Tuesday, 7 April 2015

What is it like to be a psychopath? 'Engleby' by Sebastian Faulks

What is it like to be a psychopath?

Another look at Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

The Sea of Ice, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1823. Also known as 'The Wreck of Hope'

* SPOILER ALERT * – please don’t read this if you have not read the novel.

Where would fiction be without the murderer, the psychopath, the serial killer, the ripper in the shadow, ‘the smiler with the knife’? Eviscerated, is the simple answer, with Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, Graham Greene’s Pinkie Brown, Ruth Rendell’s Teddy Grex, all cast out along with numberless other nightmarish figures who stalk the pages of crime fiction (and ghost stories). Some murderers are no more than plot devices, while others break out of their crime-genre boxes to secure an enduring place in the popular imagination. But, with very few exceptions, the interior life of the psychopath remains mysterious in fiction, we look at him or her from the outside, from the perspective of the police officer, psychiatrist, relative, or victim.

It seems fairly safe to assume that few novelists have committed murder, so it is unsurprising that many writers have preferred to investigate what it would feel like for a sane, sensitive character, for whom the idea of killing is alien and repulsive, to be drawn into murder through some accident or momentary moral failure. This imaginative effort has given us (among others) Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and more recently, the five undergraduate murderers in Donna Tartt’s superb novel, The Secret History

Getting under the skin of a genuine psychopath, showing the reader what the world might look like from their perspective, seems to me a more difficult task. Of course, ‘psychopath’ is an imprecise and elastic label of dubious medical or legal value, a word that means nothing more than ‘sick mind’, but in fiction, what it describes is popularly understood to mean a person without remorse, antisocial, manipulative, possibly sadistic, and probably delusional. 

Ruth Rendell has made an enormous contribution here, singlehandedly and prolifically creating some of the most frightening characters in fiction, such as Eunice Parchman (A Judgement in Stone), or Senta in The Bridesmaid, and Rendell invites the reader in to listen to their interior voices. But there’s still a narrowness to Rendell’s psychopaths. Like the fanatically hygienic Minty in Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, they are trapped in, and defined by, their manias, obsessions, and fetishes; we watch in appalled fascination, tempered with sympathy, as the character’s compulsion or phobia expands and tightens its grip, distorting and conquering their reality. They murder to escape what seems to them a greater horror. Also, Rendell’s murderers are clearly mentally ill, and, like most fictional psychopaths I have met – they are so sick, so strange, so utterly beyond the borders of normal experience that they are oddly reassuring. The reader can think, ‘well, at least I’m not like that’.

Is Mike Engleby mentally ill? The answer is almost certainly yes, but the hesitation in making a glib diagnosis is part of what makes the character so disturbing and original. It is much more difficult to define yourself in contrast to Engleby. Instead of feeling comfortably distanced by his oddness, you catch yourself cheering him on as he lampoons lazy thinking, or exposes pretentiousness, complacency, and rudeness in others. He also elicits sympathy as he wrestles with the ‘curse of consciousness’, and when he is haunted by a sense of something that has been lost in modern life: 

“You need the air to be warm, not hot, but balmy with a smell of grass or hawthorn. You need the black outline of branches against a sky that, while dark, still has a blue shade to it. What you’re trying to do is get plugged into the depth of history going down through these villages, these houses, these lawns panting with their garden scent at evening.”

But the Mike Engleby who wrote that passage is the same person who can write the following about the final moments in the life of the young girl he has abducted and killed: 
“I don’t remember how, but I became aware that she had wet herself. Was there a smell? Did I hear it? I don’t know, but she’d made herself disgusting . . . her face was ugly with crying.” 

As the narrator, Engleby offers a number of possible causal explanations for his own ‘condition’: a violent father, poverty, a semi-detached mother, a sickeningly brutal experience of abuse and casual sadism as a scholarship boy at a squalid public school. He also suffers physical and psychological symptoms: headaches, insomnia, memory lapses, addictions, and episodes of dissociation in which he experiences a sudden violent dissolution of his sense of self, which he describes as a physical sensation. 

