The Reluctant Hypnotist - In this inventive and suspenseful novel, a practical man of science confronts the world of the spirit--and spiritualism.
Book Info:PERLMAN'S ORDEAL
Publisher:New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999
329 pp., $24.00
It's not often that a novel of ideas is a good read, let alone a page-turner. You can think of a few:Crime and Punishment, The Name of the Rose, Possession. More often the ideas represent oratorical or meditative digression, an impediment to the story. But that combination of suspense and pensiveness was widely accorded Brooks Hansen's first solo novel, The Chess Garden (he earlier cowrote the satire Boone with Nick Davis), a tale of mystical adventure and Swendenborgian revelation. For Hansen's new novel, Perlman's Ordeal, narrative drive is a natural condition, since one of its central ideas is that, "in the end, that was what mattered most--the what-comes-next."
It is an article of faith with the eponymous protagonist--and indeed "the closest thing he knew to faith"--that the artist must "let the content ... dictate the form, and not vice versa." Perlman's Ordeal presents this value as a metaphor from music, the superiority of melody to motif, but it is clear from the mystery form of the plot, the skillful attention to foreshadowing and delay, the crescendoing repetitions and variations on the pattern of events, that Hansen has no patience for metafictional finger exercises or postmodern dissonance. He is a practitioner of plot. He has said something of the sort in an interview:
" "I think you've got it completely wrong if you think that the place to be making your statement as an author is in reflection here and there. ... All any story is at its essence is character- -what a character wants, how the character goes about getting it and what the character gets. There's ample room in that simple frame to make any statement one wants about the world in which you live." (Newsday, 27 Aug. 1995)"
What August Perlman wants, at the end of a full day at the London Clinic for Suggestive Therapy, is no more than to attend a concert of some "Scandinavian fare"--Nielson, Grieg, a new Sibelius. The year is 1906. Perlman is a hypnotherapist with a background in neuropathology and anatomy and a slightly humorless scientific integrity. Born a Viennese Jew, raised a devout atheist, he is the son who has been committed to science while his brother Leonard dedicated himself to music. Perlman has embraced the simplicity and practicality of suggestive therapy as a means to do what others think of as God's work, "helping to ease the suffering of his fellow man" and "surely leaving things better than he found them." After a minor professional setback, he has settled in London and become a rousing success, partly because "the English, it turned out ... believed anything," and largely because he is a cautious businessman.
"Take the cases you know you can treat, establish a reputation for effectiveness, then let word spread. Patients would come with higher hopes--higher hopes meant greater suggestibility--which meant he could enjoy more success and greater faith. To expand little by little, outward--that was the way."
Therefore Perlman spends most of his day calming and relieving those in pain at St. Bartholemew's Hospital and dealing with outpatient problems like the eczema of the grateful M. Legere. He lives in modest quarters on the hospital grounds, now and then visiting his current mistress for a remarkably austere bout of self-gratification. It is true that he allows himself a frequent pipeful of hashish. His passion, if he can be said to have one, is music.
August is an indifferent pianist, but "listening was a serious business at the close of the nineteenth century," and he is a serious listener. The one obsessive prop of his life is an extensive series of "Chroniks" in which he has recorded in minute detail the impressions of every concert of his adult life: musical lines, performance notes, judgments, speculations. His notebooks extend across two shelves; he looks forward someday to condensing, refining, and publishing them.
Enter the hysteric
Perlman's concert plans are interrupted by what, for this author, is a rare literary echo: the Poe moment when "the tapping, the aforementioned rapping" on Perlman's clinic door ushers in his particular nevermore. On the gurney, rigged with tubes and unconscious from morphine, lies 13-year-old Sylvie Blum, a Viennese hydrophobic and, as it later appears, dissociative personality. Frustrated both of his Sibelius and of his measured clinical method, furious at the admitting doctor, Perlman calms the girl's father and undertakes to cure her dehydration.
Perlman's concentration is shattered and his pleasure in the music spoiled. Sylvie's "cure," on the other hand, is effected with disconcerting ease. In no time she is eating, drinking, cheerfully responding, unself-consciously bathing, even amusing herself with a sketch pad. The only trouble is that this cooperative patient is unrecognizable even to her nursemaid, who flees in terror. Sylvie has given way to someone with an unpronounceable Arabic name--Perlman shortens it to Nina--an unidentifiable second language, and an invisible companion, Oona, to whom Nina continually defers.
Thinking to ask the advice of his old mentor Hippolyte Bernheim, Perlman attends a reception at which he meets by chance the elegant and extravagant Madame Helena Sophie Barrett. The encounter is bound to unbalance him from the start, because Madame Helena is the sister of the late composer Alexander Barrett, whom Perlman the listener held in awe. A woman of great intellect, wit, and beauty, she is also rumored to be one of the society of Theosophists whose blathering seances give "suggestion" a bad name. Was she also her brother's lover? Gossip suggests it might be so. But to Perlman she is both correct and generous. She rewards his condolences on her brother's death with the gift, next day, of an original Alexander Barrett songbook, a pedagogic primer of exercises that are, nevertheless, too complex for Perlman to play.
As Perlman remembers the composer we learn that, like his sister, Barrett represents some puzzling contradictions. Half-English, half-Russian, Barrett was a prodigy whose output lacked substance and whose reputation has posthumously declined. He was an aristocrat by birth and a musical rebel, "an affront to musical academe." Perlman's admiration is a bit contradictory itself, since Barrett "wrote the longest, the most spontaneous and downright defiant melodic lines ... like a kite at the end of an endless spool."
