Autumn in Carthage

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Autumn in Carthage Cover

I am often told it's important to be able to capture the gist of a novel in a sentence. What is it "about"? Well, in a sentence, Autumn in Carthage is "about" using the standard tropes of genre fiction to illuminate deeper issues. As a manic reader and blog-addict, I am convinced that serious literature does not spread ideas beyond a small circle of already-aware readers. Middlebrow fiction, in contrast, tends to find its way into the hands of "regular people"-precisely the ones I wish to connect with.

To be specific, this book was never intended to be cotton candy. The idea was to speak truth to power, tilt against some orthodoxies, to reach beyond the boundaries of mere entertainment and dig deep into the human condition. Offend some people, perhaps. The novel is, in large part, autopathography. It uses fiction to give shape and voice and meaning to my own lived experience with mental illness. As a social scientist, I have always been struck by the dominance of what one might call the "individualist fallacy"-the reduction of both problems and their mitigation to the individual's propensities and attitudes. Would that this framework were accurate. The truth, however, is that our experiences with burdens, psychological or otherwise, are driven by social institutions and regimes. Some enable us to rise above our limitations; others press down upon us. The dominant trope in this novel, then, is one man's journey through his personal labyrinth to find serenity.

It remains firmly rooted in genre fiction. Time travel and mysterious disappearances are major tropes. Much of the action occurs against the backdrop of Colonial America and the Salem Witch Trials. Above all, it is a love story. But the overriding purpose was to limn the lives of broken people-who, as it happens, stand at the hinge of history. Public discourse and the media seem to have two templates for individuals with mental health problems: docile "Uncle Toms" on the one hand and dangerous "crazies" on the other. The point of the narrative was to portray them as full blooded human beings perched on much the same complex decision trees as everyone else. It seemed a particularly important thing to do, in an era of mass shootings, dark new media narratives, and increasingly coercive laws. Neural discrimination is, of course, but one among a vast range of social pathologies that urgently need public attention. Rage over such problems is not uncommon. Writers, however, are in a unique position to pour that rage into a scaffolding of words, and make ideas public.

I deeply believe that the arrangement of society is not set in stone. Change can be ignited, and starts with the creation of interested "publics." These constituencies then become social movements-engines for transformation and renewal.

And to think that all it takes to start the process, these days, is a laptop and a spine…

Christopher Zenos is a pseudonym. The author is a well-published university professor who has contended with mental illness all his life, and knows the beastie well. Hence the mask: As this novel's protagonist puts it, successful Passing is now a survival imperative for crazies like him. Autumn in Carthage developed, in large part, from his need to sing of this world he inhabits: The realm of the stranger, the odd one. The man standing at the window, bracing against the wind as he gazes in wonder at the light and comfort on the other side.

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