On Neurology and Grief: All About Melissa

My second novel, Melissa (Salt, late 2015), is – like a lot of my writing – all about music and neurology. On a sunny afternoon in June 1999, a young girl called Melissa Comb dies on a small street in Stoke-on-Trent; immediately afterwards, everyone on the street experiences the same musical hallucination. The novel opens with this strange phenomenon, and then goes on to focus on what happens to Melissa’s family in the wake of their terrible loss. While the community, media and onlookers around the family are obsessed with the musical phenomenon, the grief-stricken Comb family gradually disintegrates – like Bruegel’s Icarus falling into the sea, in the corner of everyone’s eyes.

The story behind the novel arises from various related and interwoven ‘true’ stories – stories which affected me personally when I was growing up, stories which affected people I know, strange phenomena from history (including, for example, so-called ‘Dancing Plagues’ and ‘Laughing Plagues’), and well-documented medical case histories of auditory hallucinations. In his book Musicophilia (2007), the late great Oliver Sacks discusses various cases of auditory and musical hallucinations; and his work was one of the starting-points for the novel’s opening scene. In fact, there is a fictional neurologist – Prof. Christopher Sollertinsky – who actually appears in the novel, and tries to explain the phenomenon. He’s by no means based on Sacks, but some of the neuroscientific language he uses, and the way he mixes that language with aesthetics, is inspired by Sacks’s work.

In his earlier book Awakenings (1973), Sacks famously calls for a ‘Romantic Science’ which mixes art, narrative, music, imagination, neurology, medicine; and personally I feel it’s important that novelists (as well as scientists) respond to that call. Art, music, writing don’t belong in an aesthetic bubble, isolated from the world outside; in fact, one of the strengths of fictional narrative forms such as the novel (as it comes down to us from, say, Dickens’s collage-like Pickwick Papers) is the way they can absorb many different kinds of narratives and discourses. The same is true the other way round: scientific discourse, as Sacks understood it, can absorb literary, musical and artistic imagery, and, indeed, often does. As Sacks himself was aware, books such as Musicophilia and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) are at once works of neurology and short-story collections; and similarly Awakenings is a great novel. Medicine (as many medical practitioners know) is a narrative art – and illnesses are themselves stories, with beginnings, middles and ends – or, in musical terms, expositions, developments, codas. Hence why my first ‘creative’ book, my memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), was not primarily a biography of my father, nor an autobiography of myself, but was first and foremost a story of a neurological disease as we experienced it.

No doubt the experience of my father’s Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and weird brain syndromes (including one which meant he misrecognised me, and believed I was being impersonated by an evil double) explains my interest in Sacks’s work and in neurology in general. But I think all modern writers should be interested in neurology. It’s clear now that the way we ‘choose’ to behave as human beings is shaped and determined in all sorts of complex ways – not just by traditional psychology (as is the case, for instance, for characters in a Trollope novel), nor by psychology plus social, economic and geographical environment (as is the case, for instance, in an Arnold Bennett novel), nor by psychology plus environment plus unconscious forces (as is the case in, say, a Wyndham Lewis novel) – but also, on top of all these things, by neurological forces. This doesn’t mean that ‘biology is destiny’ (as Freud once said), because all of these factors overlap and interact. But I think writers shouldn’t ignore – when observing characters, deciding how people behave – that we are all a mass of neurological symptoms, tics, neurons, synapses, illnesses, and that our very realities are pieced together through these fragile systems.

This is clear in auditory hallucinations, which are usually experienced as ‘real’ by those afflicted. That is, the same brain systems (in the auditory cortex) which are engaged when experiencing so-called ‘real’ music from ‘outside’ are also engaged by musical hallucinations. In neurological terms, a musical hallucination is ‘real’ to the person experiencing it: there is no difference in the brain’s terms between music heard ‘through’ the ears, and music heard ‘within’ the brain.

Too often do we (and by ‘we’ I mean particularly the British) separate what happens in the brain from what happens outside it: one is fiction, one reality, one mere subjectivity, one objective truth. Clearly, the most radical aspects of Sacks’s work undermines this distinction, and the British (and perhaps some British writers too) need to change the way in which subjectivity and objectivity are divided. Subjectivity, it turns out, is often ‘real’ and ‘true,’ at least in neurological terms. Music, whether of a hallucinatory kind or not, is pieced together, sorted, constructed in the brain – it doesn’t exist as a coherent narrative for the listener until this (miraculously fast) process takes place within. Musical narratives are sorted, compared, and understood within the experiencing subject.

The same goes for other kinds of narrative – including, I think, emotional narratives such as grief and mourning. Grief, like music, is pieced together within the experiencing subject; grief, like music, is experienced as vividly, overwhelmingly ‘real’ by the subject, even though it is an internal, subjective phenomenon; grief, like music, often has an hallucinatory quality; and the structure of grief, I think, often shares certain traits with musical narrative structures, in which refrains, cadences, variations, (emotional) polyphony, codas, concords and discords all play their parts. That is why I structured Melissa not in conventional chapters or sections, but in the form of theme and variations: because this musical form, perhaps, is closer to the emotional structure of grief than a linear literary narrative structure. Music, as Sacks suggests, perhaps maps onto neurological and emotional processes more closely than other forms of narrative.

Jonathan Taylor

About Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novels "Melissa" (Salt, 2015), and "Entertaining Strangers" (Salt, 2012), the memoir "Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself" (Granta Books, 2007), and the short-story collection, "Kontakte and Other Stories" (Roman, 2013). He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

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