JENSEN, Jan Lars

Author Tags: Fiction, Health

Yarrow librarian Jan Lars Jensen was once nominated for a Hugo Award in the novellette category for The Secret History of the Ornithopter, an alternate history of aviation from 1899 to 1953. His first novel, Shiva 3000, was published by Harcourt in the U.S. and Pan MacMillan in the U.K. in 2000. It was followed by a remarkable memoir of his descent into temporary insanity, Nervous System (Raincoast, 2004), reviewed below.

[BCBW 2004] "Health" "Fiction"

Nervous System

Depictions of mad-ness in the popular imagination are mainly derived from actors—people faking it. King Lear as a ranter; Hamlet as a philosopher. Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest, as a rebel. And Van Gogh cut off his ear, right? But there aren’t any Shakespearean soliloquies, no playing towards the camera for sympathy, in Jan Lars Jensen’s Nervous System (Raincoast $34.95). In this play-by-play depiction of insanity, Jensen reprises the period of his life, in his late 20s, when he overdosed on pills, became convinced someone was going to kill him and was beset by paranoid delusions that his soon-to-be published novel would set in motion the end of the world.

“Eventually they would seize me, inject me, drag me to their hidden room. They would punish me for the novel and the things it was going to do. The police were here on the ward, the nurses were their collaborators.”

Jensen had a faithful, employed wife. His life was full of promise. Raised in the Fraser Valley, he enrolled in UVic’s Creative Writing Department and sold a novel to a large and prestigious American firm while he was working within the Fraser Valley library system. But that futuristic fantasy novel, Shiva 3000, about destructive forces in the universe, drove him to the brink of self-destruction while he awaited the novel’s release.

Desperate to forewarn the human race of the imminent apocalypse, he retreated to a blinkered and lonely place. That’s where we meet him in Nervous System’s opening pages.

“I can only wait for my executioner (now I understand why prophets are slain because nothing scares people worse than someone who jeopardizes their material world)...”

In just 48 hours, J.L. Jensen went from being an atheist to someone who deduced, on paper, an equation that proved the existence of God. “You know your life has changed when you wake up in a psych ward. There is the time in your life before this moment, and the time after.”

Nervous System is mostly set in an unnamed Lower Mainland hospital, and would be ideal substance for a one-man play. It begins like some Stephen King novel, as Jensen hears his killer singing, ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes, when she comes…’

Spooky stuff, alright. But Jensen is mostly worried that some innocent person on the ward will be shot by mistake instead of him. He understands why someone would want to kill him. That novel of his. He should never have written it. It’s a Pandora’s box.

Having stumbled upon an internet site in which irate Hindus take severe objection to superficial interpretations of their religion, Jensen quickly became obsessed with the hideous notion that his own glib appropriation of Hindu terms will incite controversy. This ruckus, in turn, will generate a global conflict.

At first, when he is delivered to the emergency ward by the husband of a co-worker in the library, Jensen seems absurdly crazed, an unfunny Woody Allen who can’t stop himself from percolating fresh anxieties. When his loving wife Michelle brings him homemade grape juice in the hospital, he fears it could be poison. But the more we become privy to Jensen’s fears, the more we follow the inner logic of his paranoia, the more we come to realize, ohmigawd, this is what it’s really like to go bonkers, this is insanity.

He’s no Rushdie wannabe. He’s genuinely stuck inside mental torment, not someone manufacturing drama for a bravura performance in order to come up with a second book. All this stuff really happened to him, it’s not a novel, even though it’s recorded by someone who often tells his story with the skills and instincts of a novelist.

But this narrator is so deeply self-absorbed, we don’t necessarily feel compassion for him from the outset. How can someone so precise and articulate be simultaneously so feckless? Can’t this guy just snap out of it? The question arises as to what extent mental illness could sometimes be some twisted form of self-indulgence.

We remain on the periphery of Jensen’s predicament, neutral but entertained, until we come to realize Jensen is providing us with a very privileged viewpoint. Nervous System is a deeply human reporting of a remarkable journey. We gradually come to appreciate, along with him, that lots of people must feel and think as he does. Jensen is a rare messenger from the land of inner torment, an ambassador of madness, a Marco Polo of paranoia, who has come a long way back to unravel his tale.

“Ping-pong should probably be declared the official sport of mental patients. The pairing just seems right: something to do with the sound of that taut plastic sphere hitting the table, the back and forth of it, the unexpected angles, not to mention the platypus-bill oddness of the implements with which you were expected to manage the ball’s frantic ferrying back and forth.”
The story is subtitled Losing My Mind in Literature. With that slant, initially we wonder if the narrator is considering himself to be a special case. Writers are often complex people so perhaps there’s a conceit that madness is some sort of occupational hazard, like booze for journalists.
It’s a relief when Jensen comes to view himself as an over-medicated Everyman. He evolves from being a loner in the psych ward, trying to outthink his psychiatrist to gain a quicker release, to someone who feels camaraderie for his fellow sufferers. This change for the better is, to some extent, not just the product of his circumstances. Jensen does a lot of hard work—thinking work—experimenting with prayer, re-examining his family background and questioning the nature of his character.

“…my thoughts had turned to my life and decisions that shaped it, and even if I
wasn’t fundamentally wicked, I realized that I had made choices based on self-gratification, the most obvious example being the pursuit of a career as a fiction writer.

“A desire to help people had never motivated me. No, I had hoped to be seen as gifted, that was what it reduced to, and if my motivation wasn’t evil, it was undeniably self-centred.

“I must incorporate good acts in my life—selfless behaviour—if there was to be any chance of feeling comfortable with my place in the universe. I wanted to make this change immediately, make an effort.”

The parts of Jensen’s memoir that seem forced are his retrospective ramblings about his life prior to becoming shrink-wrapped. This middle section of his book often seems like padding.

There are some valuable clues that Jensen considers as to how and why he detoured into madness, such as a bout of obsessive handwashing in 1975, a strange fit prior to an algebra exam in 1987, and his adverse response to an injection for an anti-malarial medication prompting a near-hysterical response to a long-planned trip to India that had to be cancelled, but these recollections suffer in comparison to his riveting accounts of life in the psychward.

We learn that Mefloquine, a preventative drug for malaria, can cause psychiatric problems including hallucinations and psychosis, and that Jensen’s mother also suffered mental illness, but Jensen never accepts heredity or previous events as the cause for his decline. That would be taking the easy way out—or back in.

The first night Jensen was sent home, he was plagued again by his inability to sleep. His wife took him back to the hospital at 6 a.m. the next morning. It was a very arduous road to recovery through a maze of drugs (Xanax, Doxepin, Risperdal—an anti-anxiety, an anti-depressant, an anti-psychotic—to name a few) and some questionable psychiatric probings.

That first novel gets published, with minimal fanfare. It fails to earn the publishers back his advance. The fact that Jensen chooses to provide that information, when he might just as easily not mentioned it, typifies the level of honesty for which Jensen is aiming.

Rather than give away the ending, or divulge details of Jensen’s predicament—as he further dehydrated himself with tears and contemplated the ways he was ruining his wife’s life—some of Jensen’s own conclusions might be best.

“Crazy is what I had been. Temporarily crazy but crazy, nonetheless. I would understand if other people with similar problems disliked or even feared that label, but I had struggled to find a word to match the experience I had just gone through and only ‘crazy’ seemed to do it… The best I could do was try to be honest in my writing—true, somehow—and let people draw conclusions on their own.” 1-55192-687-3

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2004]