A short essay on
Bernice Rubens: The Elected Member
by Megan Ratner

Books: The Essential Insider's Guide
(Fang Duff Kahn, 2009)
Mark Strand, Editor


Admittedly, the synopsis of The Elected Member sounds grim. Norman Zweck, the 41-year-old son of a London rabbi, is addicted to amphetamines.  A child prodigy, then a renowned barrister, Norman becomes a paranoid shut-in, tormented by his delusions and furious at the family’s plan to have him committed.   Bella, his virginal sister who still lives at home, must find a way to align the competing realities of her drug-addled sibling and their rage-blinded father.

Bernice Rubens’s analytical sympathy telegraphs what each character has to gain from the crisis without ever resorting to diagnosis. Jargon and catchphrases have nearly obliterated the paradoxes of addiction, as if to label is to cure.  Rubens mines the situation as much for its absurdity as its anguish.  Norman instigates the troubles, yet he is also the fall guy.  “Perhaps it was all a hallucination.  ‘No’ he screamed into the sheets.  Not that word.  Not that filthy rotten family word, that his father and sister had picked up from his psychiatrist.  They were blind, all of them, and they tossed the word at each other knowingly yet shamefully, comforted by its overtones of impermanence.  ‘He’s hallucinating,’ they would nod at each other, and he could have killed them for their coziness.”

Wry and ruthless, Bernice Rubens deserves a much wider reputation, especially in the States, where she is known, if at all, for Madame Souzatska.  She was particularly fascinated by scapegoats and never to greater effect than in this 1970 Booker Prize winner.  Dire and unsparing, The Elected Member also happens to be very funny.