"a Rich education in the emotional battleground that we call the human condition"
'Michael Richmond's novel is called Sisyphusa, and was written as a response to the author's sudden and total collapse into clinical depression when he was a happy and engaged 21-year-old student [....] it has a raw and naked authenticity, even as it describes a clearly allegorical world. In Sisyphusa, drugged inmates have to submit to all sorts of humiliations in order to be deemed able to pass in the outer world, as Normals, and freed...... [it] provide[s] a rich education in the emotional battleground that we call the human condition.' (full article http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/05/deborah-orr-first-novels-depression)
Deborah Orr (Writer and columnist for the Guardian)
"Remarkably assured debut"
‘Sisyphusa is a remarkable exploration of an involuntary journey, which could be a metaphor for a mental breakdown. It transforms this desperately bewildering and unbearably solitary experience into the story of a translation to a strange parallel world. It has many of the most compelling features of the best of science fiction. The novel captures the helplessness we all experience, as we try to complete the Sisyphean task of making sense of our lives and of the world in which we live. The clarity of the writing and the manner in which the different strands and themes are brought together- the locations are brilliantly imagined at many levels - make this absorbing dystopian novel a vehicle for satire on aspects of contemporary life, and for reflection upon what binds us together and what separates us. It is a remarkably assured debut.’
Professor Raymond Tallis (Author of over 30 books of fiction, philosophy, psychology, poetry and medicine. He had a long, distinguished career as a practising physician and has been chair and patron of numerous prominent Royal Colleges and other national bodies. Professor Tallis has been described as "one of the world's top living polymaths" by The Economist and by Prospect magazine as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the UK. http://www.raymondtallis.com/ )
"I absolutely loved [the] novel. The wit, intelligence, satire and sensitivity of [the] writing I found extremely powerful. I particularly love the way [Michael Richmond] play[s] with labels, exposing the manner in which, so often, they are used as a means of control. Sisyphusa is a novel with a huge amount of insight and great many important things to say. It is also immensely readable. Congratulations!"
Clare Allan (author of "Poppy Shakespeare" and columnist for The Guardian - see Mental Health Links)
"Ferociously vivid imagination"
"Michael Richmond has a ferociously vivid imagination, a strong sense of story structure and pace. I will be very interested to see what he writes next."
Simon Brett (Prolific writer of over 80 published books and plays . Well-known for his popular detective novels and his work as a radio and screenwriter/producer http://www.simonbrett.com/)
"A terrifyingly convincing and vivid account of the sudden onset of depression and resultant brutal incarceration and treatment, which ought to make for a grim read, but doesn't, because it develops into a gripping adventure, written with humanity, invention, empathy, wit and the wisdom that only comes with experience."
Michele Hanson (Guardian columnist and author of several books including 2006 MIND book of the year "Living With Mother")
***** "Excellent: a fascinating and worthwile read"
"Take a sizeable chunk of Nineteen Eighty-four, introduce pieces of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, add a dash of Poppy Shakespeare – and you will still be missing several vital ingredients that the author Michael Richmond has blended together to produce his dystopian novel Sisyphusa. Influenced by his own emotional breakdown and a lengthy spell of psychiatric intervention, Richmond has created an intriguing work of fiction that satirizes Mental Health Services whilst, simultaneously, highlighting the disempowerment and stigmatization experienced by twenty-first century psychiatric service users.
Snatched from the local Liquidizer one dreary February night, Odis Winston wakes up to find himself incarcerated in Sisyphusa and categorized as Weirdness Grade 2. After months of seclusion he is finally deemed ready to embark upon a rehabilitation programme with the ultimate goal of being discharged back to his home and family on the Island. As the story progresses, the chances of Odis or any of the other service users ever being allowed to leave Sisyphusa seem increasingly slim until, having been slung down into The Pit – a pitch-black hole full of human sewage – he meets the mysterious Gwen who, driven by her guilty conscience, discloses her secret plan for a mass break-out.
