Showing 11 - 20 of 1254 Fiction annotations

The Winter Soldier

Mason, Daniel

Last Updated: Jun-20-2020
Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

When The Winter Soldier opens, Lucius Kszelewski, youngest son of a patrician Polish family living in Vienna, is on a train bound in the dead of winter for a field hospital in the Carpathian Mountains.  It is 1915, and Austria-Hungary is at war with Russia.  Lucius, a medical student, has completed only six semesters of medical school, but World War I has intervened, and due to a shortage of physicians in the army the government has decreed that students may graduate early, become doctors, and immediately be commissioned.   Lucius has done so and is on his way to Lemnowice, a Galician village, where he believes he will work with other physicians and finally learn to be “a real doctor.” 

When he arrives, he finds that the hospital is an expropriated village church overrun by rats and ravaged by typhus, and he is the only physician.  The hospital is run by a nun, Sister Margarete, assisted only by orderlies, and the patient load runs the gamut from fractures and gunshot wounds to gangrenous legs and massive head trauma.  The front is only a few kilometers away, and the wounded arrive continuously; the quiet and formal Sister Margarete confidently and  surreptitiously guides him through rounds, surgeries, and battlefield medicine.  Lucius is initially wary of her, perhaps a bit awed by her, and ultimately falls in love with her.    

The transforming event is the arrival of the winter soldier, Jozsef Horvath, brought in from the snow mute and shell-shocked, but with no visible wounds.  Lucius is fascinated by diseases of the brain and mind, and this patient presents a tremendous challenge.  Lucius is sure that Horvath has “war neurosis,” what the British physicians of the time were calling shell shock and what we today would call PTSD, and he is determined to understand and heal him.  Lucius and Margarete make slow progress with their patient, but his attempts to care for Horvath have unintended effects, and Lucius must then deal with the consequences of his actions.  

The war, and the hospital routine, go on.  One day, while Lucius and Margarete are relaxing in the woods, Lucius asks her to marry him.  Margarete runs off, and Lucius returns to the village, but Margarete is not there.  While Lucius and the staff search for her, Lucius gets lost; he stumbles onto a battlefield and is dragooned into service with a regiment of the Austrian infantry.  He escapes and tries to make his way back to the field hospital, and to Margarete, but Lemnowice has fallen to the Russians.  The hospital has been evacuated—and Margarete has disappeared.   Lucius’ search for her will take him across the war-torn remnant of the Empire.

View full annotation

The Eye in the Door

Barker, Pat

Last Updated: Jun-08-2020
Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The Eye in the Door is the second volume in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (the first and third volumes, Regeneration and The Ghost Road are also annotated in this database).  It continues the story of Dr. William Rivers and the soldiers he treats for shell shock, what we today would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in World War I era Britain.  The action has now shifted from Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, to London; and while Rivers remains a primary character, seeing patients now at a London clinic, this volume focuses on Rivers’ relationship with Billy Prior, an officer who was treated at Craiglockhart after a service-related nervous breakdown. 

Billy Prior, released from service on the Front and now serving on “home duty,” is working in the Intelligence Unit of the Ministry of Munitions, a domestic information-gathering and surveillance unit.  England, on wartime footing, is rife with paranoia and conspiracy theories, and the primary objects of state surveillance are two groups of people felt to be disloyal or untrustworthy:  conscientious objectors, or “conchies,” and homosexuals, who are seen as both abnormal and subversive.  The state is unremitting in its hounding and pursuit of these two groups, and is in fact “the eye in the door,” always watching and ready to pounce. 

Although Billy is an officer and has a position in the surveillance apparatus, he is living a double life, and is doubly at risk in this environment.  He is bisexual; the book opens with him failing to complete the seduction of a young woman and promptly thereupon having a liaison with a fellow officer whose wife and children are out of town.  This officer, who also works in the Ministry, has been vaguely threatened about his association with the presumed network of homosexual subversives.   In addition, while Billy is not a pacifist, he has friends from his childhood in working-class northern England who are conscientious objectors.  These friends may or may not have participated in terrorist activities, are either currently in jail or wanted by the police, and are no surer than Billy is as to exactly whose side he is on.  

