Ben Fountain

A person deprived of beauty and pleasure puts me in mind of the Haitian notion of a zombie – a person disconnected from his or her soul, a person who works for others’ profit but never his own, a person who mindlessly does the bidding of the boss and exists in an emotional and mental limbo.

You have the mainstream bourgeois life of the U.S., Europe, the “developed” world – the life of technology, education, mortgages, careers, a certain level of physical comfort – while on the other hand, several billion people on the planet exist on less than a dollar a day. That’s a huge and terrible reality to get your head around.

The strange, wonderful stories of Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain introduce us to the tremendously gifted Kirsten Menger-Anderson, a writer whose subject is nothing less than the diagnosis and cure of the human malady. We follow twelve generations of New York City’s Steenwycks family through their forays into phrenology, mesmerism, radium therapy and similar misadventures, a historically rich narrative that Menger-Anderson delivers in striking, elegant prose and with a sure eye for detail. This is a remarkable debut by a writer to watch.

I think I was lucky to come of age in a place and time – the American South in the 1960s and ’70s – when the machine hadn’t completely taken over life. The natural world was still the world, and machines – TV, telephone, cars – were still more or less ancillary, and computers were unheard of in everyday life.