Brooks Hansen's 'Ordeal': mystic swirl


"Perlman's Ordeal," by Brooks Hansen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 330 pages. $24.

Brooks Hansen's first novel, 1996's "The Chess Garden" -- set in 1900, about a man in a Boer War concentration camp who sends vivid letters and chess pieces back home to his wife -- revealed the author's talent for period fiction as well as a fondness for deftly tucking stories within stories. "Perlman's Ordeal" shows Hansen deepening that talent, with an entrancing tale that mixes psychiatry, hypnotism and mysticism in turn-of-the-century London.

Our protagonist is Dr. August Perlman, a psychiatrist who encounters a remarkable patient: teen-ager Sylvie Blum, who, when not catatonic, exhibits multiple personalities and refuses to ingest water. Finding the girl resistent to his method of "suggestive therapy" -- i.e., "mesmerism" or hypnotic suggestion -- Perlman is stumped as to how to cure Sophie and assuage the fears of her anxious, wealthy father, a Mr. Blum.

Enter Madame Helena Barrett, a spiritualist whose extravagant theories of the supernatural and florid emotionalism represent the exact opposite of everything for which the orderly, logical Perlman stands. Indeed, Perlman would dismiss Barrett out of hand were it not for the fact that her late brother, Alexander, was a composer whose piano compositions Perlman reveres.

Thus, out of respect for the brother, Perlman is drawn into a competitive passion with the sister to solve the riddle of Sylvie's psyche. While skeptical to the point of derision of Madame Barrett's philosophies -- derived essentially from the then-popular (real-life) mystic Madame Blavatsky -- Perlman surrenders his patient to her for observation.

Barrett decides that what Perlman hears as the babble of Sylvie's primary alter ego, Nina Oona, is actually a coherent rendering of the myth of Atlantis and that Sylvie/Nina must reenact the fable of the lost undersea continent to free herself of its grip on her.

If this sounds like a meandering sprawl of a novel, be assured that one of the most attractive aspects of "Perlman's Ordeal" is that it is told so concisely, in quick, short, blunt chapters. Hansen renders his story's complications with the neatness and precision of one of Perlman's diagnostic reports, along with a piquant sense of humor that the well-intentioned but dolorous doctor lacks.

Indeed, one of the nicest ongoing jokes of the novel is that Perlman is the sort of psychiatrist Nabokov might have created -- fussy and pedantic; a drone to routine who fancies himself a questing romantic. Yet he is also a man who loosens up and has his life changed by his encounters with Sylvie and Madame Barrett. It helps, too, that Perlman's ordeal (his tussle with the Blum case) takes place over the course of a strictly proscribed period -- a week, seven days of intense debate, struggle and experimentation with his patient and the challenger to his scientific authority.

Madame Barrett believes that Sylvie is nothing less than "a demigoddess ... the offspring of a god and man." Perlman protests: "Madame, she is a sick girl, in the middle of an acute hysterical episode ... more prone to suggestion than you can possibly imagine. Trust me, Madame. If we talk to her of ancient demigoddesses, she will tell us all about ancient demigoddesses."

But the willful Barrett prevails, drawing both the doctor and Sylvie into a maelstrom of "mesmerism" -- the hypnosis Perlman uses clinically and Barrett uses mystically -- to achieve a glorious, lyrical, swirl of a climax to this magical novel.

Ken Tucker is a music critic for National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" and critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes about television, movies, books and music. He was a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1989.

Pub Date: 07/25/99

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