Prior plays a dangerous double game, attempting to use his position in the government to help his old friends, and continuing treatment with Dr. Rivers, as his past psychological traumas continue to intrude upon, and complicate, his personal and professional lives, building to a powerful conclusion.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Brinker, Dustin

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Graphic Novel

Summary:

Compendium 1 (Volumes 1-8)
Taking place in a post-apocalyptic United States, these graphic novels follow the life and legacy of a former county police officer named Rick Grimes as he and those he encounters learn to survive and thrive in a world beset by zombies. The story begins in medias res as Rick awakens from a coma after being shot on the job a few weeks earlier. He finds himself in a seemingly deserted hospital and stumbles upon a sealed room, inside which walks dozens of decaying, groaning human bodies seeking to consume him. He flees the hospital to find a desolate landscape. In his home neighborhood, he runs into a father and son who tell him that the last national broadcast said for people to head to large cities for military protection. Thinking that his wife and son may have heeded the advice, Rick gathers what he can from police headquarters and begins toward Atlanta, the nearest large city. Galloping into Atlanta on horseback, he is overwhelmed by a large number of the undead. A young man named Glenn comes to his rescue, bringing him to a makeshift camp of roughly a dozen people. There, Rick finds his wife and 7-year-old son Carl along with his former police partner and a young woman named Andrea. Mishaps and death ensue, forcing the group to travel in search of more secure housing and food. It is revealed that everyone will become one of the undead upon death, bitten or not.  They eventually find a prison after leaving behind a small farm run by a tightknit, religious family with skewed notions of the undead, one member of which, Maggie, becomes romantically involved with Glenn and joins Rick’s group. After ridding the grounds of the undead, termed Roamers, the group encounters inmates who had been holed up inside. Conflict follows distrust, yet the leadership remains with Rick’s group. The group’s numbers are bolstered when a middle-aged black woman named Michonne arrives carrying a katana and accompanied by two jawless, undead guards. Soon after, the group encounters Woodbury, a hostile community led by a man calling himself the Governor. Members are taken hostage, and Michonne is brutally tortured and raped. The group manages to escape and return to the prison, but only after Michonne returns to claim revenge on the Governor, torturing, maiming, and leaving him for dead. The Governor survives and leads an assault on the prison, resulting in the separation of most characters and the deaths of many others, including Rick’s wife and their recently delivered baby. Only Rick and Carl are shown leaving the carnage alive.  

Compendium 2 (Volumes 9-16)
Rick and Carl survive on their own for a bit until they encounter three individuals in a large truck heading to Washington D.C. They are under the false assumption that one of the new group’s members, Eugene, knows how to cure the undead pandemic. Shortly after discovering his falsehood, the group is introduced to and integrated into a walled community near DC known as Alexandria, a haven of houses, electricity, and running water. Battles arise with scavengers, resulting in compromised walls, injury, and more death. While searching for supplies, the group encounters a man dubbed Jesus who is acting as a recruiter for another walled off community called the Hilltop. Rick ventures to the Hilltop with the hopes of rebuilding civilization, only to learn that their community is plagued by a pseudo-mercenary group known as the Saviors; “protection” from Roamers is forced upon the Hilltop by the Saviors in exchange for half of all food and supplies. To free the Hilltop and gain favor for trade, Rick agrees to challenge and eliminate the Saviors along with their leader Negan.

