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This excerpt from Tim O'Brien's autobiographical fiction about the war in Vietnam is a reverie of memory, dream, and story that resurrects the dead. The dead are fellow soldiers, the enemy dead, and a first love who died in childhood.
Tim, the narrator and writer, was only four days into his tour of duty when his platoon commander ordered an air strike against a village that is the source of sniper fire. When the platoon walked through the destroyed village, they found one old, dead, mutilated villager. Tim's fellow soldiers had developed a ritual of "greeting the dead" in which they pretended the dead person was still alive, was someone to be greeted, spoken to, both in mockery and in respect. They applied this ritual to the enemy dead as well as to their own dead.
Both repelled and fascinated by the ritual, Tim remembered his own method for animating the dead-in childhood-friend, Linda, whom he mourned and continues to mourn. After she died of brain cancer, he intentionally dreamed her alive and held conversations with her, just as his compatriots held conversations with their dead colleagues. Now, years later, he is telling the story of these experiences, these dead, these rituals, "keeping the dead alive," and "trying to save Timmy's [his younger self's] life with a story."
Narrated in the third person, the poem is a telephone conversation between an adult son and his complaining mother. This is the mother's second phone call of the day to her son, who had spent several hours shopping for groceries with her earlier that same day.
She is tired, says the mother, and there is no food in the house worth eating. Replies the son, "Did you take your iron? He wanted to know. / He sincerely wanted to know. Praying daily, / hopelessly, that iron might make a difference." Food is a touchy subject--"it never brought them anything but grief."
Later the mother frets that she is afraid, "afraid of everything. Help me, please." If her son would only help her, then he could go back to "[w]hatever / it was that was so important / I had to take the trouble / to bring you into this world."
Most of the thirteen stories in this collection portray interactions among pension guests in a German spa town; a few represent the lives of the town's permanent residents. The minor health problems (mostly digestive ailments, or unspecified "internal complaints") of the guests are not the crux of the plot but rather what gives it its texture. Talk about eating, "internal complaints," sexuality, body image, and pregnancy is the vehicle through which people try to relate.
Most of the stories are about failed communications: between men and women, for example, or between German and English people. Several stories are narrated in the first person by a young Englishwoman whose bodily and marital status (ill? pregnant? married or not?) are pointedly ambiguous.
Two stories represent childbirth from "outsider" perspectives. In "At Lehman's," a virginal serving girl sees her mistress's pregnancy as an "ugly, ugly, ugly" state; later, her sexual explorations with a young man are interrupted by her mistress's screams in labor. In "A Birthday," a man waiting for his wife to give birth focuses on his own suffering rather than hers. "The Child-Who-Was-Tired" follows a child-servant through a day of repeated abuses to body and spirit that culminates in infanticide.
To escape accusations of plagiarism, Swedish neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst Hugo Jaregard) has come to work at The Kingdom, a large Copenhagen hospital. He is a surgical butcher with lamentable bedside manners and utter contempt for Denmark, but he resembles his colleagues in his medical positivism and abhorrence of spiritualism. His inadequacies are easily perceived by the hospital staff and resident Dr. Hook (Soren Pilmark), but his fellow consultants celebrate his arrival and make him a member of their lodge.
The malingering spiritualist Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), admitted for a variety of fictitious ailments, discovers The Kingdom is haunted by a little girl murdered there a century ago by her scientist stepfather. Drusse engages the help of her son, who is an orderly, to trace the child's secret.
Tangents to the main plot involve a pathologist, who is so obsessed with obtaining research tissue that he has a cancerous liver transplanted into himself, and the psychopathic medical student son of the hospital director, whose sick sense of humor leads him to mutilate corpses in the hospital morgue. The ending is pure horror.
Ingenious Pain tells the life story of James Dyer, a surgeon in eighteenth-century England who is gifted--and cursed--with the inability to feel physical or emotional pain. Beginning with his postmortem, the novel traces the thirty-three years of his life, from his illegitimate conception on a frozen river, through the rise of his career from itinerant quack's assistant to ship's surgeon, and then to the court of Empress Catherine of Russia where he meets Mary, a mysterious woman who performs magical surgery on him with her hands, enabling him for the first time to feel and, as a result, to love.
