Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain
Dr. Olaf van Schuler arrives with “his lunatic mother” in 1664 in the New World, kicking off Menger-Anderson’s novel-in-stories. Each chapter takes the reader to a lower branch on van Schuler’s family tree and through the 350 years of the medical phenomena that enchanted each subsequent generation. The ambition of Olaf’s clan—intent on curing the madness in its gene pool and relieving the suffering of society—pales only in comparison to Menger-Anderson’s own in this epic romp through spontaneous combustion, hysteria and phrenology.
Set in NYC, each of the 13 period pieces uses massive events like the American Revolution, slave revolts, temperance and the Attica Uprising to set the scenes. Her original and distinct characters—both patients and doctors—deal less with illness than with living. In “Salk and Sabin” the teenage narrator suffers communist threats at school, while at home she’s charmed by her mother’s polio-afflicted lover. A brother performs a lobotomy on his deranged sister, upsetting the family balance and dooming—or liberating—the clan in “The Siblings.” The family members are not always the central characters, though their influence is crucial. In “The Burning,” an innkeeper is exonerated in his wife’s death when descendant Dr. Steenwyck proves spontaneous combustion. The scope of Menger-Anderson’s debut, combined with her intellectual curiosity when it comes to archaic medical procedures, is dizzying. Yet her prose is equally rich: “…she laughs like hard change in a beggar’s cup.” It’s daunting to conceptualize how the hell she pulls it all off.
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