Brain Reading We diagnose a century-spanning medical manuscript
In THE FIRST story of Kirsten Menger-Anderson’s new book Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain, we meet a 17th-century doctor in New Amsterdam who divides his time between caring for his mad mother, whom he keeps locked in a cage, and furtively cutting open the skulls of the recently deceased to learn more about how brains function. It is these three things—New York, madness and questionable science—that carry us through the next three centuries.
Menger-Anderson’s book defies classification as novel or short-story collection. It’s a series of stories about a family of doctors descending from van Schuler’s arrival in New Amsterdam in 1664 to the work of Dr. Elizabeth Steenwycks, a medical researcher in modern-day Manhattan.
In between these two points, the family of doctors latches on to a succession of popular but often misguided medical trends, from phrenology to filament baths. More importantly, the doctors use these trends and practices to try and explain the world around them and, as they are using science that will be proven to fail, often fall short.
Some stories star the doctors or the people in their lives, while in others the doctor appears only as a minor character.This removes the lineage from the narrative center of the stories, and at times the doctors fade into the framework becoming more of a background, like the city of New York.The main characters of each story are left as our temporary guide, which provides both the strength and weakness of this book. On the one hand, by casting her net wide across the spectrum of New York citizens, Menger-Anderson paints a pastiche of the struggles of New York life from the adventures of a Huck Finn-esque riverfront rouge of The Baquet to the assimilation of a Lower East Side daughter of immigrants who marries a traditional “American” man in A Spoonful Makes You Fertile.The reader views the world from a variety of vantage points but loses the chance to develop a connection with a hero in a form that seems to offer one— with its presentation of a central familial lineage.Whenever the current generation’s doctor appears, it’s hard to care as much about them as it is about the main character of the current story, and yet in the next story, the blood line will still be there but the main character will be gone. However, there are some wonderful characters in these pages. The narrator of “Salk and Sabin,” probably the strongest standalone story in the book, is a wonderfully realized portrayal of an adolescent girl named Joanie growing up in the streets
of 1950s Greenwich Village. Joanie balances that fine line between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and knowledge, as she navigates an adulterous mother, a communist father, a sensitive younger brother and the beginnings of her own sexual awakenings. Menger-Anderson nails the difficulty of presenting Joanie on the precipice of knowledge without revealing the author’s larger understanding of the world, as well as having a character who beautifully reflects the time period and place in which she is living.
To set stories in periods stretching across centuries, not to mention peppering it with the scientific knowledge of those days, is a difficult task. And yet, Menger- Anderson’s characters are well developed, and her attention to detail—down to the tools used by the generations of doctors— is thorough. She incorporates historical events into the story, everything from the Conspiracy of 1741 to the Attica Prison riots.These events, like the descriptions of a tavern in 1700, create a connection between the reader and New York City itself.
The events may be dark spots in the city’s history—just as the quackery practiced by the doctors doesn’t represent science’s brightest moments—yet Metzger-Anderson presents each of them, as well as the parade of New Yorkers through time, in all of their ambition and pain.
> Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain
by Kirsten Menger-Anderson.
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 290