With Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (published by Anchor Canada), Vincent Lam has written a sparse, clinical collection of short stories, suturing them together carefully but with the inevitability of a faint, lingering scar. Lam's interlinked stories reveal moments in the lives of recurring characters from pre-med anxiety to a SARS scare to dealing with prisoner patients. The stories share a theme of unanswered questions, of the failures of science to explain everything – even doctors are stymied by life, more confused than all-knowing.
Lam creates characters who are deeply flawed and sympathetic. The relationship between over-achieving Ming and her less ambitious "study friend" Fitzgerald starts out as a familiar kind of halting relationship. What is more interesting is what happens to it over time, as both characters stumble their way into adulthood… and into the role of "Doctor." (The relationship is so interesting, in fact, that Lam recently got a deal for a TV series that will focus on them.)
Ming and Fitzgerald's initially tentative relationship is an echo of what goes on in all 12 stories. There is a pulse of uncertainty that circulates throughout this Giller Prize-winning collection. Lam's use of doctors, of the language and setting and details of medicine, is both factually based and completely metaphorical. It's a reminder, to laypeople and doctors alike: Attempting to reduce life to clinical terms may be technically accurate, but it also misses every vital sign that life can cough up.
Lam's characters remind us of all the things that doctors can't fix. It is a demystification of medicine. We see doctors guessing, lying, screwing up. We see death shrugged off as part of the business, and yet on another occasion, a doctor pays a housecall to a patient who seems to be in trouble. Though medicine may be technical, the care itself is a personal act. There is something permissive about Lam's view into the world of physicians, something akin to the first time you catch your parents doing something "bad". He makes doctors disappointingly real.
And yet, the same things that are the book's strengths are also its weaknesses. Sometimes, the language is too sterile to allow emotion, sometimes the characters are too flawed, too foolish, to evoke sympathy. There is a definite feel to these stories and it may not be to everyone's taste. Reading these stories is like peering through the ice at the waters beneath; there is a coldness, a distance to them, but there is also something flowing and deep below.
Now, a week or so after finishing my reading, the book still comes to mind, like a remembered chill, like an old injury that twinges when the weather changes. I can understand why someone might not like this book, but it is different from anything else I have read this year, and I don't think I will forget it anytime soon.
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Read or listen to an excerpt from the story "Take All of Murphy".