Nervous System, by Jan Lars Jensen

When Canadian writer Jan Lars Jensen had his first novel accepted by a publisher, things seemed to be going well.  But Jensen’s life quickly started to unravel.  He had had no previous diagnosis of mental illness (though there was a history of mental illness in his family, but then, whose family doesn’t have some history of mental illness?), but as he awaited the publication of his book he began to experience severe anxiety and delusional thoughts.  He came to believe that the repercussions of publishing his novel (Shiva 3000, a futuristic sci-fi novel based on the gods of Hindu mythology, which apparently had some potential to be read as offensive by some Hindus) would lead to the collapse of his own life and eventually to world war.

All authors are nervous when a book is going to be released, but this was obviously out of control.

After a suicide attempt, Jensen ended up in psych ward.  Nervous System is the story of his bout with mental illness and subsequent recovery.   Jensen does a great job of giving us the inside view of mental illness — the delusional thoughts that guided his actions during his breakdown.  He does a great job of taking us inside the mentally ill mind and demonstrating how the most outrageous acts seem completely explicable in that state of mind.  The recovery part is surprisingly low-key — it’s not a stirring “overcoming adversity” theme at all.  It’s more like, “Eventually, I got over that.”

It took me awhile to get into this book because I found the author’s voice a little off-putting.  You know how sometimes you’re talking to someone and you can’t quite tell when they’re being funny and when they’re being serious, so you never quite know how to take them? This book was a little like that for me.  It took me awhile to get used to Jensen’s tone and his sense of humour and realize that some of the time he actually was laughing (ironically) at his own situation. 

Nervous System is a book that obviously had to be written.  The fact that this experience happened to a writer virtually guaranteed that (assuming he survived with his sanity intact) a memoir was going to come out of it.  While it’s not one of those great, earth-shattering memoirs that will change your life, it is an interesting read, particularly for anyone interested in writing, in mental illness, or in both.


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