Compendium 3 (Volumes 17-24)
Upon confrontation, the Saviors pin Rick’s vanguard, and Negan savagely kills Glenn in front of a pregnant Maggie, using a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat named Lucille to do so. Negan forces obeisance from Rick, albeit under a vow from Rick to kill him. Returning to Alexandria, Rick’s group returns to normalcy, appearing to acquiesce to the demands of Negan. Unbeknownst to most of those under his care, Rick embarks with Jesus to enlist the leader of another community known as the Kingdom in an allied war effort against Negan and the Saviors. Rick’s arrival coincides with that of Negan’s lieutenant Dwight who also seeks to overthrow Negan. The four of them begin war preparations. Despite misfortunes, the allied group comes out victorious. Rather than kill Negan, Rick vows to keep him prisoner for life so that he may see how the communities rebuild civilization. The following new leadership is established: Rick and Andrea, now romantically involved, as the heads of Alexandria; Dwight as commander of the Saviors and their community, the Sanctuary; and Maggie as the chief of the Hilltop. The four communities effectively rebuild a functional society in the next two years, establishing a safe trade route and taking in stragglers as they find them. Eventually the communities face a new danger in the form of a wild group called the Whisperers, who disguise themselves in the skins of Roamers and follow a wolfpack social hierarchy, when they accidentally encroach on the unmarked territory of the latter. The leader of this group, known as Alpha, infiltrates the first community fair held by Rick’s people, covertly snatches away many members, and uses their undead heads as signposts to mark the boundary between territories.

Compendium 4 (Volumes 25-32)
In the shuffle of Rick and his communities declaring war on the Whisperers, Negan jailbreaks and manages to kill Alpha as a sign of good faith with Rick. The established communities survive the war, suffering enormous casualties in the elimination of the Whisperers. Meanwhile, Eugene discovers the existence of another large community in Ohio using a repaired CB radio. A team, including Eugene and Michonne, gathers for the long journey there. The results are beyond reasoning: an incredibly large community dubbed the Commonwealth. This community gives the appearance that an apocalypse never occurred, relying upon the class system of the old, pre-undead world to establish order. Amazingly, Michonne reconnects with one of her long-lost daughters and chooses to remain in the Commonwealth by resuming her old vocation as a lawyer. She attempts to mitigate underlying tensions between the classes of this newfound community, but ultimately fails to quell the waves of indignation and retribution from the labor classes towards their privileged elite. Rick and his crew inadvertently add the final spark to the brewing civil war within the Commonwealth, a war which is only narrowly stopped through Rick’s diplomacy and abdication of leadership from current governor. Despite the now solidified union of a new civilization, Rick is murdered by the self-righteous son of the deposed leader, never living to see the fruition of the new coalition. The story ends from the perspective of Carl living in a civilized, nearly undead-free world decades after Rick’s death. The final events reveal the glorification of Rick Grimes and his contributions during what is now known as the Trials.  

View full annotation

The Flight Portfolio

Orringer, Julie

Last Updated: May-21-2020
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Historical fiction, the artistic space that exists between actual persons and events and a writer’s imaginative ability to create a new story, is an established genre. The narrative usually is told by someone whose name does not appear in history books but who was a firsthand witness to events as they unfolded and the people who influenced their course. A variant are novels that are written from the perspective of someone who is in fact part of the historical record but is either unappreciated or overlooked. The extraordinary success of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of Elizabethan novels written in the voice of Thomas Cromwell, a chief minister to King Henry VIII, attests to the appeal of this format. Julie Orringer’s wonderful book “The Flight Portrait,” falls nicely into this category.

The novel is written through the eyes of Varian Fry. His name is not well known today. But he was a well-regarded journalist who wrote from Berlin in The Living Age and the New York Times about Hitler’s savage treatment of the Jews in Germany in the mid-1930s, well before most of the world came to realize the existential threat posed by the Nazi regime. After a brief period in the United States, he returned to Europe in 1940 and formed the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Over the next year, with money that he helped raise, Fry was able to help over 2,000 embattled artists, scientists, philosophers, and writers to escape Europe and find safe haven in the US. Among those Fry saved were Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Hannah Arendt, Max Ophuls, Arthur Koester and Claude Levi-Strauss. It is hard to imagine the counterfactual, a world deprived of the contribution of these people because they perished in Europe. The novel details the complications, emotional and physical, that Fry, a non-Jew from a wealthy family, endured as he arranged for safe passage across the Pyrenees or by boat out of Marseilles for his anxious petitioners. The fraught negotiations with Vichy officials and the against the grain support he received from some heroic individuals in the US consulate, specifically Hiram Bingham IV, are played across the taut chapters. The title refers to a collection of unique artworks that the artists created to call attention to their plight and help raise funds for the ERC. The tension is palpable, the threat is real, and outcome uncertain until the end. It is an intelligent and engrossing read.