Any combination of these might be enough to make him a murderer, but this does not answer the old question of why other people who suffer similar difficulties do not kill. Faulks also probes the slippery question of guilt and insanity, and the extent to which the latter wipes out the former. In the novel, Engleby is committed to a psychiatric hospital (rather than prison) on the grounds of ‘personality disorder’, but whether he should be let off the hook in a larger moral sense is left to the reader to decide. I don’t think he should be, and I’ll explain why later. 

For me, the attempts at explanation, and the public school bullying chapter in particular, are the least interesting and successful aspects of the book.

The novel does three things brilliantly, however. First, it offers you a convincing experience of inhabiting the consciousness of someone who has committed murder, and he is an astute, perceptive, sardonically witty murderer with a phenomenal memory. 

Second, the story forces the reader to define precisely what is wrong about Engleby, what it is that he lacks. To achieve this, Faulks uses something akin to the Socratic method: as the story proceeds, he knocks away your assumptions about what a serial killer might be like (brutal, unreflective, inarticulate, blinkered, lacking in insight, humourless, unable to understand the perspective of others, incapable of change) building up a portrait of an original thinker, a damaged outsider who seems to possess far more insight than those around him, until finally, shockingly, Mike’s memory returns, and you are there with him in a dark Fenland lane, reliving the murder of Jennifer, forced to watch as he unmasks the monster. 

The shock comes not at the discovery that Mike has killed Jennifer (this is strongly signposted, you just don’t know how), but in his complete lack of simple pity for her terror (“her face was ugly with crying”), and the way he blames her for “what she’d made me do.”

The third excellent thing is spookier, and only emerged (for me) on a second reading. It concerns manipulation, a trait often attributed to the psychopath. Mike’s narrative voice (we are reading his journal, over several decades) is interspersed with long quotations from the diary of his principal victim, Jennifer, which Mike stole from her, along with one of her letters to her parents. It is these extracts that establish Jennifer’s character, her distinctive voice. But in one of the diary entries, the style changes markedly, gaining eloquence and flow; suddenly it sounds like Mike, and you start to wonder if some of the ‘voices’ (we also hear from Mike’s only friend, and his psychiatrist) are the creation of a clever simulator, and how far you, the reader, are being manipulated by the psychopath emerging from the pages. It’s an unsettling sensation. 

We first meet Mike as a student at Cambridge in 1972. He tells us he is in his second year at the university, describes his room, the architecture, the food, the dons, his favoured pubs, Folk Club, and his first sightings of Jennifer Arkland, the confident, fair-haired history student with whom he becomes obsessed. The narrative trots along entertainingly enough, but after a few pages you become aware of something slightly amiss. The tone is curiously flat, deadpan, like that of a clever boy at boarding school obliged to write a letter home. There’s also a striking lack of references to friends; he’s in his second year, but only seems to have acquaintances (“most nights, I go out alone”), and the only note of affection comes when he mentions his younger sister, Julie. In fact Julie is the only character in the novel who inspires any genuine tenderness in Mike, but she remains a ghostly, peripheral figure.

Mike does not explain why Jennifer, rather than any other female student, is the focus of his rapidly developing obsession. He doesn’t mention sexual attraction, and he has never talked to her, but wonders what her room was like. What was her life like?” Mike then records a couple of strange speculative fantasies about teatime in her hall of residence, one cake-filled and cosy, the other bleak. But we don’t hear from the real Jennifer until Mike opens her private letter and reads her stolen diary. 

The style of these diary entries is perfectly judged by Faulks. Writing in an abbreviated, student-essay-notes form, Jennifer has a sure instinct for predictable adverbs and safe adjectives, combined with an artless unconcern for possible banality. The cold is ‘arctic’, she cycles ‘vigorously’ on her ‘trusty’ bike, she ‘dutifully’ sets her alarm for an early lecture. Studenty 1970s words like ‘zonked’ and ‘budge’ sprinkle the pages, but she is still a good enough writer to give us a vivid picture of her life and a strong sense of her physical presence. She sounds absolutely authentic. 

Jennifer can be seen as Mike’s opposite, which might explain his fascination with her. She is preternaturally cheerful, so full of optimism and gaiety that she feels obliged to tone it down for propriety’s sake. Even the Cambridge cold inspires good humour. She’s balanced, equable, conscientious without being a “swot”, bright rather than brilliant; she goes to pubs but doesn’t get drunk, it is her roommate Hannah who forgets keys, not her, and she has a healthy interest in boys, but knows she’s too young for a “long-term thing”. Her life is overflowing with friends, clubs, plays, boys, volleyball (she would have been a natural for Facebook) and, in stark contrast to Mike, she has the support of an extremely loving family and a stable, middle-class background.  

Jennifer is also profoundly unoriginal, and I think this is a strength in the novel. The temptation would have been to create an exceptional character, a warm and empathetic genius to point up the contrast with Mike and solicit the reader’s outrage at her death. But her ordinariness, or at least her youthful immaturity, helps to underline Mike’s lack of compassion. For the reader, Jennifer is not particularly interesting, but her death nevertheless provokes a sharp horror and pity. For Mike, the perpetrator, it really doesn’t, even though he is fascinated by her. 

When Jennifer first goes missing, Mike has no memory of the deed, and we do not know he is the killer. So he is reporting her disappearance in his journal from the standpoint of an innocent fellow student. His comments are revealing. While watching a TV appeal, Mike bursts out laughing at Jennifer’s boyfriend’s demeanour, which he considers artificial: “he put on a grown-up voice.” This  surprises another boy who is also watching. He (this boy) “looked up at the noise of my laughter with a puzzled and slightly accusing look. He appeared to have tears on his cheeks.”  Later, at a ‘service of hope’ for Jennifer (her body has not yet been found) a friend gives a tribute. Mike wonders “how Anne had got to know Jen so well and care about her so much so quickly. I mean, they were just student pals, weren’t they?” 

This heartless reaction is followed by an accurate but equally chilly dissection of newspaper editorial style when reporting missing girls, concluding shrewdly that “Notoriety is a very odd thing. From the moment her face appeared on that poster, Jennifer has stopped being herself . . . something pious has attached itself to her.”

As Mike is preparing to leave Cambridge, thinking about what he will and won’t miss about the place, he hints at what he got back from his fixation with Jennifer: “What I liked about it (Cambridge) was a version lived by others. For instance, by Jennifer. I enjoyed her time here.” 

I enjoyed her time here. There’s something unnerving about that sentence when you remember he is talking about a girl who is missing, presumed dead. He might not realise he has killed her, but he knows her likely fate. There is also pathos in it: unable to engage with life himself, he borrows the perspective of someone who, in his view, is better equipped for living. 

The case goes cold, and over the next decade Mike moves on, hacking out a successful career on London newspapers, while Jennifer is marooned in 1974, aged 21, listening to prog rock, dazzled by the vista of her bright future, presumed dead. “I haven’t thought about Jennifer Arkland for years,” Mike notes at one point. James Stellings, his only friend from university, invites him to a dinner party with his wife and some well-heeled banker and lawyer friends. 

The description of this excruciating evening is one of the funniest episodes in the novel, and it is impossible not to sympathise wholeheartedly with Mike as, seated between two of the wives, he is obliged to discuss children’s schools, and au pairs, first with one, then the other, then back to the first “like watching Wimbledon in slow motion.”

“She asked me if I had any children and I said no. Then she told me which of her children were good at which subjects. . . . then she talked about the reputations of various schools that her children were not going to but which friends of hers had children at . . . ” 

Anyone who has ever been trapped in a similar situation will recognise this particular type of rudeness, a combination of  self-absorption and total lack of curiosity about other people. 

