Review: Banshee and the Sperm Whale (Pski’s Porch, 2021)

Therapy sucks. 

No one goes to therapy because they want to. Much like forgoing red meat or hitting the gym, therapy is an aspect of twenty-first century life that we put up with because we feel we should. Which is odd, because the therapeutic process is pretty ridiculous when you think about it. The conceit of therapy in its current form is that, if you’re miserable and/or alienated enough, you can pay someone with an advanced degree an obscene amount of money to act as your emotional barf and/or punching bag as you regale them with your traumas and insecurities. And the strangest part of all is that, for most people, it somehow works. 

Jake Camp’s Banshee and the Sperm Whale takes a long, hard, absurdist look at therapy (specifically couples therapy), chews it up, and spits it back at the reader, all while managing to tell a story that, despite how convoluted and fantastical it may seem on the surface, is a simple tale with a strong moral core. In a nutshell, Banshee follows the relationship and therapy sessions of Martin, a chef with a love for high-ABV beer, and his wife Ana, who works as an administrator at a community college. The actual plot, as far as Martin and Ana are concerned, is straightforward, one could even say mundane. They get married, Martin cheats on Ana, they start going to therapy, Ana eventually cheats on Martin (with Martin’s blessing) as a way of balancing the scales of their marriage, Martin starts a food truck that serves tacos themed after every continent, and eventually they graduate from therapy. If that sounds boring, well, I’m not doing the book justice. 

The world of Banshee and the Sperm Whale is comprised of equal parts troubled marriage plotline, magical realism, and a B plot which I can only describe as what would happen if Oliver Sachs rewrote The Pilgrim’s Progress to be about anthropomorphized neurons attempting to tame a man’s sexual appetites (I’ll refrain from paraphrasing this B plot too much, because it’s the kind of hilarious, insightful narrative that you just need to read for yourself).

As far as the magical realism elements go, here are a few examples: 

—Denver is struck by a biblical deluge after Martin cheats on Ana, but soon after, the deluge is revealed to be a symbol of Martin forgetting to turn off the utility sink at work.

—The couple’s therapist, Dr. Barrantine, invents a quantum-philosophical device which allows the user to erase a single sentence they uttered from the spacetime continuum.

—Dr. Barrantine invents an impulse removal device, which he tests on himself while viewing internet porn. 

Speaking of Dr. Barrantine, Dr. Barrantine is by far the most interesting character in the novel, and what few chapters focus on him and him alone provide some of the most memorable scenes in the book. (The part where he creates a painting using his own head as a paintbrush while ruminating on whether or not it was a good idea to recommend Infinite Jest to a patient whose father committed suicide is now what I imagine all therapists do when they’re not in the office.) The fact that this therapy novel’s therapist is the most fascinating character is fitting, since therapists are fundamentally fascinating, even though they shouldn’t be. Therapists often present themselves as blank, empathetic walls to their patients, making them a natural source of speculation and mystery, like demigods with clipboards and subscriptions to Psychological Methods. Granted, we know on an intellectual level that our therapists are just as flawed and human as we are, but we don’t like to think of the person we entrust with our mental health as being flawed and human. But still, we wonder.

Perhaps that’s why a show like Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist managed to stick around for so long despite being ugly as hell and every episode being almost exactly the same. Dr. Katz followed the titular Dr. Katz and his adult son, Ben, as they went about their life in New York City. The main draw of each episode were Dr. Katz’s patients, each of whom was a comedian who would regale Dr. Katz with their life problems, which were really just their standup routines. The fact that you can hear the routines of Dave Chapelle, Ray Romano, and Sarah Silverman before they got super famous is the main reason anyone bothers watching the show today, but there’s also something charming about the mundane yet dysfunctional life of Dr. Katz and his manchild son. In fact, there’s something reassuring about the idea that one’s therapist may be just as (if not more) fucked up as we are. 

The concept of a TV show or novel centered around therapy sounds terrible on paper. Because therapy is just talking. Centering a novel’s plot around therapy sessions is the antithesis of the creative writing maxim “show, don’t tell.” And yet, Camp manages to break that maxim while still producing something that’s not only readable, but engrossing. 

But why exactly is Banshee and the Sperm Whale engrossing? I think it has a lot to do with the very nature of therapy and how we’ve come to understand the human creature. Over the past century, our understanding of the self has drifted away from religion’s soul- and God-based schema, to one based on psychology, sociology, and neurology. In many ways, we understand ourselves and our motives better than we did a century ago, but to paraphrase Alan Bloom, psychology has allowed us to study the mind while forgetting the psyche (originally “soul” in Greek) entirely. Just as auto shops are the end products of thousands of years of advances in physics and engineering, so too are therapists’ offices the end products of thousands of years of humans trying to answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” And while a good therapy session can and often does help us feel better existentially, it’s only a temporary fix.    

To reiterate, therapy sucks, but only insofar as life in general sucks. When you get down to it, therapy is just one of several ways in which we try to make and impose meaning onto a world that may not have any intrinsic meaning. But even if we can’t tackle the universe’s big questions, we can still work on improving ourselves and our marriages—relatively small things that are within our control. But even trifles like that can feel cosmic at times, a paradox which Camp’s novel encapsulates perfectly.