Although Fitzcarraldo’s 2017 publication of Insane by Rainald Goetz was the book’s first appearance in an English translation, unusually for this publisher it is not a new, or even relatively new, piece of writing.
Insane was first published in German, titled Irre, in 1983. That’s a whopping 34 years’ difference.
This may not sound like a huge amount of time when compared to 34 years’ cultural difference in any century before the eighteenth, but that is a loooooong time in contemporary culture. Though Insane is irrefutably a spectacular novel, it is one that very much feels like a novel from a different cultural epoch. Though mental illness and insanity and the slippery differences between “sanity” and its opposite are as much of a contemporary concern as they were then (in some ways more so), it is the wider social, political and cultural contexts that have massively shifted.
Goetz writes about the kind of 1970s/1980s scenes that Mark Fisher raves about in his overhyped manifesto for nostalgia, Ghosts of My Life. Insane is drenched in music and partying, but it’s punk music (yawn) and all that art pop avant garde bullshit (yawn), and all the parties only involve booze and hash and everyone just falling asleep in bars, smashed. Partying, of course, got much better later in the eighties with the widespread dissemination of uppers. A party where everyone dances for three days is obviously better than a party where everyone passes out before the bar closes. Anyway, punk music and the punk scene is boring, is what I’m trying to say, and there’s a lot of it here. I know that there exists a “punk anthem” called Nazi Punks Fuck Off, but I have no idea what it sounds like and I think all punks should fuck off. Yes, Triumphofthenow.com is explicitly anti-punk. 1
Insane is split into three distinct parts, each one preceded by a piece of visual art that depicts a near-abstract image of insanity. There is no artist named (that I could see) within the book, so I presume these are by Goetz. I do not know if they are, in turn, intended to be images created by his characters. [This thought is unresolved.]
The first section of Insane is a breathtaking piece of polyphonic high modernism, jumping between perspectives (first, second and third) to explore the lives of people associated with a psychiatric hospital. We see the minds of patients and the doctors and nurses as they try – with varying success – to treat them; we see mundane medical notes and dull office conversations about admin and hospital politics; we see the difficulties of the people outside who care about the patients, and we even see, briefly, the social lives of the staff. It is fast-paced and overwhelming, but in a powerfully evocative way. It is the chaos of insanity: being its victim and trying to live beside it.
The second part of the novel spins into the tight perspective of one particular doctor, Raspe. During the course of a tumultuous year we see him lose faith in his profession and slip irrevocably towards a psychosis himself, which the third section of the novel places us exclusively within. This final section is, like the first, cacophonous, but here all the noise fails to combine into a “clear” image.
Wait, that sounds like I’m implying it fails, which it doesn’t. The third section of this novel shows the direct experience of psychosis, which is by its very essence hard to understand. Here, we shift from anecdote to imagination to imagined films to images and drawings and photographs. We are inside and within a fractured mind and the text reflects that. It fractures, but engages, it puzzles, but intentionally. I found this section difficult to read, because though its confused nature is intentional, struggling to comprehend a text always makes me feel some sort of discomfort. But this is not a casual read and nor is it trying to be. It’s a serious book about a serious topic, and causing discomfort is both essential and intentional.
Insane is difficult, in the classic tradition of difficult books. This, even more than the punk elements, is what makes it feel – to me – old. This is high modernism – tbf done incredibly well (certainly in this translation by Adrian Nathan West), but it’s high modernism all the same. This is writing in the literary tradition, it is intellectual and highly educated, which is – ironically – the kinda aesthetic that punk often claimed to be railing against. Insane feels like classic German modernism, which of course is wonderful, but in 1983 it wasn’t fucking fresh and in this decade it certainly isn’t. This said, the book is a powerful example of its genre.
Goetz’s novel evokes insanity and collapse through form and content, but but but but but the structurally-essential obtuseness in the final section was neither harrowing nor funny enough to hold my attention throughout. The opening section – which is equally as “difficult” – creates firm clarity; the third section [intentionally] collapses away from this.
So, yes, my opinion of Insane is that it’s phenomenal, that it does exactly what it attempts to do, but what it attempts to do is hard going. Too hard going? Maybe for me: it’s certainly on my upper limit. But it’s impressive, important, acclaimed fiction and I think we all benefit from doing things that push us, right?
also, tbh i’m scared of becoming insane and it felt like me at my worst, which sometimes even now i get close to. its scary, it’s real, innit, and I think the familiarity made me feel a little wary too lol.
1. Nb I like the idea of DIY and underground, indie, cultures that punk promoted, but I think the music and the visual aesthetics were shit. Sorry, I phrased that as an opinion when it’s actually a fact. I like the “idea” of punk, but the execution was botched to the extreme. ↩
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