And yet . . . Toward the end of the book, after Mike has been found guilty and is confined to psychiatric hospital, Stellings still visits him regularly. We get to read Stellings witness statement, describing Mike. In it, Stellings sounds honest (we learn for the first time that Mike is physically unattractive), quite perceptive, and generous. “He (Mike) could be very funny, but he hardly ever laughed . . . I did like him, though . . . and I will stick by him.” 

Engleby however has nothing but contempt for Stellings’ assessment, calling him pedestrian and radically inarticulate”. This then puts a different slant on that dinner party, and you wonder if Mike was really the victim of rudeness or the cause of it. The perspective shifts, and Engleby changes shape again. 

Mike Engleby tells us he has memorised Jennifer’s diary, word for word. But we only have his word for this. The suspicion I mentioned earlier, that Mike may have overwritten Jennifer, comes with this passage attributed to Jennifer, dated 25 May, 1972:

“So where’s it coming from, this feeling, this funny low euphoria? A little bit from the town, I think. I do love the dirty brick of the miniature terraces and the mist from the river and the cold mornings, even now in May. And then the sudden huge vista of a great courtyard of King’s or Trin or Queens’, when everything that’s been pinched, and puritanical and cold and grudging and sixpence-in-the-gas-meter is suddenly swept away by the power and scale of those buildings, with their towers and crenellations and squandered empty spaces, built by men who knew that they’d calculated the mechanical laws of time and distance and there was therefore no need whatever to build small.”

I simply don’t believe that Jennifer could have written that at 19, when a year later she was writing like this: 

“Early college brek with Sue Jubb and Liz Burdene. Poor Sue’s hair looks as though she has been electrocuted as in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. They just have tea and toast, but I get hungry later, so had to have the fried egg etc. The egg had been sitting for a long time so had to lever off hard little cap from the yolk. Underneath, it was fine. At least, nothing that salt and pepper and a bit of tinned tomato couldn’t disguise. Check pigeonhole for letter from Simon (nothing: sob) and pedal furiously to Sidgwick.” 

This second passage is entirely typical of Jennifer. Of course, Faulks may simply have slipped up and lost Jennifer’s voice in the first extract. But I prefer not to believe this. It is more interesting to think that this is Mike, playing with his readers, and using Jennifer - his idea of her - to breathe some life into his own experience. “What I liked about it was a version lived by others.”

The last pages of the book confirm Mike’s will to control the past, to control Jennifer, and to control her writing voice. They reveal his lack of real remorse. He creates a final diary entry for Jennifer, dated the day after her disappearance. This time, Jennifer gets into Mike’s car, but instead of driving off with her out of Cambridge, into the the fens toward her death, they end up at her house, in her bed.  The style is pure Jennifer, but nothing else about it is. Jennifer’s role in this repellent fantasy is only to comfort Mike Engleby. There’s no more of her reality as a separate person than there was when he ignored her terrified screams in the car, and smashed a slab of concrete on her head in a dark lane. 

The truth this book exposes is a simple one, that a person can have impressively superior gifts, but without compassion, these are hollow. The journey there, taken inside the mind of the killer, is exhilarating and entertaining as well as disturbing. 

While Engleby does not fall into the forgotten’ or obscure categories I imposed on this blog, I do think it is underrated. It is well worth a second read. 

© Josephine Gardiner 2015 

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks. Vintage Books, 2007.


  1. I found this a very frightening book, partly because I initially felt Mike was quite a sympathetic character, saner than the world around him. The review picks up very well on how slowly one starts to notice that things are wrong and also on how Mike tries to control Jennifer's voice even after she is dead. I wanted to re-read the book immediately on reading this.

  2. Thank you for commenting. You're right, it is an unnerving book - being manipulated by the author is one thing, but here I felt I was being manipulated by the fictional character...

    I had to read it twice to see how clever it is.