Andrea Barrett, reigning monarch of exhaustively researched literary fiction, describes the goal of research this way: “The purpose should be to understand what our characters understand.” Only then, Barrett claims, can the writer “transcend the facts,” turning the dusty troves of recorded events into an original take on reality.
Two writers new to the literary scene, Molly Dwyer and Kirsten Menger-Anderson, achieve such fresh takes in books notable for their historic detail. Dwyer’s Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein and Menger-Anderson’s Doctor Olaf Von Schuler’s Brain, both finalists for last month’s Northern California Book Award in fiction, share similarities beyond their authors’ geography. But where one novel builds a story around actual historical figures, the other invents characters whose dramas unfold in a historically accurate setting, making for striking differences between the two books.
Dr. Frankenstein’s story has been known around the world for more than a hundred years; because his creator was a real person, Dwyer’s Requiem naturally takes on aspects of a biography, including length (500-plus pages) and a dutiful completeness of treatment. We meet Mary Godwin as a child, see her through courtship and marriage to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and stay for the rainy Swiss summer when she invents the monster that will make her name (and the doctor’s) immortal.
In many biographies, the subject’s childhood is the most interesting material, and Requiem starts off well, recounting a public hanging witnessed by ten-year-old Mary. The period detail serves the purpose outlined by Barrett—readers experience the terror and confusion a child must feel, living in 19th century London, separated from friends by the crush of onlookers, overwhelmed by noise, smells, and a sense that something irrevocable is about to occur. After the drop, a man with an ivory-handled cane appears from out of the crowd and briefly speaks with the little girl. “’Death,’” he said and unfolded his hand to reveal a polished human skull, stark on its silver stem.” It’s a transcendent moment: Mary’s first meeting with Lord Byron.
Much of Dwyer’s Requiem concerns the adventures of Anna, a fictional American who travels to England to present a paper on Mary Shelley. Some of the novel’s most compelling passages are those in which the author portrays her contemporary heroine as shifting from her own life into Mary’s—unbounded by space and time, the two women share a single consciousness. In a scene set at Newstead Abby, Byron’s former estate, Anna peers into a display case to read from a “carefully preserved letter,” then hears a voice saying, “Incessant rain.” A few paragraphs later: “She awoke—or so it seemed—to find herself on a settee, wrapped in a shawl, feet tucked under her body… ‘The lady wakes,’ Shelley said, noticing, and dropping down beside her.” We’ve joined Mary at a house party near Lake Geneva, the seed of Frankenstein about to germinate. The contemporary story works best as a kind of biographical teaching tool, but elsewhere Requiem, while entertaining, failed to dazzle me with either literary style or philosophical depth.
Google “Dr. Olaf Von Schuler” and you won’t come up with anything dated earlier than 2008. He and his descendants were created by Menger-Anderson. A collection of linked stories, Doctor Olaf is brief, guidebook sized, as if designed to be snugged into a doctor’s bag or naturalist’s rucksack. Menger-Anderson invents a family in which scientific curiosity “runs in the blood,” and even provides a family tree for readers to consult. We follow their medical madness through several generations, beginning with Von Schuler (1640-1680) and ending with Dr. Elizabeth Steenwyks (b. 1970). The linked-story format enables Menger-Anderson to focus on key moments in her characters’ lives, with complete biographies often shoe-horned into a paragraph. Her research into such fashionable therapeutic disciplines as phrenology and mesmerism not only helps readers understand what her characters understand, but contributes to a lively exploration of universal themes.
Historians provide answers to questions about the past; writers of literary fiction raise questions that have no answers. Where does serious medicine end and quackery begin? And does the difference between them lie in the practitioner’s heart or in his head? Such questions are as relevant today, in an era of prostate tests and hormone therapy, as they were in 1871, the year in which “Neurasthenia: a Victorian Love Story” is set. Menger-Anderson puts us in the bare feet of one of Dr. Benjamin Steenwyks’s hapless subjects, a Macy’s clerk who stands on a copper plate because he wants to believe that his life will improve when the doctor’s assistant turns “the crank handle of the cabinet-sized cylindrical machine.” The author keeps readers close to the action, providing just the right details for us to share with the poor clerk the hopefulness doctors can inspire in ordinary mortals. Those hopes flag as the story enters Frankenstein territory: “The exposed iron frame trembled to the hum of spinning gears and the clunk of an improperly aligned screw. Doctor Steenwyks, wires trailing from each hand, raised his electrodes.”
In “The Siblings,” one of the strongest stories in Doctor Olaf, we discover not only how Dr. Abraham Steenwyks treats “the sick part” of his sister’s brain, but—in a coda to his father’s story—learn of “the Macy’s clerk Doctor Steenwyks killed by accident with his curative magneto.” Menger-Anderson’s artistry falters only toward the end of the book, when the familiarity of contemporary settings lulls her into skimping on the level of detail that makes her characters from previous centuries so engaging and—despite their malpractice, medical and otherwise—understandable.
To quote Frankenstein: “My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense; by the union of these qualities I conceived the idea, and executed the creation of a man.” As will be evident to readers of both Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein and Doctor Olaf Von Schuler’s Brain, when writers put their ardent love for researching a historical period at the service of plot and character development, the results can be vivid and intense, as well as thrilling.