View full annotation

The Bridge in the Jungle

Traven, B.

Last Updated: May-15-2020
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The Bridge in the Jungle is a novel about the tragic death of Carlos, an 8 or 9 year old (no age is given) hyperactive Mexican boy, and the aftermath of his mother's overwhelming grief for him, sometime in the early 20th Century in a very poor village deep in the jungle. (The lack of specific details are intentional, as I shall discuss below.) The narrator is an American man staying in the village while looking for alligator skins and bird feathers to sell in the U.S.. He observes the little boy's brother, who works in the oil industry in Texas and has just returned for the weekend, give his little brother brand new shoes. Carlos is overjoyed to wear them since all the villagers but the pump master's wife wear threadbare rags for clothes. This is the little boy's first pair of shoes, much less shiny new American ones. While sitting outside in the village with his host, both waiting for an outdoor party, the narrator hears an ominous splash that is Carlos falling to his death off the treacherous bridge, a bridge that has no railings. The remainder of the novel depicts the grief of the young mother - a grief that reaches the suffocating proportions of Greek tragedy - and her villagers' genuine support.

Described in minute detail by the narrator, the villagers - who have turned over every stone in the woods, dived many times in the river, and ridden to nearby villages to find Carlos - turn to an old man who requests a perfectly flat piece of wood and a stout candle. He then meticulously fastens the candle to the wood and carefully launches this raft of mystical exploration and recovery on the river. Every villager watches this ceremony with rapt attention. It is truly a riveting passage, for the raft travels under its own power from the river bank against the current, meandering slowly towards the bridge where it finally stops, despite the current, under the bridge, the only place no diver has yet looked:
"The board in the meanwhile has wandered farther under the bridge, but always in a right angle to the fifth post. Now it is under the middle of the bridge. From here it sails towards the fourth post, though only for about a foot. And here it stops as if it were nailed to the water. It does not mind the current nor the light breeze that sweeps softly across the surface of the river. The manner in which the board has halted is entirely different from that in which it stopped before. Now and then it trembles slightly, as if something were breathing against it from below. But it no longer whirls. ... The board begins softly to dance as if impatient. It seems that it wants to be relieved of its torture. It wriggles, swings about itself, though it does not move as much as two inches. One might think it is trying to go down to the bottom."
(page 110-1)
A villager dives and retrieves Carlos and hands his body to his mother:
"With an indescribable nobility and solemnity, and in his eyes that pitiful sad look which only animals and primitive people possess, he steps slowly forward. And Perez, the man whose daily task it is to fell the hard trees of the jungle and convert them into charcoal, lays that little water-soaked body in the outstretched arms of the mother with a tenderness that makes one think of glass so thin and fragile that a single soft breath could break it."
(page 113)
The villagers, in a procession that is tragicomic, take Carlos' body to the graveyard where a well respected teacher, now drunk from all the mescal others have offered him, gives an eulogy that suggests Christ's Sermon on the Mount. However, with inverted symbolism, this sermon is for, not by, Jesus and is delivered by a drunken priest-figure who is so drunk he falls into the open grave. To Traven's credit he introduces this farcical moment to emphasize how none of the villagers, much less the author, and, consequently, the reader, laughs at a decent man trying his best to honor Carlos. It is truly a most moving finale to a most moving book.



View full annotation

The Ballad of Typhoid Mary

Federspiel, J. F.

Last Updated: Apr-07-2020
Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The novel's narrator is a widowed 58-year-old Swiss-born physician, Howard J. Rageet, who lives in New York City. His son is a pediatrician, his daughter a medical student. Rageet himself is terminally ill. He is writing a "little biography," of Mary Mallon, the infamous "healthy carrier" also known as Typhoid Mary. Rageet's grandfather, also a doctor, had kept a journal about Mary and his rivalry with his friend, (the real) George A. Soper, whose life's work became tracking Mary and proving that she was responsible for the typhoid outbreaks. Elaborating on the journal, Rageet recounts Mary's life in America.