Running contrary to any such ideas of escape stands the formidable Warden Serky, an epitome of humiliation and control. Ably assisted by the beast-like henchmen, she struts her stuff like Nurse Ratched on acid, brainwashing and humiliating the service users in the ironically named Team Recovery. A much more insidious sentinel lies within the service users themselves as they succumb to the process of institutionalisation: a passive acceptance of and reliance upon the hospital structure, which is much more likely to thwart any escape attempts than the three-headed monster that prowls the corridors of Sisyphusa.
As time passes, Odis’s mind-set slowly changes as he begins to develop insight into the disempowering structures that underpin the mental health system in Sisyphusa. Identifying himself with the other downtrodden service users, he develops a quiet determination to redress the balance of power. Of course, despite a thin glimmer of hope, life in Sisyphusa continues to be plagued with tragedies, from the intimacies and tensions that emanate from service user relationships to the untimely deaths and suicides of a number of inmates. Perhaps the only realistic chance of escape is to follow the Flower Eaters’ example and ingest the essence of the Ziziphusa flowers.
Throughout the novel, Richmond manages to parody the negative effects of what we still refer to as mental ‘illness’ by introducing concepts such as ‘climbing pills’ (mandatory medication crucial to the rehabilitation process), ‘Normalization classes’ (where service users are cognitively restructured and taught to behave like ‘normal’ people) &, perhaps the most insidious of devices, the Neuro-Function Reading Mechanism – or earpiece – which is stapled onto every service user’s ear to deliver a constant stream of abuse designed to crush the individual’s self-esteem.
As a narrative, Sisyphusa works well. I was hooked into the story from chapter one & the unfolding plot had enough intrigue about it to keep me interested right to the final chapter. Having been written by someone with more than a passing interest in mental health issues there is a passion that flows from the author’s pen and drives the story forward. The characters & their roles have been well thought out and everyone from the protagonist to the smallest bit-part player are there for a reason: Dobbsy, Ella, Mr Femuz (who reminded me so much of Chief Bromden in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’), the splendidly-named Governor Shade, even Gwen’s cats play significant roles as Richmond never misses an opportunity to campaign for improvements in mental healthcare.
Every so often, a novel is produced that highlights the imbalance of power between the so-called sane and the mad. Sisyphusa is a timely reminder, perhaps, that – although there have been improvements made in mental health services over recent years – we still have a system in the UK that devalues difference and stigmatizes and controls by way of segregation and medical compartmentalisation. For those who consider themselves to be standing firmly on the sane side of the line, madness will always be something they can point to as being suffered by the ‘other’ – an unconscious defence mechanism often employed to deny their own emotional vulnerabilities.
Wrapped up in the hyperbole of Sisyphusa is an important Foucauldian message of a disciplinary power that is still enforced within our mental health system through various subtle methods of control. Richmond has piled Pelion on Ossa in order to capture his audience – but beneath those imaginary mountains lies a very real problem and a call to arms for us all. Please do buy a copy of Sisyphusa – I found it to be a fascinating and extremely worthwhile read."
Peter Wilkin (Writer, Poet and retired psychiatric nurse/psychotherapist. Check out Peter's work at http://peterwilkin1.blogspot.com/ )
***** "Misery and redemption in a Kafka-esque nightmare," 5 July 2011
"This is an extraordinary work. The crushing suddenness and unfairness with which Odis Winston is taken away from the hedonistic life of a student to the hellish corrective institution of Sisyphusa hits you like a hammer. His crime? 'Weirdness Grade 2'. The Sisyphusa regime of tauntings, beatings and slave labour is supposed to restore Odis and his fellow 'Service Users' to the hallowed state of Normalisation - if they can climb the forbidding Wall. But as this fast-paced fable unfolds, Odis begins to question who is Weird and who is Normal, both inside and outside the nightmarish Sisyphusa.
Set in a dystopian present, the novel rushes you along, at one moment plunging you into the punishment dungeon of The Pit (bread, water and a bed in your own excrement), then lifting you on wings of human sympathy. It explores the nature of mental disturbance and the reaction of the 'normal' world in a very forthright and fearless manner. These are depths that few young writers have plumbed, and to say that Michael Richmond has managed to overcome enormous obstacles in writing this book is to burnish, rather than qualify, his achievement.
There is no 'happy-ever-after' end to Sisyphusa, but there is light at many corners of the tunnel. That is the message of this remarkable first novel."
