Kirsten Menger-Anderson’s debut novel, Dr. Olaf van Schuler’s Brain (Algonquin, $22.95, 304 pages, ISBN 978-1-56512-561-2), is far better than any debut fiction should be. In a first novel, one often expects to find at least a handful of mistakes, small bumps in the road that are smoothed over as the author gains more experience. Dr. Olaf, on the other hand, is a superbly written collection of stories that deserves to reach the bestseller lists this fall.
The book begins with the arrival of Dr. Olaf van Schuler in New Amsterdam (later New York City) with “his lunatic mother, two bags of medical implements, and a … book of his own medicines” in 1664. Strange even among the doctors of the 17th century, Dr. Olaf studies animal – and human – brains, studying the connection between the brain and the soul. From this first American tale the book is composed of vignettes following each subsequent generation, starting with Olaf’s son Clementius Steenwycks (what a great name, eh?), a doctor who extensively studied spontaneous combustion in the early 1700s. The 13 short tales culminate in 2006, with genetic researcher Elizabeth Steenwycks.
Dr. Olaf is not only a fascinating look at this family over the years, but also at New York City as it evolved and changed. From the early days as a Dutch colony, to the Revolutionary War, through the industrial and sexual revolutions, the city is as much a character as any of the Steenwycks. Both the city and the characters are lovingly crafted in Menger-Anderson’s brilliant prose. Even though the stories are all terribly brief, each has characters the reader will carry with them long after finishing the book. Whether it’s the wife of a tavern owner in the at the turn of the 17th century or the firebrand pushing for women’s suffrage in the 20th, each is a fully realized inhabitant of the world of Dr. Olaf. The point of view is cleverly switched, sometimes belonging to one of the Steenwycks, but much more often to one of their many patients.
In Publisher’s Weekly’s early look at the book, they noted that “The reader can follow how far medicine has advanced, but, surprisingly, note how human suffering and misery hasn’t come such a long way.” I don’t think that I could sum up my feelings on the title any more concisely. The book is unputdownable, and offers a captivating look at both the desire of everyone to be “cured” of their least favorite characteristics, and the deep want of many to help others. In some cases, the help just happens to be electroshock therapy, elixirs, or irradiated water.