“Dangerously Close”: Alyssa Quinn on Nina Shope’s Novel Asylum

Some books refuse to leave you unscathed; they draw you in, grip you tight, and when you get out—if you get out—you will remain forever marked.

Nina Shope’s Asylum is such a book. An innovative work of historical fiction, Asylum tells the story of Louise Augustine Gleizes, a young woman diagnosed with hysteria by the 19th-century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. In the confines of his asylum, Charcot studies Augustine with the cold lust of the vivisectionist, desperate to flay her open, to discover a physiological cause for her cryptic disease. But as his experiments progress, Charcot becomes increasingly threatened by Augustine’s own subversive desires, by her unruly femininity and refusal to be contained. Slowly, the roles of observer and observed begin to invert, until the power dynamics of the asylum implode before our eyes.

Asylum is a deeply atmospheric book. Dark and sensual as a bruise, it casts a haunting spell over us, and pulls us into the claustrophobic interior of the asylum from the very opening line: “You stand at the front of the amphitheater, chalk in hand, the right side of your face drooping like a stroke victim’s.” We soon learn that these words are spoken by Augustine, who is addressing Charcot, as she does for much of the novel. But from that very first word, Shope’s savvy use of second person catches us in its net; we are now inescapably implicated in the role of the voyeur, forced into uncomfortable proximity with the medical gaze to which Augustine is subjected:

Give her a mirror and she will gaze at herself for hours. And we will linger as well, smitten by the charm of her pose. Who could resist looking a second time, a third, or watching, transfixed, for days, even years? One could spend a lifetime reproducing and repeating this moment …. In this way, the viewer draws a little closer, too close, dangerously close.

But unlike Charcot, we will not be able to sustain the fantasy of medical mastery. Shope will not allow us to. Refusing to provide the backstory, biographical details, and historical stage setting which might characterize a more conventional fiction, Shope invests instead in the frisson of language, image, and the incantatory rhythm of her narrator’s voice. In some of the eeriest passages of the book, Charcot dreams of the day he will dissect Augustine’s corpse and find the secrets hidden there, much like “the overcurious child, who breaks open his plaything, destroys it, pursues at all costs his desire to know.” Shope, on the other hand, rejects the structures of knowledge and mastery which her antagonist represents. She does indeed plumb Augustine’s depths, but those depths remain forever fleshy, pulsating, and alive. While Charcot wishes he could “extricate himself from the mess and corruption of the corporeal [and] traffic solely in the realm of ideas,” Augustine “challenges the figurative nature of every metaphor,” demonstrating again and again that a woman’s body will always exceed the definitions and diagnoses of institutional medicine:

In the dream, I awake in a room covered wall to wall with my own image. Augustine sleeping, standing, falling. I glimpse sections of my body that I have never been able to see until now—walking through the room, dizzied with myself—there is so much to see. It is like a city that I have no hope of exploring before I die. These visions of myself through someone else’s eyes …. There must be thousands of them, amassed in the darkroom—a legion of Augustines, unblinking. Imagine them—their immutable bodies, their unwavering stares.

Intimate, unsettling, and seductive, its carefully honed sentences brimming with a visceral energy, Asylum is an important and unflinching narrative about the possibility of beauty and resistance in the face of hegemony. For that reason, it is a timeless tale, one whose powerful presence will remain with you long after the last page.

Asylum, by Nina Shope. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, May 2022. 198 pages. $16.95, paper.

Alyssa Quinn is the author of Habilis, an anti-colonial mash-up of museum exhibits, haunted skeletons, disco music, and linguistic theory, forthcoming from Dzanc Books in September 2022. You can find her work at alyssaquinn.net.

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