- Christopher Somerville (Author of 'Britain and Ireland's Best Wild Places, 'Coast: a Celebration of Britain's Coastal Heritage' and 'Our War- How the British Commonwealth Fought the Second World War')
Books: Review - Sisyphusa by Michael Richmond
Published: 11 August, 2011
THE appearance of Michael Richmond in a newspaper this week will come as a surprise to some of his friends, former teachers and even some of his close family.
Many will not know that for the past four years, he has shut himself off from the outside world, in a self-imposed exile at his parents’ home in Tufnell Park.
An Acland Burghley boy and devoted Arsenal fan, Michael breezed through his exams and went east in a travelling gap year of discovery before starting a history degree at the University of Sussex.
Popular and sociable, he was every inch the Tufnell Park lad. But, in 2007, his life was transformed: diagnosed with depression, anxiety and later, a form of OCD, he found himself unable to cross the threshold of his front door for the best part of two years.
Now, aged 25, he has written a book, Sisyphusa, set in a fictional world that draws heavily on his experience of the mental health service in north London. Published with help from the Arts Council, it is being stocked by the likes of Waterstones and Amazon.
“I didn’t see the point in going outside,” says Michael. “Unless it was talking to a doctor, who I thought might make me better, everything felt pointless. It was pure anxiety.”
He didn’t cut his hair for 18 months or take care with basic hygiene, he cut his mobile phone off and shut down his Facebook profile. Friends would ring from time to time, but he would not speak to them.
“There were no obvious triggers for my illness,” says Michael, “I had experimented with drugs, like most people my age, but I was mainly a drinker.
“I was getting firsts at uni. I had lots of friends. People think this sort of thing can’t happen to them, but it happened to me.
“People don’t think this sort of thing can happen to anyone, but it can. Even six months ago, if you had told me I would be talking to you now I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Michael says it was partly thanks to a new routine – walking his cocker spaniel, Milo – that he began to step out from beneath the black cloud of despair.
The title Sisyphusa is a nod to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, where a man is made to push a boulder up a hill for eternity – a punishment from the gods.
Sharply written and carrying the kind of weight that can only usually come from personal experience, the book probes the strange sub-culture and cult of the mental health service.
It tells the story of a prison-like institution where people are incarcerated for being a bit unusual. Its inmates are the “service users” – a classic phrase of modern management mumbo-jumbo used, prolifically, in the National Health Service today.
Michael shows how people become “sucked in” to the mental health service and also the “disturbing” concentration on the use of drugs.
But it is also a satire of our times, according to the author. Its protagonist, Odis Winston, leads a rebellion for a new world order.
“The mental health service is very New Labour,” says Michael. “Everything is done to arbitrary targets, with no sense that each person is a human.”
The world of Sisyphusa will feel very familiar to thousands of patients and their families, but Michael says it is not about the “single issue”. He adds: “I hope the book stands up on its own, aside from my human interest story.
People say it reminds them of Orwell’s 1984 or Kafka’s The Trial – though obviously not as good!”
(This review was written by the deputy editor of the Camden New Journal, Tom Foot. To see the article with the picture, visit their website at http://www.camdennewjournal.com/reviews/books/2011/aug/books-review-sysyphusa-michael-richmond)
**** "A Crisis in Normalcy," July 18, 2011
"Sisyphusa is a tale of the struggle for identity in a civilization that demands normalcy without defining it for anyone. What begins as a story of abduction to a seeming mental health facility becomes a parable of the search for meaning by a young man amidst a dehumanizing system of oppressive controls. Viewing the experience through the thoughts and actions of Odis, an erstwhile indifferent former university student, the story unfolds as he awakes in confusion recalling a life centered around intoxicants of many varieties and no direction. Labeled as abnormal he receives an earpiece that is constantly reminding him of his failings and lack of hope.
The story is one of resilience and growth in the face of such abuse as he goes from abject isolation into a futuristic 'chain gang' whose job is to break up granite into blocks for sale by the government. It is populated by vivid characters who pose challenges to Odis' definition of manhood, as he works to reach the point when he can 'climb the wall' and get back to normal society. A surpise ally requires him to become a leader and negotiate with that diverse cast in the hope of escape. Odis is heroic like his namesake in Greek mythology but reflects the fantasies of a young man struggling with his place in the world rather than an experienced military leader travelling home from the wars. This does not diminish the heroic nature of the story as the momentum of Odis' adventure is juxtaposed against a society that struggles to stay intact.
