The protagonist and narrator of Therapy, Laurence Passmore or “Tubby,” as he is known to his friends, would seem an unlikely candidate for an attack of late-middle-age angst. In fact, Tubby did not know the meaning of the word (literally; he had to look it up in a dictionary). At age fifty-eight, he is balding and a little overweight, but to all outward appearances he has achieved a successful life. He has been happily married for thirty years to his wife Sally, who stays youthful and trim; he has a lucrative job that he loves as writer of a British television situation comedy; he has an impressive home in Rummidge and an expensive car (the “Richmobile”); he has a flat in London, where he meets Amy, his platonic mistress, for theater and dinner dates. What could possibly be wrong?
Tubby does not know, and this is why he is immersed in therapies: cognitive behavior therapy, physical therapy, aromatherapy, athroscopic surgery on a knee. In fact, Therapy is a journal that Tubby is writing as part of his therapy, thus giving the reader a day-by-day account of his life. When his psychotherapist asks him to make up a list of the good and the bad things in his life, under “Good” he writes,
5.Kids successfully launched in adult life
8.As many holidays as I want
Under the “Bad” column he writes,
1.Feel unhappy most of the time
Later he thinks to add another item:
2.Pain in knee
Gradually it becomes clear to the reader, but not to Tubby, that the pain in the knee is a physical manifestation of another kind of psychic or spiritual pain: his feeling that somehow he has lost “the knack of living.” “How?” he asks himself. “I Don’t Know,” or IDK, also the acronym for Internal Derangement of the Knee, the unsatisfyingly vague diagnosis offered after surgery, has failed to help. Tubby’s depression is intensified by a growing belief that more than his knee is deranged: The entire society seems to be deteriorating. Mournfully reflecting on the “Internal Derangement of the Monarchy,” he feels sorry for “poor old Queen.” He is concerned about “Internal Derangement” of property values, the “negative equity” of those unfortunate people whose mortgages exceed the value of their property. He worries about “Internal Derangement of the National Psyche,” as indicated by Gallup polls that found 80 percent of British citizens dissatisfied with their government, almost 50 percent who would emigrate if they could, and 40 percent of all young people believing that Britain will become worse.
That Tubby is a worrier, a compassionate man who gives generously to a large number of charitable causes, endears him to the reader. Yet he is also an egotist who is so self-absorbed he cannot listen to others, does not communicate with his children, and does not even hear his wife when she says that she wants a separation. Self- centeredness is at the root of Tubby’s problem, but it takes a series of disasters both comic and pathetic to jolt him into awareness.
When Sally wants not only a separation but also a divorce, his studio threatens to give his show to another writer, and his physical problems extend to insomnia and impotence (“Internal Derangement of the Gonads”), Tubby begins to know more than the dictionary definition of angst. Stumbling upon the writings of Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Tubby reads in the very titles a description of what he is feeling: Fear and Trembling, The Sickness unto Death, The Concept of Dread, Either/Or, “The Unhappiest Man.” According to Kierkegaard, “The unhappy man is ‘always absent to himself, never present to himself.’ ” Tubby writes,
My first reaction was no, wrong, Søren old son—I never stop thinking about myself, that’s the trouble. But then I thought, thinking about yourself isn’t the same as being present to yourself. Sally is present to herself, because she takes herself for granted, she never doubts herself—or at least not for long. She coincides with herself. Whereas I’m like one of those cartoons in a cheap comic, the kind where the colour doesn’t quite fit the outline of the drawing: there’s a gap or overlap...
(The entire section is 1810 words.)