April 15-28, 2008
Here is the heart of "The Resurrectionist" by Jack O'Connell (page references are to the Algonquin hardbound edition):
"...he understood that the universe, the fabric of reality, was composed of nothing more than particles of longing, a kind of quantum desire for absolute connection. Dr. Peck understood that, from moment to moment, we are profoundly asleep and, so, profoundly alone. ...He knew that every arousal he achieved would bring him closer to answers that had more to do with the nature of consciousness than of coma." (143)
"...this was what he lived for: that instant of pure, galloping potential, that feeling of downrushing epiphany. ...But calling forth fresh thought was, like summoning demons, a precarious process. And, for Dr. Peck, it required an instinctual blending of the right amounts of whimsy, research, fatigue, daydream, alcohol, and stress. It also required the right environment.... Finally, the summoning required a marriage of humility and patience that could allow the idea to reveal itself in its own manner and time. The idea, it must be understood, is always in charge." (145-146)
"...the calling to medicine -- at least the kind of visionary medicine to which he aspired -- was more than a vocation; it was destiny. And as such, it called for a radical lifestyle. Doctors, like monks, were forever at risk of infiltration by the domestic world. He concluded... that they should be solitary, if not entirely celibate, creatures. ...set apart." (146-147)
As in his earlier work, "Word Made Flesh," O'Connell has staked his claim on the phenomenon of creativity and developed a glossus of images to convey his theories and exasperations. He begins Word with the closely observed vivisection of a man, a reverse process of the title, in which we watch a mind (such as it was), and instincts and feelings (such as they were) deftly divested of their mortal envelope, their "jacket" of flesh. From there, somehow, inexorably and beautifully, we are led to apples, and you know what they stand for.
In "The Resurrectionist," we're given a boy in a coma, his grieving father whose wife -- the boy's mother -- died six months after the boy's "incident." We're given a creepy private hospital in O'Connell's perturbingly passé Quinsigamond (Worcester), Massachusetts, said hospital staffed by incestuous strangers in a suffocating atmosphere of endless waiting.
Time is made of glass here. There's motion, but it takes years to make a single ripple. It might all be a metaphor for the giant brain we famously use only ten percent of, a brain that is "from moment to moment... profoundly asleep and, so, profoundly alone."
The chief creep, Dr. Peck, is chasing "arousal" of his comatose patients, seeking that one brilliant insight -- his own arousal -- like a deep-sea diver in the murk of our still primitive sciences of mind and thought. O'Connell's work is rich with wry and mordant humor, and he has his questing doctor literally using a diver's torch to examine the film of the sleeping boy's brain.
Interleaved with all this are slices of a comic-book saga, Limbo, that frames out into a sort of Carnivàle with a twisted trot (i.e., student guide), linking the Limbo circus freaks to the characters at the Peck Clinic. It works because of two qualities in Mr. O'Connell's fiction.
There is the sort of honesty that seems larger than the work that contains it, as if it were a billowing mantle or a prophetic migraine, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear Mr. O'Connell borrow Stravinsky's famous line about being the "vessel through which [these stories] passed."
(Since I wrote these words, I heard Mr. O'Connell speak about the creative process, and he said it's both craft and inspiration, hard work and mystical, galvanizing energy.)
The second quality is the emotional and psychological credentials Mr. O'Connell gives his characters. Sweeney, the sleeping boy's father, has an anger problem. He acts out, violently and sometimes ludicrously (there again is Mr. O'Connell's IQ-crunching humor). Dr. Alice Peck, creepy Dr. Peck's daughter and clinical associate, kisses the boy on his forehead and ruffles his downy hair with the back of her fingers, saying it's "like silk. I love it at this age." And she's "crazy for kids."
There are hard caroms off a crooked wall, too, like the bikers (the mind's id locked in vampiric coitus with the ego's daylight tyrannies?) and an old guy at an ancient pre-mall-era "Mart" who cooks burgers and hates life. There's Romeo the janitor and Nurse Nadia Rey at the clinic -- no relation (ha!) to Nadja the lobster girl in Limbo.
And lying curled on their sides or flat on their backs, intubated, hands locked by shrunken tendons in the classic "pugilistic" pose, their heads shaved bald or carefully coiffed, there are -- centrally and forever -- the sleepers, locked in the mysteries rippling under human consciousness, marine beings waiting for Dr. Peck's flashing, lancing light.
This is a novel that makes the reader think and puzzle and mull, and every strange and beautiful thing in it exerts a Mariner-like hold on the mind. Mr. O'Connell's stories hit the ramp on two wheels and crown the curve at escape velocity. Just go with `em.