Doc­tors seek love in med­i­cal col­lec­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Rory Run­nells

THE sto­ries in this de­but col­lec­tion by an On­tario-based fam­ily doc­tor, poet and critic, are for the most part pow­er­ful and in­ci­sive. Mainly set in the Mar­itimes, they re­mind one the doc­tor-au­thor has a long his­tory in lit­er­a­ture, in­clud­ing Cana­dian Giller Prizewin­ner Vin­cent Lam and for­mer Man­i­to­ban Kevin Pat­ter­son. And if Chekhov, their dis­tin­guished fore­run­ner, is in­voked in com­par­i­son, it isn’t out of place. The col­lec­tion of­fers, in its long­est and best sec­tion, sto­ries of doc­tors, some pa­tients and sur­vivors of the dy­ing. Shane Neil­son is no ro­man­tic about the pro­fes­sion, though he clearly seeks mercy in the world and un­der­stands we live in a world where it re­mains a mys­tery. Com­pas­sion may be present, but it isn’t enough. Of­ten there is only de­spair. The bril­liant, al­co­holic sur­geon; the har­ried young ER doc­tor who keeps los­ing pa­tients; the fa­ther hold­ing on to his epilep­tic son af­ter a near death seizure: all strug­gle through, but never fully un­der­stand, the in­ex­pli­ca­ble in the cy­cle of life and death. Many of the 18 sto­ries are about a search for love, or its re­jec­tion, but what can that mean? The key story, Man in the Mir­ror, is a mono­logue by an anes­thetist ad­dicted to a pow­er­ful anes­thetic. He notes the cliché of fol­low­ing one’s heart and do­ing what one loves is ex­actly what he fled from when he be­came an anes­thetist. He draws peo­ple, and him­self, away from feel­ing; a pa­tient’s great­est com­pli­ment is that “I felt noth­ing.” His name, as far as we can tell, but we are never sure, is Koller, the same as the founder of mod­ern anes­thet­ics. He ram­bles on about pop cul­ture, ar­riv­ing at an anal­y­sis of the singer Michael Jack­son, who saw only pain in the mir­ror, and, un­der­stand­ably, wanted to feel noth­ing. Neil­son makes this ad­dicted doc­tor re­pel­lent, creepy and sad. Another group­ing of fam­ily sto­ries set in the Mar­itimes has the same res­o­nance. They seem like mem­ory tales from the young who wit­ness, and some­times suf­fer, the over­flow­ing vi­o­lence stemming from the bit­ter­ness of adults, as with the fa­ther in the ti­tle story, Will. The young are ob­servers and never ac­tors, though they suf­fer the con­se­quences of the adults’ frus­tra­tion. Th­ese sto­ries strike an odd bal­ance with the doc­tors’ tales. In those, feel­ing is es­chewed and com­pas­sion fit­fully achieved. Yet look what hap­pens when ev­ery­one ex­presses ev­ery emo­tion, from the seething jeal­ousy of a fam­ily quar­rel over a dead mother’s pos­ses­sions, to the mean­ing­less con­fronta­tion over a small plot of land. Best keep clear of feel­ing, or try to find a small mercy in it, the tales say. There is another group­ing in the col­lec­tion that could be called post-mod­ern fan­tas­ti­cal sto­ries. JD Ac­ci­den­tal is like en­ter­ing the mind of a sin­is­ter fan­tasy video-game and im­plies a bleak fu­ture. Meant has a cre­ative-writ­ing in­struc­tor faced with var­i­ous fic­tions (re­al­ist, ro­man­tic, etc.) man­i­fested in some sort of con­scious­ness. Live as you read is the point, and its phi­los­o­phy is as good as any in Neil­son’s world. In the long­est, and most com­plex story of this group, The Great New­found­land Novel, Neil­son imag­ines Vladimir Nabokov comes to New­found­land as writer-in-res­i­dence and meets the prov­ince’s first pre­mier, Joey Small­wood, who is on the verge of clos­ing the small out­ports. Nabokov rec­og­nizes a Cos­sack when he sees one. Neil­son’s style is daz­zling, but on the whole the con­ceits in this group be­come, in ret­ro­spect, a bit tire­some.

Still, a writer of his artistry is per­mit­ted any­thing, even post-mod­ern crazi­ness, as long as he pro­duces sto­ries as com­pelling as th­ese in the fu­ture. Rory Run­nells is artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Manitoba As­so­ci­a­tion of Play­wrights.

Will

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