Published 5 November 2015
Read the first chapter here.
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‘Arguably the best neuronovel ever written.’ (Literary Review)
‘Marvellously surprising and vivid, something new…’ (The New York Times)
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2016 WELLCOME BOOK PRIZE
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PAUL SCHREBER is a man who wants to go home – but can’t. He is a man crippled by an illness he doesn’t understand – and sometimes doesn’t even know he has. He’s in no condition to face the worst – but the worst keeps on happening to him. His family is disintegrating, past traumas are coming back to haunt him – and so are those troubling, seemingly laid-to-rest fears of persecution...
Paul Schreber is paranoid – and they really are out to get him.
Playthings, Alex Pheby’s astonishing second novel, delves deep into a disturbed mind – and in doing so, also explores the roots of the great ills in the twentieth century, the psychological structure of fascism, the cancer of anti-Semitism, and the abuse of institutional power. Based on the true story of a man who became a case study for Freud and a foundation stone in the psychological make-up of the twentieth century, Playthings is an intense and poetic exploration about what it means to be human.
“If Playthings is a neuronovel then it’s arguably the best neuronovel ever written, particularly in its depiction of memory and the instability of personality. But it transcends any such category and is simply a superb novel tout court, Kafkaesque in its nightmarish fluency and a powerful exposition of Kant's celebrated view that ‘the madman is a waking dreamer.’” (Literary Review)
“In Playthings, a haunting new novel... [Pheby] doesn't merely relate Schreber's illness. He invites us to inhabit it – using prose that is both precise and beautiful. His disjointed prose conveys disordered thinking. Readers are fully immersed in paranoid psychosis yet, unlike Schreber, remain in full control of their faculties. ... It’s an experience that remains with you long after the last page has been turned and the door to Schreber's asylum has swung open.” (The New Scientist)
“Fittingly for a book about a psychoanalytical subject, Playthings is swollen with buried truths… Every action, every situation, is influenced by what lies beneath it. … Throughout this compelling novel the space between reader and Schreber becomes a sombre reminder of how alone we all are.” (The Guardian)
“Playthings gets into the head, with tender attentiveness, of a man having a psychotic breakdown and takes up the story where the real Schreber left off. … Plan to read it in one intense sitting.” (The Lancet)
“Playthings is certainly clever, and I also thought it was marvellously surprising and vivid, something new. ... Inside the shape of an old story [Pheby] traces fresh experiences as if for the first time. The detail is so sensuously precise. Impressed as I haven't been by a new novel for a while.” (The New York Times)
“Pheby eschews a linear plot for an episodic structure that mirrors the disjointed workings of the judge’s mind. It is a fitting, [vividly depicted] form that leaves the reader reeling as they are jolted from scenes of public perversion, to the realities of life inside an asylum in the early 1900s, to the impact that Schreber’s condition has on his family… To Schreber, only the past seems real, with whole scenes from childhood remembered with extraordinary clarity. He is incapable of living in the present, viewing the people around him as “playthings” or “flimsy ripples”. The world is “nothing to him, because they were all nothing.” Creating something out of this nothing is not an easy task but with this most unusual novel, the author has succeeded in doing just that.” (The Irish Times)
“Alex Pheby’s enthralling novel Playthings is based on the real life of Daniel Paul Schreber, a judge in late nineteenth century Germany who underwent episodes of severe mental illness and breakdown. The novel takes us on a journey inside Schreber’s perceptions, his fear and his powerlessness and his wild energies, and it puts the women in his life – his mother and wife and stepdaughter – at the heart of his story. This intelligent exploration of ideas of sanity and madness, reality and delusion, is also uncannily, viscerally convincing in its recreation of an epoch. Everything feels true: the furniture in the protagonist’s minds as well as their rooms. And all this is expressed in sumptuous prose, sensuous with concrete detail, rich with dark comedy.” (Tessa Hadley, Wellcome Book Prize 2016)
ALEX PHEBY was born in Essex and moved to Worcester in his early childhood. He has masters degrees in critical theory and creative writing, and a doctorate in critical and creative writing from the UEA. He lives with his wife and two children in London, where he teaches at the University of Greenwich. He is currently working on his third novel, based on James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia Joyce.