Phillip O’Neil, Mental Shrapnel, Equus Press,
Chris Mahler was a top psychologist, but that was before the war in Bosnia. Something happened to him during that war – it left him too traumatised to remember. Jasmina was the love of his life. She was killed in the siege of Sarajevo & his ability to live & love again died with her. Or so he believes. Now a shell-shocked survivor, he is the patient, strapped to a bed under the care of the mysterious Dr Steinfelder.
Mahler’s trauma & amnesia can be cured. But what will he remember if it is? Is Mahler the perfect Guinea Pig the doctors have been hoping to find? Or is it a case of kill or cure? Mahler wants to uncover all that lies hidden in his brain. Powerful men want it to stay buried. The Orwellian tyrant known as ‘The Censor’ has his secrets too, but what does he want from Mahler? Once colleagues, Steinfelder & ‘The Censor’ are now arch-enemies. Mahler must go to war once more & this time the stakes are higher than ever before, discovering that in the twenty-first century, psychiatry is the newest & deadliest weapon of war.
“Literature would be dead if it weren’t for publishers like Equus Press, a second-to-none specialist in narrative innovation, unique voices, and marginalized lines of flight. The latest contribution to the Equus project, Philip O’Neil’s MENTAL SHRAPNEL, is a refreshing, remarkable departure from the overwhelming horde of canned, lifeless fiction that threatens to eat literary history whole. O’Neil’s first novel makes almost everything else look like dreck. It’s precisely what the corpse of modern literature needs to bring it back to life.”—D. Harlan Wilson
“Sinequanon threads of Gonzo journalism tie hot shards of Philip K. Dick’s paranoid fantasies to Kingsley Amis’ insouciant British humour in this 400-page pill, as we are flung between war-torn Sarajevo & post-communist Prague between the early 90s & the late 00s. A war correspondent come psychotherapist, Christopher Mahler, is sequestered into a theatrical vortex of alternating comedic & tragic skirmishes. In an attempt to uncover the true cause of his fugue states, Chris delves into the kind of analysis which promises to drag him & the reader screaming into an ignominious past of flak jackets fantastic journeys & love lost in unaccountable circumstances. Many a seemly character enters & exits this cathartic trip as our sardonic protagonist Randle McMurphies his way through a Dante’s Inferno of lost souls. With sensitive, lyrical wit O’Neil teases the most devastating (ir)realities into palatable, poetic medicine. Mental Shrapnel is the author’s nostalgic suicide letter to Prague, left on a mantle piece over the flaming fires of hell, propped up by a bowl of rotting oranges.” —Michael Rowland
“Equal parts memoir, war narrative, & love story, Mental Shrapnel takes you deep into the wounded psyche of a man forced to put himself back together when the health care “system” fails him completely. Reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Down Below, or Kleinzeit, Mental Shrapnel paints a darkly humorous portrait of a fractured mind in a damaged healthcare system. Replete with a cast of larger-than-life characters, patients, junkies, & war criminals, Mental Shrapnel probes the darkest recesses of the human psyche in this story of a dizzying freefall into madness and a painful climb back to sanity – an intense vertiginous journey that will leave readers in doubt of their own sanity as much as Chris’s. Mental Shrapnel also paints an intimate nuanced picture of the city of Prague that will be instantly recognizable to longtime residents or serve as a psychedelic walking tour for those who have never traversed the narrow, labyrinthine streets of the city. Not a novel for the faint of heart, but still a compelling read full of wit, heart, and history.” — Jeffrey Howe
The image of hell dies hard. The rest of the Christian assemblage may have fallen away, but hell retains its power over us.
This is because hell is a description of a world without forgiveness.
I recently read René Girard’s work, Violence and the Sacred, in which he argues that sacrifice, whether human or animal, was not simply ceremonial, or a tribute to the gods, but a way of directing the whole society’s violence in one direction, thus dispelling it.
In a collective act of murder, ancient man could finally attain forgiveness. Eventually, Christ supplanted the living sacrifices.
Without a mechanism to allow us to forgive, ancient society entered a state of total distrust, total suspicion and total war. Without forgiveness, we unleash hell.
Phillip O’Neil’s book is a study in hell. Christopher Mahler, our protagonist, is either a psychotherapist or a war correspondent (his identity is unstable, in flux). He saw the worst of the war in Sarajevo and, years later, suffers blackouts as a result.
Sarajevo is a vision of the hell without. Mobs, murder and mutilation are commonplace. Simply seeing the war is enough to pollute Mahler. The chaos enters his soul.
Cut to 2008; Mahler is now in Prague, living in a halfway house with drunks and drug-addicts. He witnesses their decline while trying to piece his own mind back together. His bizarre PTSD-driven actions and fugue states are easily confused for drunkenness. He fits in well.
Finally, having seen the hell without and lived the hell within, Mahler pierces the fabric of reality. He goes in search of his memory, and his lost Beatrice, in a world of his own making.
This parallel existence takes the form of a city, similar to Unthank in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, where every meeting is a confrontation and every compliment contains a threat.
The alternative worldspace is divided between PeaceZone and WarZone. The differences between the two are minimal and the line drawn between them is shifting and arbitrary.
At times we are back in the Bosnian war. Sometimes we meet the drunks and drug addicts from his building. Often the dead come back to life.
There is a reason that hell is a circle. We learn that through Mahler’s odyssey, and whether O’Neill truly succeeds in exorcising his character’s demons is up to the reader to decide.
This is a brutal book. It’s shifts in tone are often jarring. And yet that gives it a texture and a patina unlike any other book I’ve read.
I would expect no less from Equus Press, whose experimental texts are at the forefront of the contemporary avant garde. As publishers, they don’t flinch from discomfort, and works of twisted brilliance like Mental Shrapnel are the result.
This is a book that shoves you, then looks at you expectantly; waiting to be shoved back. A dynamic absolutely of our times. - Joe Darlington
Born in London, Phillip O'Neil worked as a journalist for two decades after reading history at Liverpool University and journalism at The London College of Printing. He worked as a travel journalist based in Antwerp, Belgium before moving to Prague in 1992. He moved to Romania in 1998 and then Alaska, returning to London to work as assistant editor and feature writer for The Institute for War and Peace Reporting covering events in The Balkans and the Caucasus. Returning to Prague in 2009 he wrote a monthly column for The Prague Review and has published his poetry in a number of publications including Scarlet Leaf Review, Wilderness House Review, and Suisun Valley Review. MENTAL SHRAPNEL (Equus Press, 2020), based partly in Prague, is his first novel. He is currently writing a second, set in the Czech Republic.