Monday, November 27, 2006

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures

I'm not sure if it's common to race to the end of a short story collection, but last night there I was, way up past bedtime reading Vincent Lam's Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (winner of this year's Giller Prize). I wasn't expecting to find this book enthralling; it had been pitched like an episode of ER. But Lam's stories work, they really do, and they are connected in a way that provides this collection with a gripping narrative arc.

I've mentioned before that I find literature about science interesting, but the science wasn't what hooked me here. I think more so, I appreciated a glimpse into the consciousness of a scientist, or more-interestingly, the aspiring scientist-- the student desperate to get into med school. I knew people like this in university and Lam has provided good insight into their motivations and mindset with Ming's character in the story "How to Get Into Medical School Part 1". Her portrayal is so convincing, and at once sympathetic and awful, but this effectiveness is also the product of a well constructed short story. Similarly, in the story "Winston", a patient's mental health problems cast a mesmerizing spell and the twist at the end was shocking, particularly in the context of a dry and measured medical account. Purple birds do appear throughout this book in some of the most surprising places. I loved the SARS story "Contact Tracing", which was full of action, suspense and human emotion. Not one story here could have been considered a dud, though a few did begin to drag a bit before they ended.

I had a problem with the didacticism of the text, however. Suggested by the book's title and chapter titles beginning with "How to...", but I didn't take these clues all that seriously. Here we have a book of stories, I thought. I can read stories, and I did, and though it was about a world somewhat unfamiliar to me, I trusted my intelligence enough to fill in the blanks and get the gists. And then at the end of the book, I was gutted to find a "Glossary of Terms". Seemed somehow patronizing, and unnecessary. I wasn't reading this text as a tool, and I don't think stories require indices usually. The stories should stand well enough on their own (and they do), but the inclusion of a glossary suggests Lam is second-guessing that they do, or he is second-guessing my own ability to read his stories without assistance.

I suspect, however, that the glossary is provided to emphasise this collection's unique pigeonhole: from the point of view of an emergency room physician. Though it is notable that such an emphasis had previously led me to dismiss this book pre-reading as gimmicky and perhaps dull. And I was wrong. Here is a work of literature; they could be about the lives of doctors or dustbins, but these are stories and they're good. Perhaps what was most disappointing about the "Glossary of Terms" was that I had figured I had a whole other story still ahead, and then was unhappy to find the book so suddenly done. Which does say something about the collection Lam has managed to create.