Couch Fiction, by Philippa Perry and Junko Graat
Written by Philippa Perry and illustrated by Junko Graat, Couch Fiction is an innovative new graphic novel that aims to give readers an insight into psychotherapy by offering both the therapist’s and the client’s prospective of the therapy process. Although none of the characters in Couch Fiction actually exist, in a note to the reader at the beginning of the book Philippa Perry comments that she has taken content from real people’s actual dreams for use in the story and that the relationship between the therapist and the client is typical of psychotherapy case studies. Effectively, Perry guarantees that although Couch Fiction is indeed a work of fiction, it is also an accurate and informative illustration of the psychotherapy process. In order to fulfil such promises, Perry departs from the traditional approach to graphic novels with Couch Fiction in that she includes under the illustrated panels fairly detailed notes that discuss the ramifications of, and motivations behind, psychotherapy.
Setting out to provide readers with an accurate insight into counselling is an audacious undertaking which could be tricky to achieve. With Couch Fiction Perry gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective of therapy sessions so that readers can “peep through the key-hole of the therapy room door and, more than that, read the minds of the protagonists.” The case study that Perry presents is that of Pat, a sandal-wearing, cat-loving psychotherapist, and her new client James, a kleptomaniac barrister. James’s compulsion to steal could well cost him his career if it is discovered and so he has come to Pat in the hopes of a cure for his behaviour. At the beginning of his sessions with Pat, James’s behaviour puzzles even himself. He has plenty of money and access to lots of nice things so why does he jeopardize his livelihood and his respectability by pilfering small items from trusting shopkeepers? Being a bit of a pompous ass, James is in denial about his problems and, while apparently seeking help, treats Pat rather contemptuously. However, as they keep talking, a level of trust is built up between Pat and James so that he is able to divulge some things from his past that his therapist believes may have a bearing on his present.
Couch Fiction is a very interesting, indeed educational, book that has enough humour and pathos to make it entertaining too. Perry is a very experienced therapist herself (although apparently she has never has a client suffering from kleptomania) and so she is able to give a detailed and seemingly accurate insight into therapy sessions and the inner workings of a therapist’s mind. She must have observed a good deal of clients over the course of her career so far and so it is no surprise that the characterization of James rings true too. Watching the relationship between Pat and James develop over the course of a year as they begin to build trust, form an understanding of one another, and eventually begin to successfully tackle James’s problems is actually quite compelling. There is just enough technical information and detail to make the story believable but not so many concepts and issues that they become a chore to read though.
Couch Fiction is presented in black and white with wonderful illustrations by Junko Graat that help to lead the reader through James’s therapeutic journey. While the notes that Perry has included at the bottom of most pages are interesting, stopping to read them can disrupt the flow of the story. It might be worth reading straight through the pure graphic novel of Couch Fiction first to absorb the details of Pat and James’s story and then giving it a second reading where you pause to digest the additional notes.
Couch Fiction is one of the most unusual graphic novels that I had read recently and it is also one of the best. I would recommend it highly to people who enjoy the realism of Harvey Pekar and Daniel Clowes as well as to those who have limited experience of graphic novels but who wish to learn more about the practical experience of psychotherapy.