Merely Extraordinary Beings

Merely Extraordinary Beings

2001-09-01
Ingenious Pain
Ingenious Pain
San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt Brace & Co. 1997. $13.00 (paper).

Elizabeth Wall Hinds reviews Andrew Miller’s first novel, Ingenious Pain, winner of the James Black Memorial Fiction Prize and the 1999 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

An “eighteenth-century” novel, Ingenious Pain seamlessly combines various cultures of eighteenth-century England: it features the medical world, with its progress in surgical and other techniques (not to mention some entertaining in-fighting among schools of both physicians and “psychologists”), but it also offers a background and foreground peopled with less “officially” recognized members of the cultural terrain - a mermaid, a cabinet of wonders, table-top-sized automata, and a hermaphrodite doctor who collects human oddities for medical experiment. With its combination of high and low culture, the novel presents a full and rounded eighteenth century, but does so with a wit and lightness of touch that together weave a gripping yarn. And yet, resounding through the whole is a profound note of melancholy and loss. This is a book that addresses concerns of maturity: love so long unreciprocated that the longing is habit; the ends as well as the beginnings of great careers; the thumping reality of pain. Ingenious Pain, most importantly and most beautifully, asks what it means to be human.

James Dyer, born without the capacity to experience pain, is an oddity of a protagonist: unsympathetic by nature, this character doesn’t elicit sympathy in the usual sense and is, in fact, quite a monster. Conceived mysteriously on an ice-cold night, Dyer grows up cold and inhuman, without ties of human affection and without speech until roughly the age of twelve. He leaves home to follow, peacefully and interestedly, one Marley Gummer, a snake-oil salesman who uses James, immune to pain, as a sort of side-show freak to sell his cure-all “medication.” Taken later by a Dr. Canning to become one of Canning’s collection of freaks of nature, Dyer eventually pursues medicine as a career and becomes a fabulous surgeon. Feeling no pain himself, Dyer never hesitates to cut, sew, or experiment; in fact, so mechanistically inhuman is he that he usually has someone time his surgical procedures so he can measure his improvement.

To balance the good doctor’s absence of feeling, Ingenious Pain offers a second protagonist, a Reverend Julius Lestrade, whose connection to Dyer only becomes clear in the last third of the book. Lestrade, an ordinary man who has devoted his life to church, sister, and community, has nevertheless desires and suffering enough to be rounded out into an extraordinary portrait of humanity. The novel associates Lestrade with a very rich, natural world of intense good pleasure: his garden, his patron’s hunting dogs, the aching thrill of food well-prepared. Not a Polyanna, Lestrade, in the course of the novel, loses his faith and makes, with friends, a trek by sled to St. Petersburg following the path of famous doctors, Dyer among them, who have entered a contest to reach the capital first so as to innoculate the empress of Russia for smallpox. Along the way, Lestrade encounters a fairy-tale forest complete with a witch and a miraculous survival. He also encounters Dyer and begins their strange and enduring friendship.

A blurb on the book’s back cover aligns it with a “gothic sensibility,” but in spite of the witch, the mermaid, and the premise of a literally insensitive main character, Ingenious Pain is not so much a gothic novel as a novel of wonders. The landscape is all but enchanted; nature is present with such intensity that a warm and human connection among all attentive occupants of existence endures throughout - even in spite of - a sequence of events that stands to ruin even the best health and the strongest faith. Wonders abound in this landscape, but they are not of the supernatural sort: the siamese twins, the mysterious stranger who impregnates Dyer’s mother, are (like Dyer himself) merely extraordinary beings in the world, and there are so many of them that they make up the warp and woof of the ordinary. It is a wonder, for instance, that characters live through surgical procedures involving rusty saws and doctors in powdered wigs sipping brandy. The boy Dyer, after breaking a leg (painlessly), is fitted with a splint made of boards from a chicken coop: the “chickens have excreted on the boards as they excrete on everything, and the young Dyer, to amuse himself, picks at the black-and-white matter, flicking it at targets on the opposite wall.”

Nature in Ingenious Pain is gross throughout. Beginning with an autopsy, the book is unrelenting in describing realities of surgery, blood, shit, and vomit. Not only does human excrement appear in an amazing number of scenes,the act of evacuation is presented with as straight and clear an eye as the most gorgeous of set tables - is, in fact, one of the very aspects of existence, like pain, and like pleasure, that make the human human. This world is one of ordinary nature which, unsentimentalized, participates in every aspect of human life, even of human civilization. Animals are as present as people in this nature, and they remind us, after all, that it is the animal qualities - pain, pleasure, pure physicality - that provide the human with humanity. Miller pays exceptional attention to dogs, their physicality, their sheer joy at being alive and their tactile brilliance. The extraordinary night on which Dyer is conceived, for instance, features not only shooting stars but dogs, a “velvety mass” who, “suspicious of the sudden quiet, fall silent” at the stars’ appearance. In an early scene in which Lestrade, on a crisp and clear fall morning, prepares to go hunting, “dogs are dancing in their sleek coats, gently biting one another’s throats.” In response, the Reverend “rejoices, feels himself to be twenty.”

It is this joy of the tactile that Dyer lacks; it is his soul. One does have a kind of pity for Dyer, because of his disability and because he is the object of display and experiment himself, merely one among many scientifically “progressive” experiments the eighteenth century could boast of, like Boyle’s air pump, featured in this novel in an experiment conducted by Dr. Canning on a bird, with Royal Society types looking on, coldly, and cheering the bird’s apparent death. Dyer is pitiable because he can no more experience pleasure than pain. He is accused of having no soul, for indeed, in this book, suffering - pure and physical but also of course metaphorical - makes life worth living. Dyer, as you might guess, is transformed late in the novel. He gains the capacity for feeling, either because of a vast disappointment or because of the ministrations of the tattooed and tooth-sharpened witch, Mary; in either case, such a weight of reality, coming to him at the advanced age of thirty, is quite too much for Dyer, who runs mad and is confined to Bedlam for some years. There he learns, without design, the secret of life: that pain and pleasure are so close in experience as to be sometimes indistinguishable, and that the absence of either is intolerable even if the presence of both may also be. Glimpsing a woman he loves undress, for instance, brings such intense pleasure that tears start to Dyer’s eyes: it is almost unbearable. Dyer has had many women, fashionable, smart and beautiful ones. Having them has done nothing for him, though, and it is only after his transformation - perhaps effected by a woman after all - that the least touch by or connection with a woman reduces him to humanity. The new ability to know the difference is what saves his soul, if not his life.

Dyer loses many things when he gains sense: he loses his confidence, much of his surgical ability, his social poise and his intellectual grace. If the reader has pitied him for his lack of humanity, Dyer is likewise pitiable for these losses, for they are considerable. They are, however, necessary in the equations of Ingenious Pain, in which the “higher faculties” - which distinguish us from the “lower creation,” according to eighteenth-century taxonomers - come under severe questioning. The animal virtues, all the senses, under the direct gaze of attention given to them by both the narrator and characters in this novel, endow the mere body with a value worth attending. The gross autopsy at the start of the novel, with blood and gobbets of flesh, is presented without the mercy of a narrator who will shift our gaze somewhere else. Because the book amounts to an autopsy of the human spirit, it is necessary to view, without blinking, the equally unsavory matter that goes into the making of a human being. We do well not to look away.