The story is a clear commentary of the confusing seemingly out of control world in which we live. It contains the universal personal struggles for a meaningful life along with evolving civilizations that seek to define normal out of differences and diversity while losing what is truly meaningful and of value. In some ways Odis' youth and inexperience provides a more accurate commentary for the primitive stage of development that humanity occupies than the Greek classic."
- Mark Kleiman (Founder and Executive Director of Community Mediation Services, Inc. NYC)
"If you think a book cannot be both humourous and sad at the same time, I challenge you to read Sisyphusa."
-SE Sever (A writer of non-fiction, poetry and an upcoming novel http://sesever.com/)
Sisyphusa certainly lives up to both the history of the word itself, and Michael Richmond’s superb rendering of the tale. The Narrator, Odis Winston, once living a simple life, is transported into a dark world.
The first chapter finds Odis living with six fellow students where they speak of celebrating “Loveheart Day” a seemingly innocuous event where Odis relishes in what becomes the last day of normalcy he will experience for years. The reader quickly understands that the stable, colourful, world that Odis lives in will soon become black.
Odis states, “The lights went out... Those were the last lights I was to see for a long time.” The juxtaposition between the life Odis led, and the life he will soon lead, is indescribable. The chapter concludes with “...they forced a bag over my head and I felt something strike me on the back of my neck, maybe a metal rod, maybe just his fist. And then darkness.”
The reader is taken into uncharted territory as Odis spends days in “The Pit” where he is without a name and given only a number−108. Odis describes Sisyphusa as “...the last refuge or dumping ground for the Island's depraved or social outcasts.” Sisyphusa is not just a fictional account but also a jarring look at culture. The connection between Odis’s imprisonment and the stigma that exists in society today is subtle but hard to ignore. It is weaved within the novel, and throughout the journey Odis takes.
Richmond has effectively created a world in which people are viewed as projects, numbers, something to speculate on, to test. He is stripped of his humanity, his sense of self, but rediscovers it as the story progresses. It is a tale of redemption but also of loss.
Sisyphusa is at once devastating, intellectual, and spellbinding. Michael Richmond has left no stone unturned: the exploration of humanity, the journey Odis takes, and the redemption he ultimately finds is parallel to none. A creative, well-written book by an author who is impossible to ignore.
-Natalie Jeanne Champagne (author of 'The Third Sunrise' http://www.thethirdsunrise.com/ )
***** "Absolutely Excellent," 27 Aug 2011
"Michael Richmond has written a groundbreaking first novel. Suffering from severe depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, Michael spent time in a psychiatric institution and out of this experience, and following a significant dream, he has written an explosive story, set in a dystopian present. Sisyphusa is an intriguing read, exploring the nature of mental illness through the first person narrative of Odis Winston as he is kidnapped and taken to Sisyphusa, a strange institution for anyone classified as "weird". The book is satirical and covers politics, the media and economics as well as delivering an important message about attitudes to mental illness and the associated stigma. Well written, gripping and very different, Sisyphusa is a novel I really recommend."
- Judith Haire (Author of 'Don't Mind Me' http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1847477925/ref=cm_pdp_lm_itm_img_1)
**** "Moving, Meaningful, Masterful," August 20, 2011.
"Incredibly moving, Sisyphusa grabs the reader and does not let go. The dystopian vision rings true: horrid but not so very different from our worst instincts of what might happen in the future.
Clever word usage, strong character development and a plot that moves at a fast pace, the author has created a remarkable book, especially once one reads that he is in his mid - 20's.
I found myself paging through the last third of the book, unable to put it down, wanting very much to hope against hope that in fact the protagonist could succeed.
No spoiler alert here - read it for your self. You will undoubtedly find yourself writing your own review soon thereafter!"
- Isabel Byron (Founder and Chief Executive of Isabel Byron Associates, Arts and Management Consultant NYC.)