DOCTOR OLAF VAN SCHULER'S BRAIN
By Kirsten Menger-Anderson
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 290 pp., $22.95
Good literary fiction about science and scientists is hard to find, probably because it is so hard to write. Consider the difficulty, after all, of weaving scientific theories or mechanical facts into a compelling narrative that is still "character driven" - the prevailing definition of literary fiction.
Fortunately there are some writers who bridge the gap well: Richard Powers, Andrea Barrett, and Alan Lightman, to name a few. And, now, Kirsten Menger-Anderson, whose debut, "Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain," offers sharp, entertaining, moving, and above all provocative stories about doctors and their work and raises profound questions about the role of medicine in American life. The loosely connected stories follow successive generations of the van Schuler family from their flight in the 1600s from the religion- and superstition-bound Old World to the boundless (for better and worse) freedom of America up to present-day New York City.
The van Schulers are no ordinary family, however. From the opening paragraph - "Dr. Olaf van Schuler, recently arrived in New Amsterdam with his lunatic mother, two bags of medical implements, and a carefully guarded book of his own medicines, . . . soon found work at the hospital on Brugh Street" - we know this is a family with a history of insanity, secrets, and innovation. And Olaf's own "peculiar perversion"? "Slicing heads."
It is one of the book's many important themes to ask just how aberrant to medicine, and to this family, such violence and insanity really are. Another is the question - cleverly presented again and again via the anachronistic attitudes of old, such as the horror of Olaf's colleagues at his "demonic" hobby - whether we've since gone too far.
Despite this focus, the stories are hardly gimmicky. Darkly funny, often sad, frequently frightening, and sometimes hopeful, they are the product of a gifted literary writer. Menger-Anderson draws a wide range of characters, both doctors and patients, men and women, all complex and natural. There is young Edith in "Hysteria," for example, who even at 16 "works magic" in calming and rehabilitating "madwomen" but is then foiled by her conservative parents and driven to crackpot phrenology. There is her great-nephew Abraham, who in one of the finest stories, "The Siblings," returns from Europe wishing to perform a groundbreaking operation called a "lobotomy" on his sister, who may be half-witted and occasionally violent but in her painting "described light with spirals of color and never concerned herself with shadow, so that each image had a haunting quality, a flatness, a sort of impossibility."
Other stories portray the Baquet, a magnetism-producing vat claimed by one of Olaf's snake-oil-salesman-like descendants to cure what ails you, and the amazing Revigator, a real product in the early 1900s that allows the housewives in "A Spoonful Makes You Fertile" to irradiate water at home for general good health.
Certainly "Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain" is about the sometimes gross imperfections of physicians and the gullibility of their patients. But it is about much, much more: the role of science in American history, the impact of the free market on medicine, relations between the sexes, intellectual history, secularism and religion, obsession and domination. And, perhaps above all, what we can, and more often can't, ultimately know.
Moreover, the impact of the collection is greater than the sum of its parts. In spanning 400 years, with the author effortlessly inhabiting the mind-set, mores, and language of each period, it approaches a profound document of cultural history and incisive questioning. Which, in a culture so caught up in technology and the now, is more necessary than ever.
Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil eagerly predicts that within a few decades we will reach the "singularity," which he defines as "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history," including the merging of man and artificial intelligence. Let us hope writers like Menger-Anderson - indeed, books themselves - are still around to poke holes in the hype and document, as she has done so deftly here, the human cost of such "progress."
Eric Grunwald has written computer code that flew on the space shuttle.
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