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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bedlam Burning

Geoff Nicholson

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To purchase Bedlam Burning

Title: Bedlam Burning
Author: Geoff Nicholson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 298 pages
Availability: Bedlam Burning - US
Bedlam Burning - UK
Bedlam Burning - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive and entertaining piece of writing and bedlam

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . Spring/2002 Rob Spillman
Entertainment Weekly B- 8/3/2002 Troy Patterson
The Independent B+ 23/9/2000 D.J.Taylor
The NY Times C 27/2/2002 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. B 10/2/2002 Marcel Theroux
Psychiatric Services . 12/2003 Stephen Goldfinger
Scotland on Sunday A 1/10/2000 SB Kelley
TLS . 15/9/2000 David Utterson
The Washington Post B 19/2/2002 Chris Lehmann

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus.

  From the Reviews:
  • "So pretty, so empty, so-so." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "In a grisly, tragi-comic dénouement, the tying-up of loose ends is meticulously done, without ever quite resolving the question of what Nicholson set out to achieve. As a "satire", whether of the literary life or insanity, Bedlam Burning is faintly predictable. As a comic novel with sharper adhesions, it fairly bustles along, while throwing up all kinds of incidental felicities." - D.J.Taylor, The Independent

  • "(A)crid, sometimes funny (.....) Mr. Nicholson has used most of his ingenuity on the curtain, though. The performance that follows is mostly fits and starts in pursuit of an idea that is never quite caught up with." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "Nicholson uncoils the plot with great relish, neatly manipulating plausible premises into more and more absurd outcomes. (...) For much of the book, like Mike in the asylum, you feel cut off from life (.....) He does a decent job of bringing the story to a fairly tidy conclusion" - Marcel Theroux, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Nicholson is an equal opportunity satirist: literati, consumers, and mental health professionals are all treated with equal contempt. Although I was not spared myself, I hope that this review will help protect you from purchasing -- let alone reading -- this dreadful work." - Stephen Goldfinger, Psychiatric Services

  • "Nicholson shows remarkable economy in the construction of his narrative. There are no superfluous characters (.....) The prose retains a cool, unobtrusive style which counterbalances the manic happenings of the plot (.....) Bedlam Burning is genuinely comic, and genuinely serious. (...) Writers on writing can produce self-serving, self-referential dross: Nicholson has managed to create an acidic and intelligent novel of ideas and idiots." - SB Kelley, Scotland on Sunday

  • "Bedlam Burning is a comic novel, not a critique of modern life; yet on its own terms it makes serious points, some with subtlety and others in a rather more shrill manner, about the many things which can contribute to major personal disintegration (.....) In the end, Bedlam Burning is a book that leaves the reader with the sane and sensible insight that life is about trying to be a part of what is going on." - David Utterson, Times Literary Supplement

