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Book Review: Pharmakon by Dirk Wittenborn

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Normally, when we read a novel that ends without explaining the plot point, ambiguities, and portents, we usually think the writer has done something. Plot holes are the sign of a lazy, unskilled writer who likes to raise attention to certain themes, but doesn’t know how to follow through on it. With Pharmakon, however, Fierce People author Dirk Wittenborn has turned the plot hole into an aesthetic. In an interview posted online, Wittenborn makes the case that the ambiguities, insecurities, and missing information in our lives are what ultimately define us.

In Pharmakon, a chilling if maddeningly inconsistent novel, we get to the source of Yale psychologist William Friedrich’s research, the mental breakdown and consistent mad killing spree of his patient Casper Gedsic, and circumstances of Gedsic’s subsequent recapture years later after he escapes from a mental asylum. The true facts are never made clear in any of those cases. Yet, rather than leaving gaping holes in Pharmakon that leave us unsatisfied, those ambiguities are what draw us in to the novel, and turn what could have been a turgid academic psychobabble novel into a thrilling, psychologically compelling page-turner. Wittenborn’s innovation here is no small accomplishment.

What is more problematic, however, is Wittenborn’s more superficial methods of disorienting his reader in Pharmakon. The novel switches from first to third person multiple times, and the four books that make up Pharmakon may have been better served as independent or serialized novellas. The problem is not so much the disorienting effect of the change of narrator, but that some of the sections stand out far above the others.

Pharmakon is at its most infatuating in the first book, when we learn of Friedrich’s discovery of a wonder herb used by cannibals in the South Pacific that he hopes to make a fortune off of by turning it into a drug. He works with Dr. Bunny Winton, the lone woman in Yale’s psychology department, who discovered the herb while working as a nurse during World War II. Wittenborn’s grasp of the toils of academic life at Yale in the early '50s is remarkably adept, and the first section is as exciting for the details of the social lives of academics as it is for Friedrich and Winton’s secret project that has them as giddy as schoolchildren.

It is there we meet Casper, whose name is a not-to-subtle allusion to the way he will haunt Friedrich and his family for the rest of their lives. Casper is a mentally unstable loner, the son of a Lithuanian cranberry picker in New Jersey who got into Yale by winning a science competition with a design for an atom bomb. Through taking Friedrich and Winton’s wonder drug, Casper becomes the big shot at the Yacht club, a wizard gold investor and fiancée of the granddaughter of the Governor of Connecticut. As soon as he goes off the drug — or was he still on it? — Casper breaks down, and shows up at Friedrich’s house with a gun in his hand and a list of people to murder.

The tragedies of Book 1 naturally lead to the events of Book 2, where the Friedrichs, now living in New Jersey while William works for pharmaceuticals. The Friedrich child have to grow up with a traumatized mother and a father who shoots down their every action with brazenly honest but emotionally destructive psychoanalysis. We hear it all through the perspective of youngest son Zach, who is too young to remember New Haven, and whose life is inextricably tied to Casper. While the change from third to first person could be jarring, we can overlook it because Zach is so adept at analyzing his family, and has such a fascinating story to tell of family social dynamics, the insecurities and life-altering events of youth and maturation, and the irrevocable damage his father caused for all his children. The two sections seem tied together in ways a lesser writer could never accomplish.

In the final two books, however, Pharmakon truly goes off the deep end. In the third person, we meet up with the adult Zach, now called “Z,” who is a recovering cocaine addict (and not recovering very well) in the '80s. Z still can’t get over the problems of his childhood and his relation to the history of Casper Gedsic. It’s already a problem that Wittenborn’s grasp of tone and milieu of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s is not as strong as that of previous decades. What’s more problematic is his inclination to have Z become partially enlightened about the events of the Friedrichs’ Yale days and the experiments with Casper. It seems that Wittenborn did not have the faith in himself to leave those ambiguities completely unresolved, or to leave the dramatic irony to the reader alone. That inability to go the extra mile dilutes the true ingenuity of Pharmakon’s structure and narrative, and makes the book something much more typical.

Still it does not dismiss just how inventive the novel can be. While Pharmakon is by no means a perfect book, it may in fact be a very important book. In addition to the brilliant use of narrative ambiguities, it touches upon the contradictions of psychological study and analysis, the relationship between genius and insanity, and the role our childhood experiences, or even events that occurred before birth, never truly leave us. Ultimately, the problems of Wittenborn’s superficial devices are just that: superficial. There are a lot of vital, compelling elements at play in Pharmakon, and I suspect those will last longer than the immediate complaints.

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About Ethan Stanislawski

  • Well written review. Even given your insightful points of criticism, the concepts tackled in Pharmakon sound more interesting to me now than at first glance, thanks to your in-depth and honest critique.

  • Ethan Stanislawski

    I definitely think the book is worth reading. I hope merely saying a book is flawed doesn’t mean it should be avoided!

  • shelley

    There is a great article on this on the Big Issue site. Check it out