A change of scenes
At this point the plot begins to spool out, to dip and fly. Nina and Madame Helena meet accidentally at his clinic, where they establish an immediate bond. Madame easily acknowledges the existence of Oona. Perlman has discouraged Nina's romantic sketching of a tower-bound maiden--prescribing still lifes instead--but Madame Helena is charmed. She begins to elicit from the eager girl a story that will be elaborated through the intervening days, one which will introduce Perlman to an increasingly coherent and increasingly fabulous version of the myth of lost Atlantis.
Before long, Nina is in manipulative hysterics, claiming that Oona has gone to Madame Helena's and demanding to follow. Perlman can think of no way to quiet the girl but to do as she asks. Once in the eerily sheet-draped London flat, everything contrives to keep them there: Madame's welcome, Nina's erratic behavior, Perlman's deep infatuation with Madame Helena, and--not least-- his fascination with the aura, objects, the very clothes, of the dead composer.
He encounters in turn the actor Lord Alfred Stanley, who turns out to be the Barretts' uncle, a Welte-Mignon "reperforming grand"--that is, a kind of Stradivarius among player pianos ("Perlman literally swayed" )--and finally the fabled "Nonsense Scrolls" that Barrett was purported to have made for this gorgeous instrument, though they have never been heard in public. (The "Nonsense Scrolls" have been cleverly introduced in a footnote that has the air, both offhand and intimate, of a theatrical aside. A second footnote now refers us to the first.)
Left alone with this treasure, ineluctably drawn to it as to the mistress of the house, Perlman hesitates. It would be worse than nonsense, it would be antithetical to his character to take advantage, would it not? And now we begin to remember certain contradictions of Perlman's own that seem to have moral coloration: his use of hashish and opium, his attraction to the overwrought Russian melodic line, the sexual fantasy that contained not only Madame Helena but also the pubescent girl, his patient.
When he succumbs to temptation, what Perlman disturbingly hears is not at all, or not precisely, nonsense but "the artist engaged in his most basic task: unlearning, unknowing, becoming a vessel for the music just to pour through." Nothing could be further from Perlman's ethic. But he has allowed himself to be drawn here. What must he now unlearn, unknow? For what must he be a vessel?
He has, in other words, been brought to the world of spirit. But this is not altogether an elevation in either Perlman's or the reader's terms. The doctor dryly notices the similarity of both "shaman" and "Pearl-man" to the shadowy figure called "Ashman" in Nina's specious myth. He also registers that in the course of two days he has been demoted "from therapist to hypnotist to mesmerist; tomorrow he'd be reading palms."
Now Madame Helena prepares an elaborate series of dramatic entertainments to present Oona's story, embellished with romantic motifs: water, smoke, petals, shell. These props appear. Madame invites as audience a trio of erudite gentlemen, schools her actor uncle, provides costumes, and turns her flat into a series of theater sets. Protesting but trapped, Perlman suffers through the lengthy presentation, which like the novel is divided into "acts," each of which like the novel incorporates music, narrative, and drama. The production runs the gamut from cerebral to tacky. At one humiliating point Perlman finds himself holding hands round a table in a pseudo-seance.
It has to be said that these last scenes sag. The reader begins to think it time to reel in the narrative kite. Not that the prose descends into authorial reflection, but that the characters tend to be more amazed and fascinated than the reader at the mythic goings-on and more willing to debate the metaphors and philosophical significance of Oona's story. Madame Helena claims that what makes Atlantis so interesting is "the fact that it should be the one place about which we are free to think anything we like." But as explanatory dialogue follows inventive tableau follows musical interlude, we begin to concur with the spectator Mr. Rowe, who remarks that "it becomes difficult for me to know where to invest my feeling." That Perlman is spellbound is clear but not entirely convincing. We suspect that in fact he would bundle his patient back to the clinic now, and we rather yearn for some scientific skepticism.
No easy answers
Nor, having been teased with a mystery, are we offered a solution, which would be contrary to the ideas contained in this novel of ideas. From the title onward we were promised Perlman's ordeal, which is "to be left with the one impression. ... He did not know. He did not know. Had no idea with what, or whom, he was dealing." In the great debate between rationality and the irrational, science and spirit, the novel delivers no answers-- except to remind us that life doesn't deliver any either.
At the conclusion of the "story at its essence ... what the character gets," we are partly gratified and partly left to wonder. Perlman succeeds, as we always thought he would, in banishing the interloper personality and returning to life and health the rather less interesting Sylvie Blum. He suffers an emotional and professional decline that nevertheless brings him to focus on his Chroniks. As for the relationship we have most come to care about, between Perlman and Madame Helena, what comes next? We can't say. In our last image of them together they remain on opposite sides of the glass.
Probably, the recent work that Perlman's Ordeal most closely resembles and most interestingly answers is A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects. Poised like Hansen's novel between Freud and Madame Blavatsky, the two novellas of that volume play with the same dilemmas. Conjugial Angel takes place between the frumpy real world and the summoned dead, with a full complement of catatonia, channeling, and bumps in the night. Morpho Eugenia lays out the arguments for God and science through the reasoning of two reasonable men, a benevolent patriarch who wants his God consistent with scientific principles and a benevolent scientist who admits to a yearning for the transcendent. Byatt's is a more lush evocation of Victorian rigidity, and she offers her readers a great oak-slam of narrative closure. But the unanswerable, unanswered in both cases, is somewhat differently configured. Whereas Hansen's readers are likely to feel nudged in the direction of an Absolute, Byatt's bow to mystery nevertheless leaves humanism intact.
The revenge that the irrational takes on those who deny its power has made good stories from Bacchae to The X-Files. It is appropriate fare for a millennium, and Perlman's Ordeal adds significantly to the repertoire. Though Hansen may not have won any converts either to Atlantis or to mysticism, he has brilliantly created a world just before modernism, in which a staid and slightly smug rationalist must turn to confront the undercurrents of the new century.