The summer before I left home for college, I made extra money babysitting for my gynecologist. I spent most of my time trying to avoid eye contact with the taxidermic specimens populating the main floor of her house—Kodiak bear, looking regal in the fireplace room; cheetah, pouncing out of the dining-room wall; Dall sheep, boring everyone in the living room; and seemingly endless varieties of antelope heads (bongo, gerenuk, oryx, topi and—my favorite, under the circumstances—dik dik). This had an improbably relaxing effect on me when I found myself reclining between the stirrups in her office.
Doctors hold powerful knowledge that we don't (especially in the age of super-sub-specialization), and they may know excruciating, detailed information about our personal lives. In that way, there always exists a power struggle and an information deficit between doctor and patient. The weirdly intimate knowledge I had of this woman's rather bizarre life outside of doctoring made me feel more comfortable with her weirdly intimate knowledge of my body. Tat for tit, so to speak.
The beauty of Philip Lam's new novel, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (Weinstein Books, 353 pages, $23.95), is that it lets the rest of us in on this open secret about doctors: They're people, too. Taxidermy and all. The book's title hints that our understanding of medicine is in flux: Doctors are no longer seen to possess mystical knowledge, as of old, but neither is the science of medicine as coldly rational and exacting as the 20th century would have us think. They are often groping in the dark, weighing probabilities, betting on chance.
Despite the uncertainties, Lam's writing exhibits the same sure hand that you might prize in your exam-room doctor: without unnecessary prettiness or needless tangents, with a swiftness of purpose. Lam succeeds in portraying what it's like to be a doctor, including the exacting ambition, the petty power struggles, the sleep deprivation, and all the leaky human messes, mistakes and doubts that surely exist but are rarely allowed to take root in the public consciousness.
His success in conveying these realities may have something to do with proximity: Lam is a working ER doctor in Toronto. His instincts and talent have been rewarded—last year he received Canada's prestigious Giller Prize, which carries a $40,000 purse, for Bloodletting .
The book follows the loosely intertwined lives of four Toronto residents—two of them, like Lam, Asian immigrants to Canada—from their initial encounters in med school, through their deepening personal miseries and small successes as doctors. Each chapter reads like a well-crafted short story, but the book is given momentum by the stories' connections and the promise that the characters' lives will intertwine again in meaningful or sorrowful ways. (And they do.)
Such complicated renderings of the inner lives of physicians are a surprisingly esoteric target, yet they hold lessons for all of us. Illness is human vulnerability in its least metaphorical form. The confusing networks of contempt and empathy that our healers feel toward themselves and their patients should be naturally fascinating to us. Lam is suitably enthralled and has no trouble convincing the reader that these are, indeed, some of the most worthy and organically dramatic subjects for study.
I myself remain both baffled and reassured by the experience of having my gynecologist's husband's trophies watch me eat my dinner.
Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures