Ingenious Pain

Andrew Miller, Author, Karen Miller, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $24 (352p) ISBN 978-0-15-100258-0
Miller's debut novel is a bildungsroman with an inventive twist. His 18th-century hero, James Dyer, is incapable of feeling pain or experiencing pleasure. Unlike most coming-of-age novels, which detail the emotional pains of the protagonist as he matures, this one charts the stark vicissitudes of Dyer's life, through which he moves impassively, feeling neither physical sensations nor emotions of any kind. Dyer is conceived when his mother is raped by a mysterious stranger; born in 1739 in a small Devon village, he neither cries nor speaks. After most of his family dies in a smallpox epidemic, Dyer becomes the shill of Marley Gummer, an itinerant quack who sells a pain-relieving medicine by demonstrating that the boy feels nothing even when he's burned or tortured. Next, Dyer becomes the protege of Mr. Canning, a disciple of Newton and a wealthy collector of freaks. But it's not until Dyer discovers anatomy that he finds his true calling and becomes a surgeon, albeit one with the reputation of an automaton. His heartlessness extends to personal affairs, for he betrays a kind benefactor with cool disdain. During a journey to St. Petersburg to inoculate the Empress Catherine against smallpox, Dyer rescues a woman named Mary, who is buried in the snow. Mary has natural healing powers and introduces Dyer to the pain of memory-which afflicts him like madness, for which he is incarcerated in Bedlam-and the experience of love, which ends tragically. Eventually, he is to feel happiness, but his rebirth makes him fundamentally vulnerable. Miller's prose recalls the 18th-century novel. Steeped with specific details, it evokes a time when death and disease were so commonplace that the ability to rise above pain made one godlike. Beautifully controlled and moving in its denouement, this story of redemption testifies to the mystery of life and the possibility of grace. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/31/1997
Release date: 04/01/1997
Genre: Fiction
Paperback - 352 pages - 978-0-15-600600-2
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