There is no story called “Psychology” in C.P. Boyko’s second collection. Instead, Boyko’s stories boldly assert that the practice of psychology – along with its cousins, psychiatry, psychotherapy, and self-help – is a type of fiction. These sciences of the mind, the stories suggest, almost always fail to produce the intended results. In the hands of a lesser writer, this pervading theme – far too obvious to be considered subtext – might cause a reader to grow weary over the course of six stories. However, Boyko never becomes preachy or didactic, and the work retains a generous sense of humour throughout.
In the world of Psychology, the human brain is ultimately unknowable, and all attempts to understand and constrain it are doomed to fail. Boyko likens psychology not to the hard sciences of medicine or mathematics, but to the more abstract pursuits of writing and literary criticism. “Reading,” says one of Boyko’s speakers, is “a sustained act of voluntary madness.” Fed up with the self-help genre, one of Boyko’s characters writes what he considers to be the ultimate anti-self-help book (don’t try, don’t strive) that becomes a success because he gets the language right.
Elsewhere, a pyromaniac and compulsive liar avoids being institutionalized, having found ways to beat the system. A teenager who suffers from nothing more than the ping-pong of newly activated hormones is sent to a Freudian analyst. In one extremely funny and poignant story, a psychologist tries to manage the everyday domestic challenges of marriage and parenting while also coming to terms with failing to understand another man’s emotional vagaries. Manic depression spreads through several of the pieces, rubber-stamped on a variety of very different case files. The collection ruminates on expectation versus outcome: what happens when those who are supposed to have the answers are so consistently wrong.
However serious Psychology is in intent, it is playful in execution. Boyko seems to be saying that if we could consider the human brain the way we consider literature – that is, if we could agree that there is no right way to read or react – we could begin to delight in our differences.