Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Rules of the Tunnel by Ned Zeman

The Rules of the Tunnel: A Brief Period of Madness is a memoir by Ned Zeman, a journalist for Vanity Fair who profiled various troubled celebrities until one day he became victim of the same madness that had plagued so many of them. Intertwined with biographical insight into the lives of the people Zeman wrote about is his own personal account of his illness and how it impacted his relationships, work and friendships. In the second half the memoir Zeman attempts to reconstruct what happened during the two years of his life he can't remember, two years of memories stolen as a side effect of electroconvulsive therapy, and having made it to the other side of the tunnel he does so with intelligence and a dark sense of humor about his experiences.

I'm pretty much on the fence about The Rules of the Tunnel, in some ways it is unconventional- even considering it's a memoir about mental illness- and yet in other ways I found it slightly infuriating. Zeman even admits that the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has left him worse off than he was before and while he is still writing in support of the practice, there still seems to be a good reason that it is only used in extreme cases. In Zeman's case he seemed to search purposefully for a therapist that would give him the answer he wanted, whether that be a cocktail of drugs or an electrical charge to his brain. As a journalist, Zeman is used to investigating, and after reading and writing about so many other people; famous, creative, people; who underwent the treatment it seems like he treated it more as if it were an experiment, or a fun way to spend a Wednesday, than with the seriousness it deserved. He also, as he admits in the book, didn't really take full of advantage of the other options available to those with mental illness, mainly drugs and therapy, and instead seemed interested in a quick fix. I'm not saying he wasn't depressed, he clearly was, but he seemed to take pride in outsmarting his therapists in a way that was pretty disturbing. A positive consequence of his memoir is that I am certain nobody who reads it will take ECT as lightly as he did.

Another issue I had with the conclusion of the book involved a breakup that happened during Zeman's illness and which he attributed to his madness, before recognizing that the couple were ill-fated either way. Although the reader knows from the beginning that the couple will break up, considering he just spent an entire book talking about how great the woman was, I was left pretty puzzled by his final assessment about their long-term possibility and I feel that if he was going to say that, he should have backed it up at some point in the book.

One of the unique aspects of The Rules of the Tunnel is that Zeman wrote it in second person singular (ie: You wake up in the morning) a style I've rarely seen in literature, although the book that stands out most in my mind is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. In this case, the technique seems to be used to truly make the reader feel as if they are experiencing the horror, and yet sometimes unintended benefits, of amnesia. I think it also helps show how mental illness can impact anyone. That said, I didn't particularly enjoy the style.

Although my discussion of the memoir has been fairly critical, I think that helps to show some of the controversial issues the book brings up. However, what left me mostly on the fence about the book is the second half in which Zeman is open, honest, and raw about how these experiences changed him. His loss of memory was unusual, but extremely scary and I certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in knowing more about ECT, especially from the perspective of somebody who has experienced a severe side of it. It is impossible to view what madness is like from the outside, and with  The Rules of the Tunnel Zeman adds to the reader's understanding of how the brain works, and what happens when it doesn't quite function as intended.

Release Date: August 4th, 2011
Pages: 288
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This review was a part of TLC Book Tours. Click here to read what other tour hosts thought. For the purpose of this review I was provided with a copy of the book which did not require a positive review. The opinions expressed in this post are completely my own.

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