Born Maria Anna Caduff in the same part of Switzerland as Rageet's ancestors, she arrives in New York Harbor in 1868, aged 13, on a crowded immigrant ship, a fifth of whose passengers had died en route from Europe. The dead include Mary's family. She had been taken care of by the ship's cook, who evidently both taught her to cook and used her for sex. When the ship docks, Mary tries to jump overboard, but is stopped by a physician, Dorfheimer, who smuggles her through Ellis Island and takes her home with him. He is also a pedophile, and he has sex with her. Rageet calls this kidnapping a "humane, benevolent crime." Not long after, Dorfheimer dies of typhoid fever.

Rageet's "ballad" then traces Mary's various positions as a cook (and, often, sexual object), most of which end quickly when the household is infected. She has two relationships that do not lead to the disease. One is with a small girl who has Down Syndrome. Once her connection to typhoid is suspected, the child's family hire Mary to live alone with the child and care for her, hoping the child will be infected and die. The child never becomes ill. The other is with a disillusioned anarchist, Chris Cramer. She lives with him and falls in love with him, but he is not sexually interested in her.

Soper encounters Mary when he is asked by a wealthy Oyster Bay family, her former employers, to investigate a typhoid outbreak in their household. He manages to track her down and eventually, after much resistance, she is arrested, tested, and quarantined. She escapes and continues to work as a cook until her re-arrest. Promising to try and imagine Mary's motives, Rageet breaks off his narrative. He is dying. The novel ends with a postscript written by Rageet's daughter. Implying that her father committed suicide, she tells of Mary's stroke and the last years of her life as a paraplegic, and she provides a final document, the menu for one of the very elaborate meals Mary would have cooked.

View full annotation

Weather

Offill, Jenny

Last Updated: Apr-03-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Weather is a strange, disturbing, and important book. Offill uses fragments of prose—typically a few lines or half a page—to present a small group of characters in New York City who experience dread, unhealthy behaviors, and many difficult choices. The fragments jump from topic to topic and points of view, suggesting chaos in the characters, in much of modern life, and even in the structure of this novel. “Weather” suggests “whether”: whether humans can survive not only from one day to the next but also in the long term that includes the climate crisis threatening our earth. 

The cast of characters is small and carefully arranged. Lizzie (our main focus) is married to Ben; they have a son Eli. Lizzie’s brother Henry is married to Catherine, and they have a baby girl, Iris; Ben and Lizzie have problematic mothers. A genogram of these and other related characters looks like the cast of a Restoration comedy, full of harmony and good will, but in Weather conflicts swirl and grow chaotically. Catherine divorces Henry. Ben suddenly goes on a three-week trip. Widespread complications include street drugs, alcohol, diet abnormalities, sleep deprivation. There are also mental problems such as confusion, hallucination, loneliness, delusions, and panic, as well as economic difficulties. Only Catherine has a career path, but, at the end of the book, she appears to be “tilting into the abyss too” (p. 179), according to Lizzie. 

While some fragments describe thoughts and actions of the characters, others present a giant whirlpool of cultural, environmental, and historical topics, including doomsday preppers, Rapturists, and the end of civilization, also gun rights, multicultural frictions, popular religion, a need for a strongman to govern, noticeably sick people and loss of medical services. Other topics touched on include hate literature, mob rule, suicide, torture, as well as references to Fukushima, the Holocaust, and 9/11. Many of these worry our characters; others are simply mentioned as “the surround” for all people around the world. Our characters have fantasies of hope but usually feel panic, dread, loneliness, guilt, or despair. Sylvia (Lizzie’s former professor and sometime boss) is an academic who appears to understand climate change and the need to warn people, but she gives up, saying “there’s no hope” (p. 133).  

