annotation by Lee Stoops
“…How much violence, Marshal, do you think a man can carry before it breaks him?”
~ Dr. Cawley, Shutter Island (170)
Sometimes, the story alone is enough to carry a novel. How freeing would that be? This is the case with Shutter Island. Surprisingly, the writing is not as strong as one might expect from a repeated New York Times’ best seller – one whose stories have been turned into several blockbuster movies (including one that went on to win a number of Academy Awards). Lehane, in Shutter Island, has managed to present a story gripping enough that it doesn’t need exemplary prose to compel the reader. I’m the first to admit, I’m jealous.
Told from the close third person perspective of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels as he, along with his partner Chuck, investigates a missing person report on an island that houses an institution for the criminally insane, Shutter Island explores mystery, truth, perspective, love, loss, and denial from a variety of angles through plot twists and weaves that leave the reader satisfied, stunned, and in tears.
Lehane’s writing is quick and familiar, sometimes colloquial, sometimes period savvy (think 1950s), though never consistently, and never all at the same time. Fortunately, the story flows, rages, even while leaving gaping holes that help make the reveal at the end unexpected but mostly believable. The pace of the narrative gives it strength enough to help the reader ignore some of what might be considered failed language techniques. An example of an evocative, engaging scene written strangely:
“Teddy started to trip down on his knees in front of the toilet, heaving into the bowl as the ferry’s engine chugged and clacked and Teddy’s nasal passages filled with the oily smells of gasoline and the late-summer sea. Nothing came out of him but small streams of water, yet his throat kept constricting and his stomach banged up against the base of his esophagus and the air in front of his face spun with motes that blinked like eyes” (12).
Lehane’s sentences tend (as in the above example) to run wordy, often including clichéd turns of phrase, descriptors, or confusing structure. While this might work for a Joan Didion essay, it makes fiction, specifically mystery grounded in the insane, difficult to read. But, the plot holds its ground and gives the reader reason to continue reading.
The setting (remember: mid-1950s island, institution for the criminally insane) offers the story an environment free from technology and as much strict adherence to laws, statutes, or even societal expectations. The island, and its war-time structures (defensible buildings that remain from World War Two) turned institution and housing for the island’s patients and staff, exists in ominous isolation off the foggy New England coast. The liberties the doctors seem to take with patients, medicine, and procedures give Teddy’s character and narrative credit. The reader may question the reliability of the narrator, but it all feels legitimate throughout. The reliable, unreliable narrator is nothing new, but pulling it off with inconsistent prose is a remarkable achievement. It’s both a surprise and not a surprise to learn, in the end, that Teddy is, in fact, no longer a U.S. Marshal, but that he is a patient in therapy, working through an experimental, last-ditch effort to save his own life and mind – literally: a failure in the exercise will result in his lobotomization.
“We hoped. We hoped we could save you. We stuck our reputations on the line. And now word will get out that we allowed a patient to play act his grandest delusion and all we got for it were a few injured guards and a burned car. I have no problem with the professional humiliation.” He stared out the small window square. “Maybe I’ve outgrown this place. Or it’s outgrown me. But someday, Marshal, and it’s not far off, we’ll medicate human experience right out of the human experience. Do you understand that?”
Teddy gave him nothing. “Not really.”
“I expect you wouldn’t” (308).
Teddy arrives on the island tasked with finding a missing mental patient. In the end, he learns the truth about himself and his violent, tragic past. Yet, whether a choice, an act, or simply the result of his lost-cause condition, he reverts to ignorance of his life’s truths. Lehane’s masterful storytelling, in spite of inconsistent textual presentation, creates with Shutter Island examples of compelling plotlines and interesting technique choices.
The thing that is frustrating, to me, as a writer, about the book is that it works. It works so well, even though the writing raises every red flag we’re taught, as writers (even as readers), to avoid. Lehane explores grief, anger, insanity, denial, love, trust, and mystery in ways that invoke the reader’s full emotional commitment. But his seeming disregard for the rules of writing is maddening. Maddening because I know I’ll never get away with the same thing, maddening because I can’t let enough of those rules slide, maddening because I have yet to trust one of my stories, any of my characters, enough to let them tell the story with the kind of fervor that might free me (and my readers) from the rigors of writing. Way to go, Lehane, way to go.