Of Typography and Mentally Ill Characters

Hamlet, by the Beggarstaff Brothers, 1894 (Image via Flickr)

One of the many remarkable things in the altogether incredible novel The King of Infinite Space, by Lindsay Faye, was the way that she harnessed typography (of all things) to share one of her protagonist’s attention-deficient, anxious, depressed, and paranoid mind. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I can’t recall ever seeing an author attempt anything like it before—which got me to thinking about how limited the options are for accurately depicting the interior life of someone with mental illness.

Up until now—with the exception of highly experimental novels like The House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski—most authors use italics to let us know that we’re listening in on a character’s internal monologue. The heavy use of italics keeps the thought-line separate from the action and direct speech. Not only are the boundaries very clear, but I’ve also often gotten the impression that authors try to stress the logic of their mentally ill characters’ thoughts. These characters very rarely seem to understand that their thought patterns interfere with their ability to function, to have healthy relationships, or even see the world as it is. A lot of the time—at least in the books I remember reading, which I know is far from a useful dataset—authors present characters who may be mentally ill as having privileged information. That is, they’re not crazy. Everyone else is because they’re missing important information. That said, I think most of the mentally ill characters I’ve met in fiction are usually viewed through another character’s eyes or from the perspective of a somewhat detached narrator.

In her retelling of Hamlet, Faye’s version of the melancholy Dane knows that the way he thinks is not normal (which I know is a vexed word and I’ve been trying to avoid it up until now). So, unlike the chapters narrated by the Horatio and Ophelia characters, Ben Dane’s narration is frequently marked with short lines that look like poetry. I felt myself speed up as I read those, since my eyes didn’t have to go all the way across the page. My eyes kept jumping to the next line. Other times, Ben’s inner thoughts intrude into his external dialogue with the other characters. I loved these moments because Ben’s real thoughts would show up as snarky bits of bolded text, embedded in the plain text dialog. At the same time, this also made me wonder if Ben suffered from intrusive thoughts, which are fairly common for people with anxiety and depression. In addition to the poem-like line breaks and interrupting bold text, the lack of italics for Ben’s reminisces about the past gave me the impression of a mind that couldn’t stop wandering away from the task at hand.

In the original Hamlet, Hamlet has his words to bring us into his inner thoughts. A great actor can make those words live and breathe but I think Faye’s brilliant characterization and clever use of typography has brought me the closest I’ve ever been to walking around in a character’s mental shoes. Because I was taking all of this into my mind and finishing the job of assembling them into meaning myself (as opposed to having an actor interpret them for me), I got the sensation of thoughts tripping over themselves and unspoken thoughts trying to shove their way through into the open. I am still marveling at what Faye was able to achieve. It also made me realize how hard it is to write such a unique pattern of thought. No wonder so many authors stick to italics.

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