And this is only the start of the fascinating weirdness of Ingenious Pain, by Andrew Miller, a late eighteenth-century-set picaresque novel about James Dyer, a man who feels no pain (or, as it later becomes apparent, pleasure). The tale takes us - with some chronological dancing - from Dyer's illegitimate conception and troubled birth all the way to his provincial death and clandestine autopsy. En route, we spend time with him in a travelling con act, a medieval freakshow, a briefly-brilliant surgery in Bath, an asylum, and an overland race to St Petersburg against a host of rival physicians, to innoculate Catherine the Great.
The narrative pastiches several styles of the period; much of the tale is told in a detached present tense, not without a certain mordant wit, through an omniscient narrator who periodically swoops in and out of the characters' thoughts. Other sections - like Dyer's time as a ship's surgeon - are couched in an after-the-fact epistolary exchanges, or (in the case of much of the Russian portion) a series of diary entries.
The one thing we never get is any real time with Dyer himself. This, of course, is largely the point. For the majority of the novel, Dyer is an extremely distant figure, coldly reacting to circumstances solely in accordance with his needs, curiosity or simple whims. The inability to experience pain blocks from him any possibility of empathising with others, making him at best manipulative and emotionally illiterate, at worst a borderline-sociopathic protagonist, reminiscent (at least to me!) of the heroes of Grass' The Tin Drum or Suskind's Perfume. Unable to envisage the effect of his actions, or imagine how others might react to him, he frequently lands himself in problematic situations - although, much of the time, by far the worst consequences are reserved for those around him.
Finally, of course, Dyer's lack of pain awareness - and attendant oddities, such as a capacity to heal miraculously quickly - not only makes him a brilliant surgeon, but also marks him out as a strange and disturbing figure in a world where everyone around him is so utterly at the mercy of their pain and suffering. Virtually everyone we meet in the novel is debilitated to some degree by illness or injury, and a great many die; even the operations intended to alleviate suffering themselves cause excruciating torment, and are rarely guaranteed to succeed.
It is a pitiless world, in which pain is simultaneously an intensely personal, emotional experience - and impersonally, universally bestowed. It is mirrored in the movement of the heavens, unending, uncaring of something so small as man:
"'Tis called a horrory," says Joshua, his voice almost a whisper: "An' that's Greek for everything."
Widow Dyer nods sagely; Sarah and Charlie clamour for their turn, and in the liquid of the infant's eyes, the toy universe gently spins - the crab, the lion, the virgin - month after month, year after year.
It is James Dyer's earliest memory.
The reader's connection to the material thus comes from Dyer's impact on his environment, rather than from Dyer himself.
Dawn finds him walking steadily on the Bristol road, a parcel tucked under his arm. In Blind Yeo, in a dead house, a girl cries and cries his name. No one comes.
This icy genius causes pain wherever he goes, even if his job is to cure, for he sees people as walking experiments, objects of interest to be observed - and sometimes fixed, if he chooses. His intense detachment finds an echo in the narrative voice, and also in the motif of medicine as an intellectual discipline, one making the slow, difficult transition to an experimental, objective science - and one that nevertheless retains much of its grisliness at least in part because of this objectivity, which pays little heed to the patient beyond the immediate act of curing. Dyer himself is an object of scientific scrutiny at several points of the novel: he is subjected to undignified public trials to demonstrate his unusual abilities to a gathering of scientists in London; the autopsy, meanwhile, is conducted with some relish by a pair of doctors hoping to learn the reason for his strangeness.
To finish, a few quick comments on Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly. This is a fun collection of essays on the subject of - as the title suggests - the late-lamented SF TV show Firefly. It never really ventures much beyond the kind of commentaries you might read at the more thoughtful end of the entertainment-blogging spectrum - but then, as with much in fandom, a large part of the appeal is owning something related to your favourite show. There are certainly some insightful pieces; I particularly enjoyed Michelle West's discussion of the marriage of Zoe and Wash (who, when I rewatch the series, certainly rank as my personal favourite in the romantic pairing stakes), and Tanya Huff on the presentation of women in genre TV. The various articles giving background on televisual Westerns were also interesting to this under-informed reader - as is the glossary of Chinese used in the series...
There were two stand-out irritations. The first was Joy Davidson's overlong attempt to place Inara within a sacred-whore archetype that a) regurgitates the long-discredited cliche of how human society began as a happy matriarchy, before those nasty male-god-worshippers showed up (presumably not from human society?), even seeking to explore the psychology of a people that we essentially know about only from shards of pottery, and b) then proceeds to retell every exchange between Inara and Mal in the whole damn series (couldn't we just be referred to the relevant episodes?).
The other was John C Wright's rant about how "delicate modern sensibilities" (a phrase he's fond of, using it about four times) preclude an accurate and meaningful usage of Western tropes within Firefly. His focus is upon chivalry, which he defines as men (the strong) protecting women, children and old folks (the weak), and noble treatment of enemies. (I'm not well up on Westerns, but I'd be intrigued to know where The Searchers fits into this little schema). In essence, he's annoyed that Wash is made to look ridiculous for 'trying to protect his wife' - that is, for throwing a tantrum, usurping his wife's job, almost getting himself killed, and jeopardising the entire crew in 'War Stories', all because he's got issues about Zoe's history with Mal.
I guess my disagreement with Wright hinges upon a different interpretation of the Firefly 'verse. It seems to me that there is (some) chivalry on display, it's simply that this is not purely a Western - it's a Western in The Future. A merging of two genres naturally requires some shading, and subverting, of those genres' characteristics. Just as the show veers away from certain common SF elements - aliens, shiny new tech for all, automatic doors - it also views Westerns through the lens of the present day, extrapolated. There's plenty of protecting still going on, but the strong aren't always the men, and the weak aren't always the women. Zoe is rather more skilled and competent in that situation than Wash is - just as Wash is the better pilot - and it is ridiculous (and dangerous) to think it should be otherwise just because he's a guy.
Furthermore, the point about there being a social imperative to protect womenfolk/breeding stock in a frontier society is fair enough (although it tends to run more to honour than preventing them doing hard work, unless they're of an elevated social class). But it hardly holds for the crew of an outlaw spaceship - whereas on some of the border worlds, however, we do see that the role of women is much more traditional.
But I agree with him that kicking the bloke in the engine in 'The Train Job' was a stupid move (even if it was funny ;-)).
All that said, one of Wright's books is on my TBR shelves, and I look forward to reading it!