with an overdose of a strange herb. The family’s reaction to this inadvertent death is typical: they simply bury him in the backyard. The early stages of the novel creates a claustrophobic atmosphere around the family house—the eponymous madhouse of the title. By the end, even while one feels great empathy for the brothers, in their changing fortunes across events, places and landscapes, one realises that, at the core, these characters are haunted by the neurosis of their family life. While Max has so many psychological dilemmas about his brother, Andre, with whom he shares a strong bond, Andre lives in a world defined by his own hallucinatory creations, a violent impulsive world.
The hint of the speculative is never far in the prose, always hovering on the verge of the fantastic. There are events that seem too fantastic to be real. Sometimes, the characters themselves even doubt the reality of the world they live in. Benson’s depiction of neurosis is nothing short of masterful. The careful excavation of the descent to madness, and the gradual blurring of the line between sanity and madness is acute. In Sweet Mother, we find the image of the madcap artist whose creations result in violence, on others and on, finally, herself. Yet the reader feels a strange empathy for these quirky characters with their different manifestations of neuralgia.
At the core of The Madhouse is the psycho-analytical world of Freudian neurosis. The interplay of dream-world and reality offers a route into the workings of the human mind in unusual situations. How do people trained in isolation react in the wider world? Maybe, here, we can recall a bit of Emma Donoghue’s Room, and a lot of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Essentially, we see how neurosis affects the lives of characters and the way they live, think, speak, and act. Everything appears out of tune. This can make the characters annoying at times, for some readers who may fail to understand the cause-and-effect of hypnotic psychosis.
The prose in which the novel is written has a sustained intensity. There are glorious sentences such as, “He felt naked, licked by the open night like a raw wound,” or, “He concentrated on the original hunger that made due babies restless to come out into the world screaming for air,” and other similar ones littering the story.
In The Madhouse, TJ Benson brings the masterly technique of an old timer to bear on the story, and in how he alternates between the past and present. Here is a writer in complete control of his craft — language, plot, character and whatever else makes a writer stand out from the multitude. The Madhouse is Faulknerian in language, scope and ambition. This is not a novel by an amateur writer; Benson’s literary sensibilities are sweeping and well-developed.
With this novel, TJ Benson attains new heights such as has not been seen a lot in Nigerian prose fiction; he takes a bold step in staking his claim to relevance on the long road to immortality.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Praxis Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment.