The doctor's diagnoses are not reliable

May 24, 1993|By Joseph Coates | Joseph Coates,Chicago Tribune

Who said dead men tell no tales? From Machado de Assis in the 19th century ("Epitaph for a Small Winner") to Billy Wilder in the 20th ("Sunset Boulevard") and now the "new Gothic" novelist Patrick McGrath, writers have made corpses the most riveting of narrators.

They are also the most unreliable, which adds to the fun. After all, if they could be trusted, they would at least admit that, being dead, they're in no position to tell stories. To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, you can't be more unreliable than dead.

This means it's up to the reader to figure out what exactly is Dr. Haggard's disease, since the doctor, a romantic schlemiel par excellence, can't really be trusted even in his own racket, much less in storytelling. (He botches an appendectomy so badly that he sews the finger of his rubber glove to the wound, leading to abdominal swelling that earns the poor patient the nurses' sobriquet "Dr. Haggard's pregnant man.")

That comedy seems intentional, but much of the novel proves the Gothic's vulnerability to unintentional self-parody that led Jane Austen to send up the form in "Northanger Abbey."

For example, when Dr. Haggard has trouble injecting the needle between vertebrae for a spinal tap, he keeps hitting bone until he thinks of copulating with the love of his life, Fanny Vaughan, at which point insertion becomes simplicity itself. This is funny, too, but is it meant to be?

The original Gothics were a queasily fearful response to the Enlightenment's rationalist trashing of the sacred in the 18th century, which is why so many of them were set in ancient religious locales like monasteries and convents.

Hence also the humorless intensity of their narrators, which in Mr. McGrath's jaded 20th-century hands provides the means for a supple and provocative ambiguity. Haggard tells us: "I was one of those rare men who, having loved, come to understand love as the most significant spiritual activity a man can undertake."

This earnestness, so different from the aristocratic sang-froid of his lover Fanny, wife of a brutal pathologist given to dissecting the ripest of corpses barehanded, tips us off to the skewing of viewpoint that leaves virtually every observation Haggard makes open to question, as does the pathology of the governess in Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw."

Is Dr. Haggard's disease his morphine habit, the hip injury inflicted by the jealous husband Ratcliff Vaughan that led to it -- or Haggard's grand passion itself? Or is it the new disease Haggard thinks he has discovered in Fanny's fighter-pilot son, a spontaneous sex change that virtually (in Haggard's mind) makes him her replacement after she mysteriously expires under the sinister ministrations of her death-driven husband?

Or is this disease merely a rationalization of the doctor's homosexual attraction to young James Vaughan, too busy fighting the Battle of Britain to take him seriously? The whole novel is a set of interlocking syndromes embedded in ambiguous relationships, quests for life and love, that are all overshadowed by the approaching mass death of Hitler's war, whose success would lead "to a new dark age made sinister by the light of perverted science."

Since we are now threatened by just such a dark age, the new Gothic as wielded by Mr. McGrath seems the perfect diagnostic tool for an age newly troubled by the moral monsters and hideous dilemmas our science has produced.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Dr. Haggard's Disease"

Author: Patrick McGrath

Publisher: Poseidon

Length, price: 191 pages, $20

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