Juliann Garey impresses in sharp-tongued debut novel

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See
A Novel

Juliann Garey
Soho Press: 30 pp, $25


Gird yourself: Greyson Todd, the narrator of Juliann Garey’s “Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See,” is a bipolar studio executive, and sharing his head space can be a fascinating, grueling trip down the path of mental illness. Greyson shades toward the antihero, asking you to hate him nearly as much as he hates himself. He offers little quarter for the timid.

Still, I could not help emerging from Garey’s first novel with a deep sympathy for Greyson and admiration for his creator. Told largely in three threads — Greyson’s life after he flees his family in 1984; his childhood in late ‘50s / early ‘60s Los Angeles; and his time in a New York mental institution in 1994 — “Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See” uses this knotted structure to its advantage. The narrative proceeds in fragments because Greyson’s memory has been half-erased by electroshock therapy. The novel is, in some sense, his effort to recall his own life (the book opens with an epigraph from Proust), and the process is about as harrowing as the events recounted within.

Greyson decides to abandon his family not long after he’s been installed as head of a major film studio. For years he’s kept his bipolar disorder a secret, except from his wife, Ellen, who mercifully shepherds him through some of the hardest times, despite his despicable behavior (which includes some abuse, in addition to his wild unpredictability).

By 1984, however, Greyson has nearly lost it — unable to deal with the side effects of medication, his wife unwilling to stay with him if he doesn’t accept treatment.

He bails in the dead of night and spends the next decade traveling the world in a sybaritic frenzy, as he lets his mind spin out. He spends time and money like they count for nothing, wandering across Thailand, Chile, Italy, Uganda, Kenya and Israel. He loses his car to a Bedouin girl and scams his way into a job teaching economics. He does every drug that he can get his hands on; he has a tremendous amount of sex.

There is almost never anything romantic about this, just a procession of bruising, blurred encounters. The psychic damage begins to accumulate, as do the bodily scars when Greyson stabs himself to feel something or ends up beaten on a New York street.

Through it all, Garey is a convincing ventriloquist for Greyson. Her prose can be quite funny, tending toward two comic modes: acidic banter and sly observational humor. A very amusing, very brief set piece concerns “rival foreskins,” each attributed to Jesus Christ and housed in Roman cathedrals.

In a mental institution, a woman sits silently knitting as orderlies struggle to restrain her psychotic daughter. When another visitor begins sobbing and no one bats an eye, Greyson peers through his chemical fog, remarking, “If it ain’t psychosis, it ain’t worth the effort.”

But the language can be a touch too hard-boiled. Garey, at times, seems to want every sentence to land with the force of an anvil. In one of a couple “in this town"-type asides, we’re told that, in Hollywood, “if people smell weakness, they will kill you, eat you, and spit your bones into a shallow grave in the Valley.” Speaking about his wife’s affection for an old pair of jeans, Greyson remarks, “Ellen gets attached to things — holds on to them even when they’re torn and damaged and past their prime.” Of course, he is also talking about himself here, but metaphors require some misdirection; this one rings too clear.

There are some fine bits in the Hollywood section, and they tend to be when Garey grabs hold of archetypal examples of Hollywood lore — the drug-addled producer, the humble, country-bred leading man — and stretches them into new shapes.

At a coke-fueled post-Oscars party, set in 1974, Greyson meets an Oscar-winning 12-year-old actress, Christie Donovan. As her father hoovers a mountain of cocaine, Greyson attempts to wrangle Donovan as a client (Greyson is a talent agent at this point). The child is precocious to the brink of satire: “He gets grouchy when he does too much coke,” she says, excusing her father. “Send the script to the house. I’ll read it after school tomorrow.” The encounter concludes on a strangely touching note, as Greyson shakes the woman-child’s hand (“the pale little thing”) and sees her off, knowing that her acerbic, learned-too-soon brand of wisdom could keep her strong as easily as it could make her end up like her father.

There is an instructional undercurrent to the book. Garey has also co-edited “Voices of Bipolar Disorder: The Healing Companion,” a collection of nonfiction essays, and the urge to educate sometimes rubs up against the book’s narrative possibilities. The story also gets a touch treacly toward the end, as Greyson moves toward a kind of redemption, and too jumpy when we’re fully immersed in Greyson’s syncopated madness. Also, while I’m at it, what Jewish kid from Beverly Hills is named Greyson Todd?

But these are forgivable flaws in an otherwise fine, sharp-tongued debut. “Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See” is a novel deeply wrapped around its subject, but it has its sights on grander themes — namely, how to survive in a world not made for you.

Silverman’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate and many other publications.