The first 127 pages swirl around the characters with little progression of story. The next section (4) accelerates the craziness among them all. The last two sections seem more “stable,” but with no actual resolutions. Lizzie says “I will die early and ignobly” (p. 187). In the very last pages, she takes the boy Eli (the only normal major character) to a playground. Later she kneels by her bed and prays for “Mercy” (p. 197). Following the last page, we see only a one-line URL: www.obligatorynoteofhope.com. Is this part of the novel? Do we click on it? 


View full annotation

Man's 4th Best Hospital

Shem, Samuel

Last Updated: Feb-28-2020
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Most of the group are reunited in this sequel to the 1978 blockbuster, The House of God: narrator Dr. Roy Basch and his girlfriend (now wife) Berry, former fellow interns (Eat My Dust Eddie, Hyper Hooper, the Runt, Chuck), surgeon Gath, the two articulate police officers (Gilheeny and Quick), and the Fat Man (a brilliant, larger-than-life former teaching resident). As interns, Basch and his comrades were a crazy, exhausted, cynical crew just trying to survive their brutal internship. Years later, the midlife doctors have changed but remain emotionally scarred.

The Fat Man (“Fats”), now a wealthy California internist who is beginning a biotech company targeting memory restoration, is recruited to reestablish the fortunes – financial and prestige – of Man’s Best Hospital which has slipped to 4th place in the annual hospital rankings. He calls on his former protégés to assist him in an honorable mission, “To put the human back in health care” (p34). Fats enlists other physicians (Drs. Naidoo and Humbo) along with a promising medical student (Mo Ahern) to staff his new Future of Medicine Clinic (FMC), an oasis of empathic medical care that strives to be with the patient.

Every great story needs a villain. Here the main bad guys are hospital president Jared Krashinsky, evil senior resident Jack Rowk Junior, and CEO of the BUDDIES hospital conglomerate Pat Flambeau. The electronic medical records system dubbed HEAL is a major antagonist, and the FMC docs wage war against it and the “screens.”

Poor Roy Basch works long hours, deals with family problems, has trouble paying bills, and experiences health issues (a bout of atrial fibrillation, a grand mal seizure, and alcohol use). Fats has warned of a “tipping point when medical care could go one way or another, either toward humane care or toward money and screens” (p8). Alas, the computers and cash appear victorious. A major character is killed. Many of the doctors working in the FMC including Basch leave the clinic. And fittingly, Man’s Best Hospital plummets in the latest rankings from 4th to 19th place.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Anthony Marra’s debut novel (published in 2013) is set in Chechnya, the rebellious Caucasus republic that broke away from Russia in 1994, was in short order mired in two wars thereafter, and ultimately lost its independence and was re-incorporated into Russia as a semi-autonomous “federal subject” state.  Marra does not ease us into his story, but propels us headlong into it; it is 2004, and eight-year-old Havaa awakens to find that her father Dokka, suspected of aiding Chechen rebels, has been taken away by Russian troops, who have also burned her house to the ground.  She is alive only because Akhmed, her neighbor and her father’s friend, has spirited her out of her house in the middle of the night and hidden her in his.  Akhmed takes it upon himself to protect Havaa; he knows that the soldiers will be looking for her, because even though the official wars are over, Chechnya remains in the midst of a brutal battle for control, and the policy of the state is to “disappear” not only those it perceives as its enemies, but also their family members.  

Akhmed manages to get Havaa to the abandoned local hospital, where he believes she will be safe.  The hospital is staffed only by a smart, tough, and competent surgeon named Sonja, assisted by a nurse.  Sonja is an ethnic Russian from the area who trained in London and then returned to her homeland.  She agrees to shelter Havaa on the condition that Akhmed, who trained as a doctor but is painfully aware of his inadequacies in that profession (he wanted to be an artist), stay on also as her assistant surgeon.  Soldiers and civilians on both sides arrive in need of care in a hospital barely functioning, with little in the way of staff or supplies. 

