Asylum and Mirage: Themes and Issues
Art maven Reva McKee invites a hundred fifty guests to artist Dave Raavenscorr’s quirky warehouse studio, but they’ve really come to seek succor from the charismatic Marshall Singletree, the Great Migrator who escaped two Reunion brainwashing catastrophes in the south.
I keep mulling over various issues the book brings up. Here are some new ones, including unreliable narrators, character points of view, communes and theater stages, addicts and Nullity, and the ambiguous Reunion.
Unreliable Narrators: Infant Dave and Sociopath Thomas
These two characters offer third-person point-of-view narration. Though they may not embody the classic first-person unreliable narrator, their absurdly skewed perceptions qualify them for unreliability. Dave is in thrall to his Shadow side and showcases his predation mode when he tries to seduce what he thinks is a neurotic college girl. But he winds up baffled and horrified to find he’s latched onto Dr. Marina Nunn, promiscuous chair of the Lake University Music Department. Then we abruptly see him ruthlessly sized up from addict Caspra Coronae’s point of view; Dr. Nunn’s “mere addict” sees he’s still the same clueless jerk she knew in high school fourteen years ago.
Dave secretly loves Reva McKee, but she’s supposed to be just a friend, and she’s also recently begun a nourishing relationship with the Great Migrator, Marshall Singletree. Regarding her as unattainable, trapped in his repressed fantasy mode, Dave picks up college girls ten or more years his junior, seething with senseless generalizations about how they act and look, how inferior they are to him. He certainly can’t see that his dedication to his art and his infantile sexuality cancel each other out.
But under the mounting pressures of brainwashing and the coming war, Dave finally has to sober up and assume vast responsibility.
Sociopath Thomas’ narration churns past Dave’s in a more frenzied key. He and Dave are entangled. As an addict, and as Dave’s Shadow personality, Thomas chooses Dave to be his legal sponsor.
Thomas may catalog every inch of his former girlfriend Reva’s flesh in his icky domineering way, but in Reva’s narration, other dimensions of her appear as we see her awash in self-doubt as well as buoyed up by her new love with Marshall Singletree. She’s uncertain about her book club leadership role, but we do see she can get things done. While Thomas is unable to see past Reva’s stunning physical presence, Singletree, on the other hand, is a gentleman and knows the real Reva. He does throw a tantrum when he sees he’s about to lose her to Dave, but though he’s pathetic at that point, it seems entirely understandable.
It takes Thomas a long time to realize his true nature as a Reunion agent of terror and brainwashing. I enjoyed unraveling his mind with tornadoes and his crazed, improbable lust for the OverGeneral.
Eight Main Characters and their Points of View
I’m impressed that all eight of my drawings of the characters captured each one’s essence; I’m usually successful in about a third of such attempts. I was conservative in executing these drawings; there’s less abstraction than in most of my character sketches.
There are four main male characters, Dave, Thomas, Leon, and Singletree, with only unreliable Dave and Thomas getting point-of-view duties.
Of the four main female characters, Caspra, Marina, Reva, and Jasmine, only Caspra and Reva, quite reliable narrators, have point-of-view narration.
Leon, Singletree, Jasmine, and Marina have no point-of-view scenes. I consider them all unknowable forces and so we don’t get inside their heads. I’m sorry Jasmine had to exit the novel so early. She had a strong walk-on part that took her beyond being a mere supporting character. Maybe I’ll resurrect her as a robot in a new science fiction series!
Communes and Theater Stages
Communes recur in my novels, groups or gangs with a shared mission, even if the members are at cross-purposes. For instance:
- Akard Drearstone’s four-man rock group, and their farmhouse commune
- The Soul Institute’s deranged twenty-person faculty as well as the junior high school paint-sniffing gang
- CommWealth’s Forensic Squad theater troupe
- Sortmind’s group of high school artist friends
- Jump Grenade’s basketball team
- The Jack Commer series’ Typhoon spaceships with their tight six-person crews
Communes allow for an ensemble approach to the characters; Asylum and Mirage’s eight main characters are a commune; Dave’s army company forms a larger commune.