At first this new ability drives him mad, and he is submitted to the infamous torments of Bethlehem Hospital. He gradually recovers, but his new sensitivity has disrupted his identity as a surgeon. He performs one last operation, saving the life of a Negro wrestler by opening his chest and massaging his heart. His own death, not long after, seems to signify that he has at last become a normal man, and this is a form of redemption.
The book begins with a "Twenty Question Multiple Choice Self-Help Quiz." Each question is actually a short chapter. For example, the first chapter deals with the "amnesic self" and asks why amnesia is a favorite device in fiction and especially soap operas. Other chapters deal with the nowhere self, the fearful self, the promiscuous self, and so forth.
The second part of the book is an essay on the nature of the self, complete with numerous diagrams and arrows. The third section presents discussions of various manifestations of the self as transcendent, orbiting, exempted, lonely, and demoniac. The last part is called "A Space Odyssey" and is captioned "What to do if there is no man Friday out there and we really are alone?"
Obviously, this summary says virtually nothing about what the book is about. Suffice it to say that Percy brings his playful humor to the central existential question of human meaning and he presents it in the form of a self-help manual.
Dr. Ernest Lash, single and around 40, discovers his enthusiasm and love for psychoanalysis, the talking therapy, after several years of practice as a psychopharmacologist. As the novel opens, we meet a smart, somewhat smug and self-absorbed Dr. Lash who practices from his office located in the privileged community surrounding Sacramento Street in San Francisco. He has an active psychoanalytic practice, ambition for respect and notice by the seniors of his professional community, and some aspiration to greater success as a theoretician and writer on the subject of psychoanalysis. Central to his character is a love for his work, where it appears that pride in technique and outcome shadows genuine concern for his patients and their unhappiness.
Early in the novel, a male patient, Justin, who has been working with Ernest for several years, announces that he is leaving his wife, Carol, for another woman. Ernest is pleased since he views the marriage between Justin and Carol as unhealthy, while a bit dismayed that Justin fails to acknowledge Ernest's contribution in helping Justin develop the confidence to take this step. Justin ends his relationship with Ernest Lash--feeling that he no longer needs his help--as the beginning of the novel takes an intriguing direction.
Justin's now abandoned wife, Carol, in a state of betrayal and desire for vengeance--she has a hateful attitude toward all psychiatrists after her psychotherapist of many years ago had an affair with her--decides to enter therapy with Dr. Ernest Lash in the hope of seducing him. She disguises herself with a name change and enough distortion of her past and present so that Dr. Lash will not be able to connect her to Justin. She wishes to expose him as a charlatan, and destroy his career.
Carol is an attorney, and smart. Dr. Ernest Lash is lonely and drawn to Carol. The therapy sessions and the progression of their relationship are central to Yalom's exploration of the intersubjective experience, where strangers struggle with the ambiguity of their own motives and intentions in the intimate world of psychoanalysis. Who is giving, who is receiving? Who is being helped, and who is helping?
Yalom weaves this central element of the plot with many other relationships. Dr. Marshal Streider is a senior psychoanalyst with ambitions for national recognition and a preoccupation with money. He is Dr. Ernest Lash's supervisor. He takes great pride in the fact that he treats many wealthy patients, and is engaged in his own boundary dilemmas when he invests, using insider information from one of his patients.
Dr. Seymour Trotter is a senior psychoanalyst who is condemned and removed from psychoanalytic practice after entering a sexual relationship with one of his patients. We learn that Seymour Trotter was once president of the American Psychiatric Association, and a mentor to Marshal Streider. His maxim, "My technique is to abandon all technique" (p. 7), both haunts and guides Ernest Lash throughout the novel as Ernest grapples with his own passions and temptations, while striving in his goal to achieve humane and healing therapy for his patients.
This remarkable collection of essays, both personal and scientific, is written by a remarkable man, Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (a chair once held by Isaac Newton). Unlike Hawking's earlier bestseller, A Brief History of Time, which was written for the lay public to explain current theories of the universe, this book is a mix of essays, speeches, and even a radio show transcript that were originally produced from 1976 to 1992 and whose intended audiences were varied, although none of the works are purely technical.
Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease in the USA, motor neuron disease in the UK) at the age of 21 during his first year of graduate school at Cambridge, though he had already noticed weakness the prior year at Oxford. As he describes in "My Experience with ALS," Hawking experienced a rapid deterioration of function and hence depression.
However, during his hospitalization, he also saw a boy die of leukemia, which made him realize that things could be worse. Hawking married, finished his dissertation, fathered children, and went on to develop innovative theories in physics, such as thermal emission by black holes.
The book begins and ends with personal topics-–the first two essays concern his childhood and education, and the last is a transcript of the BBC radio show, "Desert Island Discs," in which the celebrity is asked to name and describe 8 musical selections and one book he or she would choose to have if stranded on a desert island. Hawking describes how important communication is to him, and the computer program designed by Walt Woltosz, which enables him to have an artificial voice (albeit with an American accent), since he lost his natural ability to speak due to the tracheostomy that was required in 1985. Hawking's incredible will to live and his sense of humor come through in this broadcast, as they do in the scientific curiosity so evident in the essays about physics.
Alicia (Norma Aleandro) lives a comfortable life with her husband Roberto (H?tor Alterio) and her adopted five-year-old daughter, Gaby (Analia Castro). She teaches history in a boy's prep school and is a stickler for rules, insisting that her students confine classroom discussion and essays to events as they are related in textbooks and official documents ("the official story"). She believes only what she reads but her students have been radicalized by political events and defiantly tell her that "history is written by assassins."
When her old friend, Ana (Chunchuna Villafane), returns after living abroad for several years, Alicia learns that Ana had been held prisoner and tortured for more than a month by members of the former regime, as they attempted to extort from her the whereabouts of her husband, a "subversive." From Ana she learns that many others had been held prisoner, tortured, murdered, and that infants had been taken from their mothers.
When Alicia goes to her classes she encounters street demonstrations demanding the return of the "disappeared." Her well ordered life begins to unravel as she wonders about her adopted child's true origins. She questions her husband, who had arranged for the adoption, but he brushes her off, saying that it is of no concern to her. Not satisfied with this response, she searches hospital records and government archives.
At one of these occasions three women who are searching for "disappeared" relatives overhear and approach her. She becomes increasingly convinced that her daughter must have been taken from a murdered political prisoner. She is grief-stricken at the thought that she might have to give her daughter up but at the same time she empathizes with the unknown relatives who have lost the child; she is in despair.
When Sara (Chela Ruiz), one of the three women, presents to her convincing evidence that Gaby is actually her own granddaughter, Alicia confronts her husband in Sara's presence. Alicia has come to believe that Roberto--an admitted rightist--was duplicitous but he ridicules them both and, after Sara leaves, becomes enraged with his wife, brutally attacking and physically injuring her. She leaves him.
Charlie Gordon is a young man with an IQ of 68 who has a job at a box factory and attends night classes in an effort to improve himself. A (very fictional) experimental brain operation becomes available that promises to triple intelligence (it has already done so for a mouse named Algernon), and Charlie excitedly decides that he wants to give it a try. The story consists solely of Charlie's diary entries from the time he hears about the operation through the operation and his dramatic increase, and subsequent decrease, of IQ.
Charlie's increased intelligence opens up to him the understanding of everyday things that had been beyond his grasp, and at his peak he soars to the level of genius, ironically identifying the flaw in the scientific work of the two scientists who developed the operation he has undergone, and thus destroying their careers as their shallow research destroys the life that had been his.
Among the everyday things Charlie understands for the first time is the fact that two of his male co-workers have regularly taken advantage of his retarded state to make fun of him, sometimes roughly. Charlie also becomes self-conscious more generally, which makes it impossible for him to stay in the place where he has been so degraded, even after his formerly misbehaving pals become sympathetic.
At the end of the story he has fallen back to his original level of intelligence--and may continue to decline, if we take the suggestion from the fate of his fellow subject, Algernon, who rises, falls, and then dies. Charlie has only a dim memory of having done something important. His self-esteem is strong, however, and he decides to leave his familiar world and find a place where people won't know about his embarrassment.