The other night I watched “Game 6,” a movie written by Don DeLillo and released in 2006. It features Robert Downey Jr. as a theater critic named Steven Schwimmer who goes to plays with a gun tucked into his pants. Why? Because for Schwimmer, criticism is as high-stakes as any job can get. (This belief is presented as evidence of his delusional nature.)
The character has other quirks, like an apartment without a toilet and a preference for wearing white face paint. It’s not a flawless film, but it features several excellent deadpan comic exchanges, like this one:
Wife: I’ve been speaking to a prominent divorce lawyer.
Husband: How prominent?
Wife: He has his own submarine.
Plus, it has the signature DeLillo effect of altering reality’s texture. Below are two books that do the same, albeit with different instruments and outcomes.
In your face and out of your life,*
*Another line from “Game 6”
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“Desperate Remedies: Psychiatry’s Turbulent Quest to Cure Mental Illness,” by Andrew Scull
In 2015 I bought a vintage button on eBay (the kind you pin to your jacket) that said: You’re just jealous because the little voices talk to me. The seller had included a note that read: “THEY TALK TO ME TOO!!!” We logged positive feedback for each other on eBay. All in all, it was among the most satisfying mental-health-related transactions of my life.
Anyone who has combusted into a ball of fire while haggling with an insurance company over matters of the mind will require a minimum of 10 fresh highlighters while reading Andrew Scull’s “Desperate Remedies,” an intensely skeptical history and analysis of psychiatry. The gist of his argument is: Although there have been undeniable advancements, mental illness remains baffling, and no discipline has done a great job of treating symptoms and understanding causes. To get there he journeys through neurology, genetics, anthropology, dentistry, lobotomies, asylums, drug therapies, CBT, ECT, Robert Redford’s 1980 directorial debut, “Ordinary People” … and, as they say, everything in between.
Scull, a professor of sociology, has written the best kind of “feel-bad” book, lashing offenders left and right with his whip of evidence. Whether the vitriol resonates or alienates will depend on your matrix of experiences and beliefs. What a polemic!
“Battles in the Desert,” by José Emilio Pacheco, translated by Katherine Silver
How can such a tiny novella contain so many lessons in perception? The vessel is a schoolboy named Carlos, whose father owns a soap factory in Mexico City in the late 1940s. One of Carlos’s friends lives in a slum built out of scrap lumber. Another friend lives in a mansion with a wine cellar; he’s been sent to Carlos’s school so he can get to know the people who will become his servants. Part of the story is about that turbulent span of a child’s life where he figures out his place in a class system: If he’s rich compared to some kids and poor compared to others, that means … what exactly?
The main event is Carlos’s crush on Mariana, the 28-year-old mistress of a high-ranking government official. When he confesses his enchantment, Mariana kindly rebuffs the boy. But somehow Carlos’s family finds out and he is sent to a priest, who asks prurient questions, and then to a psychiatrist, who diagnoses an “inferiority complex.” All of this in about 70 pages of deep submergence in experience and sensation.
Why don’t you …
Find out whether Surrealist art can KILL FASCISTS?
Discover why 11 men turned blue after eating TOXIC OATMEAL at the same restaurant in 1944? (This is an article, not a book — though I’d love to commission an entire volume of food poisoning case studies exactly like it.)
Defer to good ol’ Iris Murdoch for a terrific description of BEING DUMPED? (“His sudden decision not to see her anymore was utterly incomprehensible to the girl, it was a death sentence from a hidden authority for an unknown crime.”)
Friendly reminder: check your local library for books! Many libraries allow you to reserve copies online. Send newsletter feedback to RLTW@nytimes.com