In her ambitious debut story collection, Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain, Kirsten Menger-Anderson strives to relate the history of medicine in New York City through the lives and careers of thirteen successive generations of doctors. This premise is fascinating and engaging, and Menger-Anderson deserves credit for her boldness and originality.
But unfortunately, Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain falls well short of its lofty ambitions. While the book’s subject matter cries out for the grand sweep and depth of a multi-generational historical epic, Menger-Anderson’s stories instead come off as thin sketches, merely skimming over the surfaces of historical events and the lives of her characters.
Menger-Anderson’s treatment of history often has the familiarity and shallowness of a greatest hits compilation, packing in historical events and social trends by the dozen, as if she’s checking them off a list of popular favorites. Spiritualism, the Temperance movement, McCarthyism, and the American Revolution all make unsatisfying cameo appearances, entering and exiting the book with all the substance of a grinning guest star brought onto a television show to boost ratings. An emblematic moment comes in the story “My Name Is Lubbert Das,” in which a pair of characters abruptly appear out of nowhere in order to announce that King George has repealed the Stamp Act, and then promptly disappear again.
This kind of clumsy, inorganic insertion of historical detail is par for the course throughout Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain. In “Hysteria”, a young woman volunteers in a women’s prison ward in 19th century New York, encountering criminals, madwomen, and also repressive sexist ideas about the roles of women. The story shares a fair amount of thematic territory with the British writer Sara Waters’ 1999 novel Affinity, which is set in a London prison in 1874, and which also follows a young female volunteer as she interacts with inmates and chafes against the expectations of a patriarchal culture.
But while Waters’ book uses a richly-drawn historical setting to spin an engrossing tale animated by the substantial treatment of ideas about the lives of 19th century women, Menger-Anderson fails to bring her historical settings and ideas to life on the page.
Menger-Anderson’s often condescending perspective toward her characters also weakens the impact of her stories. Rather than making a serious attempt to understand the minds, hearts, and cultural environments of characters who engage in now-discredited practices like mesmerism, phrenology, electroshock treatment, and lobotomization, Menger-Anderson instead presents them as mere historical curiosities, dismissing them out of hand as old-fashioned, ignorant, and hopelessly unsophisticated.
Menger-Anderson would have been much better served by taking an approach more like that employed by the writer Chris Adrian, whose 2001 novel Gob’s Grief intelligently and empathetically treats the spiritualism of the latter half of the 19th century as one way in which his characters attempt to deal with their unbearable, overwhelming grief for the dead of the Civil War.
Menger-Anderson enjoys much greater success with the final stories in her collection, which move into near-contemporary settings. While her historical tales tend to make summary judgments about the errors and foibles of generations past, when she writes about the present, she instead tends to ask sensitive and open-ended questions. “The Story of Her Breasts” offers a complex and empathetic take on the relationship between a woman and her breast implants. Though the story suffers from an ill-considered and melodramatic ending, it never condescends toward its protagonist, and her ideas and emotions are taken seriously.
In “The Doctors,” Menger-Anderson tackles the limits of contemporary medical knowledge, and draws the book to a close on an open-minded and cautiously optimistic and note. This final story captures the passion and commitment of contemporary medical researchers — and it’s unfortunate that Menger-Anderson largely fails to bring out the similar dedication and adventurousness that the phrenologists, electrocshock therapists, and lobotomists of generations past must also have felt. History may have proven their methods wrong, but modern medical practitioners stand on their shoulders all the same.