In Juliann Garey’s debut novel, Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See, Greyson Todd is a man on a wire. He has excelled as a studio executive in Hollywood, and has everything that one’s supposed to want: a kind and supportive spouse, a lovely child. Money, beautiful house, glamorous career. But he’s been hiding an increasingly crippling bipolar disorder for two decades, and it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. He is aware at all times that he’s coming undone, and equally aware that any display of weakness would be fatal to his career.
The best thing he can do for his wife and child, he decides, since obviously he can’t hold it together much longer, is to ensure that they’re taken care of financially and then exit the scene. He transfers funds for his own use to secret off-shore accounts, makes arrangements for his wife and daughter, puts a suitcase in the trunk of his car, drives away after dinner one evening, and doesn’t stop traveling for a decade. If he can’t control his illness, why not give it free rein? He’s made enough money to devote himself to a life of wandering, and there’s a certain freedom in letting everything — everyone — go. All that matters is velocity. The destination is unimportant.
Greyson Todd is the most fully-realized fictional character I’ve come across in a while. The terrible exuberance of his mania and the devastation of his depressive episodes are perfectly rendered. Garey doesn’t shy away from the depths of her character’s pain, but scenes that could easily become gratuitous in lesser hands are rendered with restraint and grace. She excels at leading us down the rabbit hole when Todd slips from logic into paranoia.
The writing is beautiful — “The panic spread out like a late-afternoon shadow” — and Garey creates an atmosphere of exquisite tension. We know from the outset that all of this will come to an end. The travel narrative is undercut with sections set in a New York City psychiatric ward where Todd is undergoing shock therapy after the years of traveling are over, his memories unraveling in a blaze of electricity:
The truth is technical, clinical, not well understood. Essentially, somewhere behind my overactive, often dysfunctional frontal lobe, my hippocampus is getting hot, and in the back of my brain, deep inside the little, almond-shaped amygdala, flashes of light are igniting a fire that burns through my memory like a box of random photos left for too long in a dusty firetrap of an attic.
Garey expertly juggles four separate narrative threads: there are scenes from Todd’s childhood, as he watched his father’s slow fall into mental illness; there is the decade of travel across Africa, the Middle East, South America, Asia; there is the wrenching unraveling of Todd’s marriage in Hollywood in the years before he left; there is the New York City hospital years later. The book reads as a complicated tangle of memories, which seems perfectly fitting for the narrative of a man whose own memories are being shocked into oblivion.
The pyrotechnics of Garey’s structure and the beauty of her writing are such that it takes some time to realize, amid the moments of brilliance and all the leaping about between locales and storylines, that the book as a whole is somewhat lacking in narrative drive. The decade of aimless travel is exactly that. The sections set in Todd’s childhood are interesting from the perspective of character development, but do little to move the narrative forward.
For most of the book this isn’t a problem, because the slight sense of aimlessness at the novel’s heart mirrors not just the chaos of Todd’s electro-shocked mind, but the mania from which he suffers through most of the book. The book throws itself between threads, childhood to marriage to travel to hospital to childhood to marriage to travel; in his decade of travel Todd throws himself from one place to the next, and what is mania if not one thing and then the next thing and then the next thing and then the next? It’s only in the very final stretch, when it inevitably becomes necessary to wrap things up and an attention to plotting becomes essential, that the book falters slightly and a mild awkwardness sets in.
But these seem like minor qualms. Juliann Garey is a bold and talented writer, and this is a genuinely impressive debut.