The now-dilapidated Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is a real place, that was once home to hundreds of women clawing in anguish at the stone walls, victims of cruel husbands and a fictitious disease called hysteria. In The New People, it is home to one woman who’s diagnosed herself, who claws at the walls in the hopes of making it as real in 2012 as it was in 1890.
Rhett Stevens, a hotshot horse trainer from upstate New York, has returned to his hometown of Gatlinburg to take a mysterious job offered to him by his high school sweetheart, Tennesseean racehorse heiress Elizabeth Rendare. She has transformed her father’s sprawling estate into a historical amusement park…a dark and absurd version of Colonial Williamsburg…and has hired historical actors to reenact the year 1890.
From one perspective, chapter one is a kidnapping: Rhett is bringing his new girlfriend and fellow “terp”—i.e., living history interpreter—to a historical insane asylum. There he leaves Josie—presumably against her will—in the care of a cutting-edge psychologist, researching a new disorder coined Nostalgic Psychosis. Rhett hopes that the doctor will find a “cure” for her and the rest of their coworkers, who are increasingly trapped inside their historical characters’ idiosyncrasies.
But from another point of view, the trip to the asylum is an elaborate game between two talented but immensely self-conscious actors. Within this game, the extent to which Josie is “kidnapped” is not in terms of the law of 2012, but the norms of 1890—wherein her husband had absolute control, and could effectively decide whether his wife were sane or “hysterical.”
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that both Rhett and Josie suffer from an emotional paralysis that forces them to communicate by pretending it’s 1890. The question of whether they are really in love is as dubious as whether either might be insane: and is complicated further by Rhett’s unreliable narration, which attempts to reconcile his sentimental attachment to his own past with the present, by alternating between the year 2012 and 2009—when the epidemic first hit—and between the present and past tenses, respectively.
Fake weddings that break hearts, fake funerals that come true, and murder that would be matricide if the families were real are just a few of the public “living history programs” that drive Rhett to try to escape his own reality, all the while unaware that he’s the one who’s really being studied—not only by the doctor, a professor of psychology, but by the very people whom he believes need the “cure.”
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