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    Pure Imagination

    Come with me and you'll be
    In a world of pure imagination
    Take a look and you'll see
    Into your imagination

    We'll begin with a spin
    Trav'ling in the world of my creation
    What we'll see will defy
    Explanation

    If you want to view paradise
    Simply look around and view it
    Anything you want to, do it
    Want to change the world, there's nothing to it

    There is no life I know
    To compare with pure imagination
    Living there, you'll be free
    If you truly wish to be

    If you want to view paradise
    Simply look around and view it
    Anything you want to, do it
    Want to change the world, there's nothing to it

    There is no life I know
    To compare with pure imagination
    Living there, you'll be free
    If you truly wish to be

        -Anthony Newley (1931-1999), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Here's exhibit A in the case for not judging a book by its cover, or, for that matter, its title.  I first saw the book in a discount bin, spine out, and wondered how come I'd never heard of the Nairobi Trio.  Intrigued enough to at least check it out, I was greeted by one of the most frightening images I've ever seen on a book jacket : a derby wearing, cigar smoking, guy in a gorilla mask, the whole thing tinted blue.  Check out the author info on the back flap and there's a picture of a long-haired guy in a top hat who looks like a cross between Stevie Ray Vaughn and the actor David Warner.  The book is eminently putdownable.

But then I read a couple decent reviews and realized that the author is a columnist for the consistently diverting NY Press, so I figured it was worth a shot.  Well, from the opening pages, where he analyzes Gene Wilder singing Pure Imagination as an endorsement of a schizophrenic world view, Jim Knipfel's memoir of a six month stay in a Minneapolis psych ward is at least wryly amusing, and often laugh out loud funny.

Particularly funny, though it obviously should not be, is his account of how he ended up there, following a series of attempts to kill himself.  In order to save his family the pain of dealing with his action, Knipfel, who at the time was a graduate student and teaching assistant in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, decided to try framing a student who'd been sending him love notes.  In order to make it look like she had stalked and killed him, he tried slashing his back with a steak knife, with predictably feeble results.  Then, having experimented previously with self-asphyxiation, he decided to hang himself, but found the experience much less pleasurable this time.  So finally, he tried sleeping pills and whiskey, but somehow managed to stumble out into the hallway of his apartment building, but not before seriously damaging his liver.

Taken to the hospital, he awoke screaming quotations from Nietzsche in rhymed German, and was diagnosed as suffering a "mixed-personality disorder."  He was thought to have undergone some kind of "psychotic break" and was placed in a locked psychiatric ward to determine if he posed a further danger to himself or the general public.  But he was not really given any therapy, nor treatments, his stay basically consisted of sitting around the ward, reading the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and then a ten minute session with a doctor once a week.  Even these brief visits though seem to have been less about providing care than simply assessing his condition.  Finally, with no warning and no apparent change in his mental status, Knipfel was moved to an open ward and then released, mostly because he reached the maximum stay allowed by state law.

It would be easy enough for Knipfel to rail against the complete inadequacy of the care he received, and he'd be justified, but that's not what he's after here, mercifully.  Instead he offers a rather calm and dispassionate account of his experience, of the folks he met, and of the process by which he decided he didn't want to kill himself anymore.  This last is where the "Nairobi Trio" comes in.  I'll not ruin it for prospective readers; suffice it to say that they were characters who dressed up as gorillas for a musical act in an old Ernie Kovacs skit, whose nearly Sisyphiphean plight Knipfel came to identify with.

This is a minor but worthwhile book, less concerned with milking mental illness for sympathy or drama than with telling an interesting story and telling it with great humor.  Knipfel uses an interesting technique in that he never actually tells the reader whether he thinks he was insane during this period of time, but all of the folks around him react to him in ways that suggest he was.  Unfortunately, the one part of the story that does not work well is his extended recreation of various hallucinations he endured.  These are fairly tedious.  But I suppose if they made sense to us then we'd be in trouble, which maybe provides the answer to the sanity question.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Autobiography
Book-related and General Links:
    -Slackjaw Online is a selection of columns written by Jim Knipfel
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One :  Where I Am? from Quitting the Nairobi Trio
    -INTERVIEW : Q&A With Werner Herzog (Godfrey Cheshire & Jim Knipfel, NY Press)
    -ESSAY : Dealing (Jim Knipfel, September 2001, NY Press)
    -ESSAY : Why a Blind Man Has So Many Books (Jim Knipfel, Rare Book Room)
    -ESSAY : This is the Drowning of the Age of Aquarius (Jim Knipfel, Hootenanny)
    -ESSAY : Paying Off Some Karmic Debt (e-Slackjaw Jim Knipfel, NY Press)
    -ESSAY : Cheap Haircuts (e-Slackjaw Jim Knipfel, NY Press)
    -ESSAY : Tuneless Spectacles (e-Slackjaw Jim Knipfel, NY Press)
    -INTERVIEW : Kicking and Scribing All the Way to the "Other Side of Sight" : The Planet Arrington E-nterview with NY PRESS Columnist,  Author, and Retinitis Pigmentosa Sufferer  Jim Knipfel (Michael Arrington)
    -INTERVIEW : On the Psych Ward: an interview with Jim Knipfel (Big News, July 2000)
    -INTERVIEW : Jim Knipfel: The DairyAire Interview By Karrie Adamany and Jeff Johnson
    -PROFILE : Deviltry and Segars: At Home in Jim Knipfel's Head (November 1999, Rare Book Room)
    -PROFILE : The Mayor of Hostile City : Misanthropic columnist Jim Knipfel is a successful author with fans from Thomas Pynchon to Morley Safer. Is it Philadelphia's fault? (Sam Adams, June 2000, Philadelphia City Paper)
    -PROFILE : On the Chin : In Slackjaw, Jim Knipfel faces life's tragedies head on. (Joy Malinowski, February 11-18, 1999, Philadelphia City Paper)
    -ESSAY : How to get a blurb from Thomas Pynchon : Start by sending him your novel -- it can't hurt (Craig Offman , Salon)
    -ESSAY : Vanity Press Musings (Mugger, Jewish World Review)
    -REVIEW : of Quitting the Nairobi Trio (Daphne Merkin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Quitting the Nairobi Trio (Rick Levin, The Stranger)
    -REVIEW : of Quitting the Nairobi Trio (AMANDA EYRE WARD, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Quitting the Nairobi Trio (Malcolm Jones, Newsweek)
    -REVIEW : of Quitting the Nairobi Trio (Heather Lee Schroeder, Capital Times, Madison WI)
    -REVIEW : of Quitting the Nairobi Trio (Jonathan Shipley, Book Browser)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (PAULA FRIEDMAN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (DOUGLAS WOLK, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (Leonard Gill, Memphis Flyer)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (Charlie Dickinson, Savoy on Books)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (Peggy Hailey, Stomp of Approval)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw ( Jonathan Shipley, Book Browser)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (Weekly Wire)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (Jason Michael Ruiz, umn.edu Daily)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (JULIET WATERS, Montreal Mirror)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (Caroline Kettlewell, The Wag)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (ADAM HEIMLICH, The Stranger)
    -REVIEW : of Slackjaw (Brendan Bernhard, LA Weekly)
    -BOOK LIST : 1 0   B E S T  N O N F I C T I O N : 1999 (C l a r i s s a  C r u z, Entertainment Weekly)

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