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.

I have a horror of being self-indulgent and wasting time, and there is that risk in doing this kind of work. Are you totally deluded in sitting down at a desk every day and trying to write something? Is it self-indulgent, or might it possibly lead to something worthwhile? At a certain point I decided to keep on because I felt like the work was getting better, and I was taking great pleasure in that.

You’d think family would be the one sure thing in life, the gimme? Points you got just for being born? So much thick, meaty stuff bound you to these people, so many interlocking spirals of history, genetics, common cause, and struggle that it should be the most basic of all drives, that you would strive to protect and love one another, yet this bond that should be the big no-brainer was in fact the hardest thing.

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.