Brain Work: Stories

by Michael Guista

Published by Mariner Books

208 pages, 2005

Buy it online



Messing With Minds

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


Not many writers would venture into the territory Guista carves out in Brain Work. He's well armed, however. With an MFA in creative writing and a master's degree in psychology, he obviously feels confident in writing creatively about people who are afflicted by psychological problems and the professionals who are working with them. Sometimes we even meet professionals who themselves host the diseases they are trying to cure.

Guista's stories are terse, often tense and may be difficult for some readers to engage in. His stories are almost like those people we sometimes meet whom we would like to know but feel alienated from. They are not warm, or engaging. They challenge without our understanding why. Those who are flexible enough to take the time, however, are usually rewarded with friendship or insights. The message here is: persevere.

In the first story, "Filling the Spaces Between Us," too late the central oddball character, who is a psychiatrist specializing in brain damaged patients, realizes that his wife is what he needs, only after she has been injured and is beyond receiving the love from him that she has always needed.

Brain Work is a perfect title, and not only because of stories like the one above. The title anticipates exactly what the reader will receive. Cerebral and thoughtful, the author gives us controversial lines like: it is pain that makes us who we are. He has a way of making the mundane profound:

I believe in death, and now have little reason to have faith in immortality, so time is incredibly awesome to me, in both the wonderful and the terrifying sense of the word. I kill time only when I'm wedged in by it on all sides.

Superficially, many of the stories seem to be about psychological treatment for abnormal behavior -- both neurosis and psychosis -- but time and time again the characters and the readers find themselves up against the intangible, the inexplicable, as the story slips from solid ground. The psychiatrist who finally gives up his search for the soul, two elderly patients who find the courage to step outside their institution and redefine love, the interviewer who is driven to desperately seek proof of angels.

Charles Baxter, in his foreword, astutely writes:

The evidence of things unseen is where psychology and religion meet. Psychology has one explanation for visions, religion another. Psychology was once thought to have demystified religious thought or to have displaced it entirely. But what these stories do is to hold these two explanations in a kind of suspension.

Baxter goes on to say that it is very rare for a modern writer to deal with the spiritualization of psychic disorders. He's right. This is what gives the stories collected in Brain Work their edge and what will make them stand out for the persevering reader. You may not find Guista's tales gripping enough; you may not find clever uses of language or sensual images and you may not even like the characters, but you will remember the knowing gaze and sad smile of the madman gesturing wildly by the shop window, urine streaming down his legs as he catches the shocked look of the narrator driving past. You will remember the stunned author, suffering horribly from migraines, as he watches his wife sell off all of their memories at a garage sale prior to leaving him. You will remember the husband and father in Kilty, dealing with the death of one child, the horrifying complicity of the other and the severe depression of his hospitalized wife.

These 14 stories, some of them as short as six pages, are full of suffering people, all of whom Guista views with compassion and amazement. It's not so much the plots that will grip you, but rather the pain of each of these characters. It feels as if a new noun needs to be invented to describe their situation and the themes of the book, a noun with as much weight as "existentialism" to define this 21st century struggle, to balance the psychological condition with a shifting spiritual anxiety.

Guista's stories have appeared in many reviews and journals but Brain Work is his first published book. Original and provoking, combining angst and awe, theology and therapy, these stories will mess with your mind. | September 2005


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.