I suggested this book as one of my favourites, one that I said had made a lasting impression on me and which I have always recommended to anyone and everyone. It concerns the fictional eighteenth-century James Dyer, born unable to feel pain and becoming, via a series of picaresque adventures, a skilled and sought-after surgeon, before the ability to feel is finally unlocked in him.
The number present to discuss it was our smallest: just four. One of those, Mark, hadn't managed to read the book, and this necessitated my recounting Dyer's convoluted adventures, which underlined the eighteenth-century-type picaresque aspect of the narrative. However, as I explained, the book is not ultimately linear: it begins after Dyer's death when the (real-life) Burke and Hare are dissecting his body to look for clues as to his unusual condition, then moves backwards a year to the point in Dyer's life when, now able to feel pain, he has lost his surgeon's nerve. After this it switches further back thirty-eight years to the night of his conception, the half-rape of his mother by an unknown stranger on a frozen lake, conditions (according to traditional lore) determining his life of frozen feeling. It is after this that the novel takes on a linear mode, charting Dyer's life to his death (and taking in on the way the eighteenth-century epistolary mode). This structure is I think both clever and essential, as it allows us as readers to become involved with Dyer's fate when we might otherwise be unable to do so, ie while he is dispassionate and unempathic.
I said that the things that had attached me to the book were its themes of empathy and of magic versus science, these being among my own themes as a writer. James becomes a freak of nature and a wonder of science and is first shown in fairs and used by Gummer, a snakeoil saleman (who is probably his biological father) to 'prove' the efficacy of his medicine, and then 'saved'/abducted by an aristocrat who keeps a stately home full of such 'freaks' - including Siamese twins, a librarian with six fingers and a creature who seems to be a mermaid - to be exhibited to a royal scientific society. All of this conveys beautifully the Enlightenment tension between superstition and scientific reason, and the lack of empathy often involved in scientific inquiry, issues strongly relevant today. Press-ganged with Gummer (who has 'saved' him from the aristocrat), Dyer becomes mate to a ship's surgeon before taking on the role himself and then, with his utterly clinical and cool-headed approach, a famed surgeon.
The trouble is, I said to the others, although once again I found the book engrossing, I had not in fact remembered any of this plot, and I usually remember novels very well. I had only remembered that Dyer 'had a series of picaresque adventures' before the next stage of the story, which I did strongly remember. Here Dyer takes part in a race - which did in historical reality take place - to be the first doctor to reach the Russian court and inoculate the Empress against smallpox. It is on this trip that Dyer's unfeeling is breached, that he first begins to feel, and the scene in which the agent of this change appears was imprinted on my brain. She is a woman, a kind of witch, and we first see her pursued by men and dogs in the snowy woods, through the eyes of the Reverend whose party has been holed up by the weather in a monastery along with the disappointed Dyer who will not now make it first to the court. The English party rescue the woman, and from that moment on she works her 'magic' on James Dyer and he begins to feel, at first emotion and then the physical pain his body should have suffered through all its previous traumas. At last, as a consequence, he learns the empathy we have seen in him at the start of the book.
I wondered why I should have so vividly remembered that particular scene and been so vague about the rest. When I thought about it, I similarly couldn't remember the precise adventures of the heroes of picaresque eighteenth century novels either, such as Joseph Andrews or Roderick Random, and I decided that it was because of something inherent in the picaresque mode: its deliberate reliance on ups and downs of fortune (suited to an age, the eighteenth century, when life indeed was precarious and one's fortunes could turn in a second), and consequent disconnection between episodes. The encounter in the woods with Mary, however, operates in a much more organic and pivotal way: unlike Dyer's other experiences, it's not just a random illustration of the theme which could have been replaced by another, but is absolutely essential to the plot, the moment that will change the course of Dyer's life in a more fundamental way than any other, where the theme is most dynamically realised through the drama of character in action. After this there can be no more hostage-to-fortune moments: it contains within it the seeds of the end, and as such it's the stuff of modern drama and fiction, and not of the eighteenth-century novel which for much of the time Ingenious Pain pastiches. I found the episode extremely moving on both readings, and the narrative following it (and read in the light of it) very moving, too.
I also said that, actually, I had been surprised to find that I couldn't think of anything more to say about the novel (beyond admiring the concept and theme and the fact that I'd forgotten most of the story) and it now struck me that this novel was a supreme example of so-called 'high concept' (so beloved of present-day marketers). It's based on a very striking, unusual yet graspable idea - that of the man who feels no pain and so can't empathise - but that idea is established right from the beginning of the novel and the rest of the book is largely an illustration rather than a development of it. The book is thus less deep than it seems or than I had remembered.
Ann and John agreed. They too had found the book an engrossing read but had been left with similar thoughts. We three also agreed that the book's eighteenth-century world feels stunningly authentic, and we particularly admired the authentic feel of the language. We also thought it a supreme achievement to have engaged readers with such a potentially unappealing character as the icy Dyer.
John, a child psychologist, pointed out that James's condition was an exaggerated version of some aspects of autism: apparently some of those with autism do have a high pain threshold and many have an obsession with circular mechanisms - James is indeed obsessed with the orrery, the moving model of the planets, which he is given as a child; that, significantly, is his first memory - and the book is thus a comment on the 'autistic' tendencies - the overlooking of emotion - in medicine.
Mark said that he was just really dubious about books written in the present day and set in the past: he didn't see the point (especially when they adopted past modes of fiction as this novel seems to). We said that a character with James Dyer's condition in the present day would have been immediately picked up by the system and prevented from the kind of adventures James has that carry the theme so vividly - apart from the fact that his condition is unusual enough to be mythical and thus better placed at a historical distance. Mark said he could see that that was true, although he remained generally suspicious of historical novels.
Ann and I puzzled about the Epilogue which I won't describe here in order not to plot-spoil, but although its meaning was not altogether clear to us, once again we found it very vivid, evocative and moving. And in spite of our doubts about the whole novel on analysis, there was no denying that it remains an engrossing, striking and moving read, remarkable above all for its humanity.
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here