Today I am spending the day feeling particularly unwell, and getting rather short-tempered with my laptop to boot. Still, I have managed to put together another post, this time a review of Pharmakon by Dirk Wittenborn that first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction 248, April 2009.
Fiction about science is not science fiction. Which is not to say that such works might not be of interest to science fiction readers; but the key examples of the genre, such as John Banville’s Kepler or Russell McCormmach’s Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist, make the science central to the book, the whole book hinges about the quest for knowledge or the way that ideas shape the characters. What we get in Pharmakon is a novel that opens with one form of drug experiment and ends with another kind, and in between we have a fairly conventional roman a clef. And a broken-backed, awkwardly structured roman a clef at that.
The first thing we must remember is that Dirk Wittenborn’s father was an acclaimed scientist who specialised in the psychiatric use of drugs, and Wittenborn himself grew up to be a novelist and screenwriter. The narrator of this new novel, Zach Friedrich, is the son of an acclaimed scientist who specialised in the psychiatric use of drugs, and by the end of the novel we are pretty sure that Zach is going to go on and be a novelist and screenwriter. Though I suspect (and indeed hope) that Wittenborn’s family life was nowhere near as melodramatic as Zach’s story.
By the end of the novel, William Friedrich has turned into a classic fictional monster, but in the first lengthy section of the novel, when practically all of the science and most of the drama take place, he is a much more attractive figure. It is the early 1950s, William is a young academic at Yale, low down the pecking order and barely clinging to his position because, as he is only too well aware, he is doing work of no great significance. His chance comes when he overhears a colleague make a passing reference to the effects of a local plant on the soldiers she was treating in New Guinea during the war. William joins up with the colleague, Bunny Winton, and the two manage to import some of the leaves from New Guinea, analyse them, and develop a drug that has a remarkable effect on some test mice. They have, it seems, isolated a drug that will help to overcome depression by boosting confidence.
It is when they start a trial of the drug using volunteers that Casper Gedsic enters the picture. Casper (whose favourite novel, we are told significantly, is Frankenstein) is a lonely, depressive freshman, completely out of his social depth at Yale, and he enters the drug trial when William’s wife and children prevent him committing suicide. Casper proves to be the ideal subject for the drug, rapidly becoming not just self-confident but arrogant, mixing with the richest and most socially assured of his classmates, stealing a student’s girlfriend and a yacht club’s money. He also becomes fixated on William and his family, visiting often, making friends with the children. But William, fixated in his turn on the medical benefits of his discovery and on the academic and financial rewards he sees coming his way, regards Casper dispassionately as a test subject. When Bunny and William decide they must end the test, they simply cut Casper off from the wonder drug upon which his new life and his new self image depend.
In a sudden, shocking conclusion to this part of the book, Casper murders Bunny Winton and, on the same evening, William’s youngest child is found dead. This last could have been an accident, we never know for sure, but there is a suspicion that Casper had a hand in this death also.
All of this, occupying well over a third of the novel, is excellent stuff. The atmosphere of Yale in the early 1950s is caught with a few vivid details; the scientific process, slow and painstaking, is surprisingly gripping; and the focus on the emotional effects of scientific research on researchers, subjects and family alike, makes for a moving, powerful story. If Casper pushes the whole thing over into melodrama, there is enough going on here to keep anyone reading. If the whole book had been like this, I would have no hesitation in hailing this as a great novel. Unfortunately, all that follows could well have come from a different book altogether.
All of a sudden we acquire a narrator, Zach, William and Nora’s youngest son who wasn’t even conceived when the previous events were taking place. An intriguing account of the human cost of scientific research becomes the much less interesting story of a dysfunctional child growing up in a dysfunctional family. Of course it is a financially secure family, so they can afford the indulgences that follow. The early poverty that fuelled William’s ambitions at Yale has been forgotten. Although the drug research he conducted there has been abandoned, he has now moved to Rutgers where he has security and a variety of drug companies willing to pay him big money as an advisor. Exactly how he went from someone whose one line of promising research was abandoned and never published into a star of the psychopharmacological world is never made clear. But then, it doesn’t matter, since his scientific work never again comes into focus.
Of course that early research, and especially its bloody conclusion, has had its effect, but now with a first person narrator we actually seem to see the damage from the outside only. William experiences strange fugue states, and then they end; William and Nora’s marriage goes through a rough period, and then everything’s all right again. Because we see it only through the self-centred eyes of Zach, we never really understand how these difficulties relate to the earlier events or exactly what it takes for William and Nora to get through them. As for Zach, he discovers that his birthday is the anniversary of the death of the brother he never knew, and this is somehow meant to explain his later behaviour, or rather, he feels that it explains why he feels unloved by his emotionally scarred parents, and that provides the excuse for his behaviour.
At one point Caspar reappears on the scene, having proved clever enough to escape from the asylum where he is imprisoned. The escape is preceded by a long description of Caspar’s experiences in the hospital that our narrator, Zach, could never hope to be privy to. Yet it is precisely when the novel ceases to have Zach as narrator that it comes most to life. It is as if Wittenborn has determined to tell his own story, come what may, but his story is not what is interesting here. A third person narrative of the life and experiences of William and Nora would have made a far more engaging novel than an intermittently first-person narrative of the life of Zach; and the amount of time that Wittenborn spends away from his narrator suggests that he might be aware of this also. The return to the story of Caspar seems to promise a return to the theme of the first part of the novel, an examination of the emotional consequences of scientific research. But, although Caspar briefly kidnaps Zach, nothing actually happens, the episode resolves in anti-climax, and we return to our examination of sad-sack Zach.
Zach goes through a grimly uncommunicative adolescence, a brief obsession with running, and then becomes addicted to drugs. Zach’s exploration of the recreational pharmacopeia suggests a parallel with his father’s exploration of the medicinal pharmacopeia, but if that is intended, nothing much is made of it. A novel that started so promisingly fizzles away into an over-familiar tale of belated growing up. At times you want to scream at both Zach and Wittenborn to look at someone other than themselves for a moment, because whenever they do they produce something that is sympathetic and engaging. Unfortunately, in this instance, self-obsession is the drug of choice.