Taking the World In for Repairs, Richard Selzer’s fifth book, is a collection of a dozen essays and short stories. Rituals of Surgery, eighteen short stories, was published in 1974. Selzer won a National Magazine Award for his essays in 1975 and received his first serious literary attention with his second book, Mortal Lessons (1976), a collection of sometimes grisly observations on the art of surgery. Confessions of a Knife followed in 1979. The book continued his exploration of the dark side of surgery but also offered several humorous pieces, including, as an appendix, an essay on the appendix. Letters to a Young Doctor appeared in 1982, offering essays and fiction loosely organized around the title theme. Selzer takes up fainting in the operating room, the worrisomeness of feet, surgery as combat, and the meaning of urinals.
The present volume is Selzer’s most eclectic. The first piece, a memoir of his stay at the abbey of San Giorgio in Venice in 1983, is fully one-third of the book. This “Diary of an Infidel: Notes from a Monastery” sets forth some of the ideas that weave their way through the rest of the book. Two stories follow—“Fetishes” (a woman’s greatest fear of surgery is that her husband may find out that she has false teeth) and “’The Black Swan’ Revisited” (a retelling of Thomas Mann’s novella)—and two meditations on architecture—“How to Build a Slaughterhouse” and “How to Build a Balcony.”
A sprightly piece, “The Romance of Laundry,” is followed by the dark adumbrations of “A Worm from My Notebook,” a kind of half story about the life cycle of a worm parasite. The next two pieces evoke Selzer’s boyhood in Troy, New York: “The Day of Judgment” is a memoir of graveyards, and “Tom and Lily” is a short story about love and tuberculosis that takes place in 1934. The final three selections include “The Bee,” about getting lost in Paris; “My Brother Shaman,” which finds striking similarities in the rituals of the shaman and the surgeon; and “Taking the World In for Repairs,” a report on Selzer’s journey with a team of reconstructive surgeons to the southern highlands of Peru.
Several sections of the book previously appeared in Literature and Medicine, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Vanity Fair, and Grand Street. Selzer, a professor of surgery at Yale Medical School, has also been a resident at Yaddo (a four-hundred-acre retreat for writers and artists in Saratoga Springs, New York) and at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study Center on Lake Como in Italy; much of his work has come from his times of “retreat.” The reader is informed by Selzer that each of the twelve pieces in the book is a mixture of fact and fiction.
It is important to be clear about what kind of writer Richard Selzer is not. He is neither a popularizer of surgical science nor a writer extolling the “wonders of medicine” or the intricacies of the human constitution. He wants to be taken as a writer who happens to be a surgeon, ranging the world, holding it tightly with a hemostat. This has produced a kind of tension in his work. Selzer is certainly most at ease when dealing with surgical matters, and it is important to him that surgery show its human side; yet in Taking the World In for Repairs, the author is at pains to deliver forceful writing that may or may not have a medical denouement. There is tension in this task because his reputation was built on ringing the changes on the Wound, in descriptions full of infinite and almost illicit detail, grisly and fascinating. That he cannot escape his heritage is clear in the present work; nevertheless, his excursions into the world at large are most intriguing.
Take balconies, for example. A balcony, he says, exempts a person from the passage of time. A balcony is not anchored to the ground and is thus not anchored to history. The best kind of balcony for Selzer is one that makes the person feel suspended in midair. It is the perfect abode of the artist, halfway between earth and heaven.
From a balcony it is sometimes possible to spot the flapping lines of laundry hung in some backyard. In Italy, Selzer’s quest for Art and Romance was almost quashed because he had no clean clothing, and a holiday had taken all the help from his hotel. Despairing, he espied a line of laundry from his casement window and, encouraged, resolved to wash his own shirt. Thence followed an explosion of “high laundry” and a small handbook of technique. “What is required more than soap and water,” he writes, “is enthusiasm, reverence and loftiness of spirit.”
There is another trinity more appropriate to the surgeon, that of “intuition, compassion and ingenuity,” and in Selzer’s comparison of the modern surgeon with the shaman the physician comes out wanting. The shaman in his strange rituals combines poetry with primitive healing. If God is dead, and man must become his own hero, Selzer insists that medicine not devolve into bloodless technique. Let surgeons suture in awe and with the heart of a poet. Let them, further, confront the unknown and wrestle with it, and somehow re-create the world. Such attempts at re-creation provide the backdrop to the longer works in this collection.
In one of his essays in Mortal Lessons, Selzer explains that the surgeon becomes a writer in order to become a true doctor. He masters the craft of writing in order “to search for some meaning in the ritual of surgery,...
(The entire section is 2273 words.)