I also want to set a theater stage where actors block out scenes, synchronize with each other, and get their lines perfect. On the night of the party we have these theater stages:
- Marina’s dorm room, where idiot Dave gets in way over his head
- Dave’s warehouse, where a hundred fifty drunk partygoers ignore their pending doom
- The dream warehouse district, where Dave and Marina seek pleasure and escape but find Reunion madness
- The addict holding pen with its drugs, bureaucracy, and murder
A month later, on the night of the final battle, these stages are set:
- The shell hole, where spies open up to each other
- The Victorian mansion of delusion and hallucination
- The ruined warehouse, where Caspra confronts her disintegrating empire
- Café Spike, where stunned survivors confront the future
I Swear the Following Symbolic Aspect was Written Unconsciously
During the first draft I realized that while I’d long ago posited Dave’s warehouse being on the second floor, I never bothered to ask if he owned the place or was just renting it, or what lay below. So now Dave buys the warehouse, but the sales contract lets the previous owners store their ancient printing press machinery in the dank, unfinished first level for a year. However, and I almost wince to consider the high school symbolism of this, the bright upper floor of vast bright art and partygoers, officially owned by Dave, can represent his ego, the way he thinks about himself, and the leaking cold storeroom of ancient printing presses below becomes his Shadow, everything he doesn’t want to acknowledge.
Addicts and Nullity
An explanation of Nullity’s true nature doesn’t come up until a third of the way into the book. People are disgusted by addicts and look down on them, even the government does with its crazed proclamations of addicts’ rights. Only later do we see the fear and the secret longing for Nullity behind this revulsion.
Are addicts doing themselves a favor by using Nullity to avoid painful hallucinations? But the drug must have some use because Reva finally needs it to come to grips with what Singletree really is.
I wanted the exposition about Nullity and Reunion to unfold as naturally as possible, reflecting the fact that people can’t bear to discuss these topics. The invitees to Dave’s art warehouse are like partygoers in Paris two weeks before the Nazis invade in 1940. Hopefully no dialog like “Professor, can you explain to me how this Nullity works?”
Marina and her Reunion Topology Opera
Marina’s a music professor and intends to create an opera, but can her notecards ever form one that would truly map the Reunion? She wants Dave to paint background scenery for her opera, her voice is musical, and she has the talent to pull it off. But she never gets past the notecard-making stage. I think she’s processing energy but unable to pull it together.
I tried on the idea that Marina, who declares she can’t say no to any man, has self-esteem issues, but that’s almost a cliché explanation. I see her more as a semi-foolish adventuress. She finally breaks down after her tryst with psychopath Thomas. Coming apart, she runs off for a month, lost in hallucinations, but I don’t think she ever gets fully brainwashed even as she conjures a fantasy of marriage to the murdered Great Migrator.
The Ending / Ambiguity / The Reunion in General
The ambiguity is intentional. After all, “mirage” is the theme. What is the Reunion after all? Is it even real? Is Singletree really a Seed of the Reunion? He’s weaker than he pretends, but when he appears to come back from the dead he certainly seems to embody Reunion evil. Or is that just the way his hallucinating captives see him?
I think Caspra unconsciously realized she could be the OverGeneral and just as unconsciously took it. I doubt this was a plan to destroy the Reunion, but she gained psychic power just by grabbing–even inventing–the OverGeneral. After finishing the novel I realized that her inability to maintain control of the Reunion echoes Jonathan James Commer’s failure to fully assume the Alpha Centaurian Emperorship in Collapse and Delusion, but I think you can explore the same theme in different novels.
The group-mind theme is a constant with me. Rationally you’d think “group mind” can’t really exist, but then what’s the mechanism that allows people to go mad in groups?
I’m fascinated by sociopaths like Thomas and by crowd delusions, shared fear, and mass hysteria, which essentially is what the Reunion is. Although a lot of the ideas for this book go way back to 1985, much of the impulse to write Asylum and Mirage came from my horror of crowd delusions, even my dismay at the January 6th riot. A recent book, The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups, is full of amazing examples. I’ve wondered if it isn’t all a hormonal thing–people get energized, then trapped, by the rising adrenaline rushes of people around them. I wrote a blog post about people being able to rationalize anything.
Another inspiration was William L. Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic, detailing how France fell apart as the Nazis invaded, how hundreds of thousands of refugees clogged the roads, how French soldiers fled at the mere mention that Germans units were coming.
I also listened to How Civil Wars Start (quite depressing) and then The Sinner and the Saint, where the author describes Raskolnikov’s fever dream in Crime and Punishment: a disease coming out of Asia that drives people mad with a fanatic individuality in which no two people can agree on a single fact, where everyone thinks their view of reality is the only valid one, where all fight against all, where armies marching to combat start turning on each other, where societies completely break down.
Such insanity can’t be directly conquered. Just because Caspra realizes she’s deluded doesn’t end the Reunion. “Pulling its plug” is too tidy an ending. Yet she’s added another seed of distrust to the Reunion matrix.
The book winds down with sociopath Thomas and charming boy secret agent Leon in a bizarre, homicidal Rosencrantz and Guildenstern duet. I didn’t have to kill either of them off to make the plot work–but of course I did.
copyright 2023 by Michael D. Smith
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