The Lily Pond

By Mike Barnes

Mental illness has always been a difficult subject to relate to. The field is full of myths and common misunderstandings, making diagnosis and treatment both a bit of an art and a science. And so if nothing else a memoir of madness gives us a bit of insight into what may be going on.

In The Lily Pond author Mike Barnes offers a series of different perspectives on a life spent dealing with bipolar disorder. The book has four sections (Barnes calls them essays), arranged in roughly chronological order. The first, which is also the shortest and most effective, tells the story of Barnes’s early (mis)diagnoses, hospitalization, and the search for a cure (including the usual laundry list of drugs and even ECT). There is, however, no cure – a point made at the end of the first section with a clever reversal of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Just as Achilles can never catch the tortoise from behind, neither can he escape him if ahead. You can’t shake depression.

And so the next three sections describe Barnes living with his condition, focusing on his relationships with his family, his psychiatrist, and his wife. The presentation here is less personal, more layered with myth and metaphor and concerned with how experience is turned into the stuff of story. But it remains compelling. Barnes, the author of highly-regarded novels and short story collections whose sales figures (disarmingly documented here) are cause for depression enough in themselves, is a graceful yet economical writer with a knack for imagery you can almost feel. Seeing his wife becoming cobwebbed in pills “the image that comes to mind is of someone – I have done it many times myself – trying to secure a package that contains objects of irregular shapes and sharp edges, winding the plastic tape around it in fierce spirals, around and around, swathing and swathing until it lumpily muffled, sometimes – paranoia and fatigue combining clumsily – passing the dispenser over the name and address accidentally.” This is well observed and rendered, with the sentence itself wrapping round and round those bracketed digressions while suggesting the “fierce spiral” of illness and treatment swallowing the patient’s identity seemingly by accident.

As a general rule we aren’t much interested in the memoirs and autobiographies of happy people. But The Lily Pond isn’t just a portrait in misery. This is mainly due to the separation Barnes maintains between the autobiographical subject and the autobiographer, “the necessary sliver of space between my skin and what it was I was stitching.” In other words, in the best postmodern fashion this is a book that is also about its own writing, construction, and interpretation. A portrait of the middle-aged bipolar man as an artist.

If there is one problem with the book it is the final essay. This appears to have been almost an afterthought, telling the late-breaking story of Barnes’s wife Heather’s mental illness. The details, however, are sketchy, the imagery and mythic elements seem more forced, and the picture we end with isn’t as hopeful as it is disturbing. Instead of mutual support one has the sense of an unhealthy, mutually reinforcing co-dependency on a prescription of “twenty-nine pills a day.” On that regimen the tortoise might even begin to close ground with Achilles.

Despite such final misgivings, The Lily Pond is an insightful look inside the black box of bipolar disorder, and an original artistic re-interpretation of the experience of living with mental illness.

Review first published January 17, 2009.

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