Sonja meanwhile is searching for her sister who has disappeared into the chaos of the Chechen wars; she believes that Natasha is alive, but hasn’t heard of her, or from her, in years (we will, in the course of the novel, hear Natasha’s story and learn of another side of the underbelly of this war).  She comes to believe that Akhmed may hold a key to Natasha’s whereabouts, and Sonja of course holds the key to whatever measure of safety exists for Havaa—and thus for Akhmed as well.  Other locals, a local Chechen historian, his turncoat son, and various governmental and non-governmental functionaries round out the cast in the novel.   Akhmed must negotiate in a world where anyone could be an informer, and one person clearly is; where the price for falling into the wrong hands could be death or worse; where federal troops and rebels vie to outdo each other in brutality; and where the rest of the population spends every waking minute simply trying to survive in a lawless society and a landscape gutted by ongoing strife.   When the various narrative arcs ultimately link up the ending is a powerful one.




View full annotation

The Little King

Rushdie, Salman

Last Updated: Dec-19-2019
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Dr. R. K. Smile, MD, founder of Smile Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (SPI), enjoys a sudden lurch into fortune and celebrity. Dubbed the ‘Little King’ by his Atlanta-based Indian community, Dr. Smile is a towering medical authority, philanderer and philanthropist, known to be both generous and avaricious. His pinnacle pharmaceutical coup, the patent that has earned him billionaire status, is InSmile™, a sublingual fentanyl spray designed for terminally ill cancer patients. Dr. Smile’s entrepreneurial vim, however, hardly stems from benevolent medical research, but rather an ‘excellent business model’ that he observed on a visit to India during which a Bombay ‘urchin’ handed him a business card that read, ‘Are you alcoholic? We can help. Call this number for liquor home delivery.’ The blunt practicality of building a market around sating addiction strikes the doctor as entirely sensible. Often wistful about India’s ‘old days,’ Dr. Smile fondly recounts the insouciance of neighborhood dispensary hawkers, their willingness to ‘hand out drugs without a doctor’s chit.’ Though admitting that ‘it was bad for [their] customers’ health but good for the health of the business,’ Dr. Smile yearns to replicate a similar culture of delinquent pharmacology, an unregulated market capable of profiting from supply-and-demand forces but indifferent to the wellbeing of its patrons. 

In the meantime, Dr. Smile’s wife, Mrs. Happy Smile, a simpering and daft socialite, envisions grand branding prospects that will globalize the Smile name through ostentatious publicity—inscribed name placards at the ‘Opera, art gallery, university, hospital […] your name will be so, so big.’ She refers to the worldwide reputation of the OxyContin family, the proliferation of the family’s name and esteemed place among prestigious cultural institutions: ‘So, so many wings they have,’ she says, ‘Metropolitan Museum wing named after them, Louvre wing also, London Royal Academy wing also. A bird with so, so many wings can fly so, so high.’ 

InSmile™ sales drive Dr. Smile’s burgeoning drug trade, as his prescription becomes preferred to conventional OxyContin highs due to its ‘instant gratification’ in the form of an oral spray. While SPI fulfills special house-calls for American celebrities and customers in ‘gated communities from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills,’ it also ships millions of opioid products to places such as Kermit and Mount Gay, West Virginia—communities, outside fictional contexts, that bear real-world vestiges of the opioid epidemic (West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdose in the United States). Through a lecture series scheme, Dr. Smile bribes respected doctors to publicize and prescribe the medication, further entrenching the dangerous drug in medical circles.

As the SPI empire collapses following a SWAT-led arrest of his wife, Dr. Smile muses indignantly on his reputation and the ingratitude of his clients. Tugged again by nostalgia for the old country, he justifies his drug trafficking by likening it to quotidian misdemeanors, instances when one could circumvent the inconveniences of India’s law by knowing how to pull the venal strings of corrupt systems—like cutting a long ticket queue at the rail station, he says, by paying a little extra at a backyard office; or bribing government officers to stamp customs papers required to ship restricted antiques abroad—‘We know what is the oil that greases the wheels.’ With this deleterious mindset, combining nostalgia and entrepreneurial greed, Dr. Smile’s future is uncertain, but he is resolved to return—after all, he says, ‘I have lawyers.’

View full annotation