Novels have been written about loony novelists before, but few portray as deranged an author as the one in D.C. writer Kenneth Suna’s Roman. The novelist, named Roman, cannot distinguish between reality and hallucination and, as a result, the reader is often at sea. Though the explanations, early in the book, separate the insane visions from reality, as the story progresses, these distinctions become less definitive. By the end, the reader is hard-pressed to say exactly what has happened. Perhaps he survived his violent lunacy and has written his account from a mental institution; perhaps not.
Roman begins with an apt quote from Camus: “All healthy men have thought of their own suicide.” Except that Roman is not healthy. He is utterly unhinged, something which Suna captures well with his alert portrayal of the inappropriateness of the speech, thought, and relationships of the mentally imbalanced. But Roman can also be quite clear and on target: “Once upon a time I was a happy man…And then…everything around me went to hell. That’s why I’m going to kill myself.” There follows a meditation on the differences between the way women and men commit suicide—women neatly, men violently—then the history of his hallucinations and the deterioration of his marriage. Once alone, abandoned by his wife, he moves into Manhattan, passing his time as a peeping Tom. He names a neighbor, in the window across the street, Jeremy. “Jeremy was too busy sweeping his floor to realize there was a bizarre man across the street that had named him and was talking to him.”
This story of a married, working, suburban father, whose alarming mental episodes cause him to spiral down into solitude, paranoia, dementia, violence, and suicidal insanity, is at times painful to read. His “inability to distinguish reality from fantasy” affects the reader, too. One doesn’t know what horrible events actually happened and what has been hallucinated. Despite sometimes bumpy pacing—the novel leisurely develops Roman’s insanity then suddenly becomes a manic list of crimes and accidents—Suna conveys the terrifying uncertainty of being unable to trust one’s own perceptions.
The too-vivid and horrific dreams Roman recounts in his journal, his refusal to get psychiatric help, and the fact that he never even considers psychotropic meds all ring true enough. But most disturbing is the way the dementia affects his memory—not until well into the novel do he and the reader discover that he is an acclaimed author. In fact, prior to this discovery, he says, “what a terrible fate for Roman Jeffries, acclaimed nobody, to check into a mental hospital. So it’s as much of a shock for the reader as for the narrator to learn of his literary renown. Also shocking is the novel’s graphic violence, but the protagonist is not one of the quiet, harmless, mentally ill. Roman’s narrator is insane, but like many lunatics, he has extended moments of lucidity. In the end, they give this book its strength.