  • "At times, Nicholson's characters (the inmates in particular) come across as two-dimensional, and some of the book's recurring set-pieces (the burning of books, for example) are a bit too contrived. Yet Nicholson is to be commended for this unsparingly savage portrait of a literary world that had nothing more edifying ahead of it than the 1980s." - Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The roughest outline of Bedlam Burning might provoke groans and trepidation: it is largely about writing, and it is largely set in an asylum for the mentally deranged ("A nut house. A loony bin. A funny farm. A booby hatch", as one of the staff psychiatrists helpfully explains). Fictions about writing and the writing life are all too familiar -- it is an overworked subject if ever there was one. Novels in which the majority of characters are mentally unbalanced (and certified as such) should always be approached warily. But Geoff Nicholson knows what he is doing and handles these dangerous and (for a writer) so tempting strands with his usual aplomb, not allowing himself (or his characters) to lose control.
       The story is told by Mike Smith, in two parts: "Then" and "Now". The bulk of the story is the one in the past, recounting the events that occurred in the mid-1970s, with the short "Now" section a present-day postscript.
       Bedlam Burning begins, rather ominously, in 1974 with a book-burning party at Cambridge, where Mike Smith was a student. It is a party held by Dr John Bentley, Smith's Director of Studies, a man of "intellectual audacity", but also one who enjoys a good joke. He holds such inflaming soirees regularly, inviting his guests to each bring a book which is then ceremoniously tossed into the fire -- "a little active, symbolic literary criticism." Among the guests that particular evening is another student, Gregory Collins, who makes one of the more dramatic gestures -- and takes some notice of Smith.
       Mike Smith graduates and takes a job at a posh rare book dealers shop. Not quite what he hoped to do all his life, but something for a start. One day Gregory Collins stumbles into the shop, and grabs hold of his vague old acquaintance. Collins has become a teacher, and he has also written a book, about to be published.
       Collins is not a very good looking fellow, and Mike Smith happens to be a decidedly handsome chap, able to get quite far with his looks and charm ("So pretty," Dr Bentley said of him, "and so empty."). It is this that leads Collins to ask Smith to allow him to use a picture of Smith rather than his own likeness as the author-picture that is to appear on the book jacket of his novel, The Wax Man. Smith doesn't entirely agree with this plan, but he does allow it to be done.
       Gregory Collins' book is no grand success, but it does attract some notice. By and large the substitution of Smith's face for Collins' causes no major problems either -- until the author is invited to a reading of his book. Smith allows himself (fairly easily) to be convinced to appear in Collins' place, and it is this event that change his life.
       The reading is not exactly a smashing success, but one audience member takes a great interest in the purported author: Dr Alicia Crowe, on staff at the Kincaid Clinic. She offers Smith -- thinking him to be the author of The Wax Man -- a position as writer-in-residence at the nut house. Smith is rather easily seduced, and accepts, leaving his old life behind and assuming the identity of Gregory Collins more fully -- and allowing himself to be locked in with the patients.
       The Kincaid Clinic is run by Dr Eric Kincaid, who was quite taken by The Wax Man (for reasons that Mike Smith unfortunately does not bother to determine). The clinic practices "what we're proud to call Kincaidian Therapy." This, as it turns out, largely involves avoiding exposure to any kind of false representation of reality: pictures in almost any form, any paintings which are not abstract, photographs, realistic sculptures, movies and television and so on. But Kincaid does see some value in literary works, and he wants Collins-Smith to "help the patients use language as a bulkhead against madness."
       There are ten patients, textbook cases as it turns out. Nothing too worrisome, though there are hints of more insanity behind the scenes. The writing programme is a huge success, as Smith is overwhelmed by the patients' scribblings. There is a variety of stuff here -- from anagrammatic texts to accounts of football games to more unsettling stuff. Oddly, however, none of the patients are willing to acknowledge who wrote what.
       Smith isn't always entirely comfortable with the situation, but basically he is quite happy. Dr Alicia, who has an unusual tick of her own, spices up his sex life, and he finds himself surprisingly satisfied with his peculiar institutionalized life.
       Things get more complicated when Kincaid wants to get the patients' writing published. The editorial task is too much for Smith, and he brings in the real Gregory Collins to do the work. The resultant book is a surprising success, but also leads to the end of a number of cushy arrangements people have made for themselves. Book-burning Dr Bentley reappears on the scene and what turns out to have been a far larger pyramid than perhaps originally imagined comes crashing down.

       The question of who is insane and who is not is prominent throughout the book, and Nicholson handles this very well. He also shows in Smith the allure of retreating into an unreal world. Nicholson's nuts are not too nutty (always a temptation for writers when their characters are in a loony bin), and the end is particularly fine in allowing for some continued uncertainty as to who was responsible for what (and, by extension, who was sane and who not -- or whether such a differentiation can even be made).
       Bedlam Burning is an astute book about writing, as well as a book about sanity, but in fact much broader themes are also treated. It is a book about managing in the world and finding one's way and a life and identity of one's own. It is a warning against looking for the easy out -- trying to be someone who one is not, or looking for others to prescribe one's life and take care of all one's needs.
       As usual with Nicholson's books this is also an entertainment, a very good story that amuses and satisfies and keeps one hooked. There is a great deal of food for thought here, but Nicholson has become expert at serving it up, the morals easily passing almost unnoticed as one reads but then lingering upon reflection.
       Bedlam Burning is a weighty book: among Nicholson's longest and quite serious. It is comic, too, -- occasionally hilariously so -- but more evenly paced than the occasionally frenetic earlier works. Nicholson almost always entertains -- as he does so here throughout -- but there's more than just laughs and a good read here. It is a deceptively serious work, almost as finely balanced as his best to date, Bleeding London (see our review). Certainly recommended.

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Bedlam Burning: Reviews: Geoff Nicholson: Other books by Geoff Nicholson under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Geoff Nicholson, born in Sheffield in 1953, has written a flurry of novels. He lives in London and New York.

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