By Vincent Lam
I was looking forward to reading this debut novel by an emergency doctor who had always fostered a childhood dream of becoming a writer. The story of Lam's literary rise to prominence is interesting: how he caught the attention of Margaret Atwood, who helped him get his book published, the critical accolades which followed, as well as the prestigious Giller Prize and now the television series, which just recently premiered on HBO Canada.
I was also looking forward to this because it’s supposedly be based on Lam’s real-life trials and tribulations as a medical student and eventually an emergency doctor. He also covers his experiences as a physician in international air evacuation and being caught up in the SARS crisis when it hit Toronto.
Yet another reason was because an old friend was coming to visit from Winnipeg and this friend is now finally getting her career going as a GP. I thought reading this book would give me some perspective on her medical background as well as something to talk about as we caught up on our lives. When I brought up that I was in the middle of reading Bloodletting, she merely responded with, “Oh that”.
What do you think of it so far? she asked.
Well, I’m only half way through. But so far, it’s kind of frustrating, I replied.
In what way?
I was hoping it’d give me some interesting insight about being a doctor that’s a little different from what I see on TV. But it’s just annoying people doing stupid things. Like do I have to read about a guy obsessing over a girl who is just awful to him? It kind of skips over how he goes thru med school and how he becomes a doctor, which is what I’d rather read about.
Yeah, my medical friends were all reading it when it came out and had the same opinion. They felt that it was very superficial in its treatment of certain subjects or made an unnecessary big deal about other things. I suppose the book is more interesting to an outsider, but a lot of doctors I know weren’t very impressed. Where are you now in the book?
I’m at the part where Dr Sri is dealing with a potentially schizo patient.
Oh right. The patient who might be schizophrenic, whooooo. She rolled her eyes.
I could totally see what she meant. That section where Lam attempts to take the perspective of a mentally deteriorating young man who gets increasingly paranoid of his upstairs neighbours. Awkward. And you never see how Dr Sri deals with this delicate situation. One day Sri shows up at his home to check up on him, and the guy has suddenly gone wacko, screaming and throwing furniture around. The medics arrive and take him away. Cut from Sri to another doctor story. Anti-climactic to say the least.
I think this is the problem with Lam’s book. He wants to squeeze in his collection of personal experiences, but through the perspective of four different characters who are all connected to one another. You have all this range of experiences being portrayed, - some better than others - but you never get a sense of what each character is really going through because Lam lacks the depth and maturity to really take you down that path. He doesn't give you a chance to feel any connection to these characters. Instead he opts to give you vignettes of situations, and ultimately it is very unsatisfying.
Take Fitzgerald for instance. Here’s a poor sob who never got his girl and you see the first inkling of a developing drinking problem, then the narrative cuts to the experiences of the other characters and when it finally gets back to Fitzgerald, he’s a full-blown alcoholic. Next time you get back to him, he’s caught SARS and requests a “Do Not Resuscitate”. Then he’s gone… like not dead, because you NEVER SEE HIM DIE. He just disappears from the narrative.
Then there’s Sri and Ming, two colleagues in the same dissection class who can’t be any different from each other. Ming is whip-smart, efficient and practical while Sri is more emotionally intelligent. They are interesting foils for each other and could have made the novel more narratively engaging. Like will they become great friends, or lifelong enemies for the rest of their medical careers? But no, these characters become MERE FOOTNOTES for the rest of the novel, becoming background characters for Fitzgerald and Chen.
Oh yeah and then there’s Chen. I suppose he’s somewhat modeled after the author himself, as the final segment of the novel deals with him doing his daily routines at the emergency room, and then he drives home in his BMW, exhausted and sleep-deprived, blasting U2 and repeatedly slapping himself to stay awake. And then it just ends! You never find out if he survives his SARS infection either, or whether he managed to save Fitzgerald.
On the surface, this book has everything going for it, but I didn't really like it. One time, before I had even read this book, I gave it as a birthday gift to a (non-medical) friend, based purely on its consistently high critical praise. And this person also didn’t like it very much either. I’m afraid many otherwise discerning readers were suckered into an over-hyped debut. A quick search on the internet did not find a single bad review of this book. What’s the deal with this?
I don’t necessarily regret reading this novel, as there were interesting parts to be sure, but on the whole it was disappointing and unsatisfying. I could see how this collection of vignettes would translate well on television, and I’d be curious to see how this plays out on the small screen. Let's hope that the over-hyped praise won't affect Lam's potential for becoming a better writer, as he obviously has a bright literary career ahead of him.