Ingenious Pain is Andrew Miller’s first novel. Stretched over eight parts, its structure starts near the end, shows everything that leads to this end, then proceeds to the denouement. This classic plot line gives Miller a chance to focus on the meaning of what happens to the main character, James Dyer, whose adventures dramatize how he changes from someone who feels nothing to someone who feels everything.
The time line in the novel begins in 1739, when Dyer is born, and ends in 1772, when he dies, with the latter event first in the story. Indeed, Dyer’s death is not the climax; rather, what finally happens inside him is, and, to this end, Miller first makes Dyer fascinate readers because he is so mysterious, then makes him win readers’ sympathy because he suffers so much in the long run.
In parts 1 and 2, the story moves backward from Dyer’s autopsy in the stable of Reverend Julius Lestrade, in the village of Cow in Devon, England, to Dyer’s stay in Lestrade’s household. Mary, Dyer’s companion and a sorceress, is also introduced in this section.
Part 3 opens with Dyer’s mother Elizabeth yielding to a stranger’s lust while she is ice-skating. The stranger is smooth and nameless, and, thinking about him later, Elizabeth remembers a song that says, “The Devil’s a Gen’leman.” Of this union, James Dyer is born in Blind Yeo, an English village. He makes no sound when he is born; in fact, he does not talk until he is eleven years old. His blue eyes are uncommon to the family, and he displays no warmth to his siblings or to his peers in school, only curiosity about how things work. He also shows no sign that he knows what pain is, he never gets sick, and all his cuts and welts heal unusually fast.
In the summer of 1750, Marley Gummer, a wandering swindler, appears, and Dyer, trying to fly, falls from a tree and breaks his leg. Gummer sees that the boy feels no pain when his leg is set; he calls Dyer “an aberration of nature” and begins to think about how he might profit from this.
As though Dyer leaves it behind when he himself leaves, an epidemic of smallpox breaks out in the village. Dyer’s brother Charlie, his sister Sarah, and his mother die from it; his sister Liza goes blind from it; and Joshua, his official father, goes mad and kills himself. Dyer is unmoved by these events, and, as Liza cries out for him, he leaves home and, at the start of part 4, joins Gummer in Bristol, England.
While there, Gummer uses him in a show to sell a fake cure-all. Gummer puts a needle through Dyer’s hand to prove that the medicine blocks pain. The trick is successful wherever the show travels. When Dyer is thirteen, however, a devotee of Sir Isaac Newton, Mr. Canning, abducts him and adds him to the freaks he has collected on his estate. Among these are Mr. Collins, Mr. Canning’s librarian, who has six fingers on one hand, and Ann and Anna, teenage Siamese twins. Collins gives Dyer access to the library, where he reads “books of anatomy, books of maps, books of experiments . . . books of astronomy, geometry” but nothing that has emotion in it, such as stories or poetry. In fact, when one of the twins sends him a lock of her hair for Valentine’s Day, he uses it for a bookmark, and, when they have sex with him in their bed, he feels nothing. Then, after he watches an operation that kills the twins, he practices surgery on a dog.
Gummer eventually steals Dyer back, immediately after which they are impressed into the British navy. On the warship Aquilon, Dyer becomes assistant to the ship’s surgeon, Robert Munro, who is a drunk. Dyer even takes over for him during a battle with the French navy off Minorca in the Mediterranean in 1756. He is as cool doing this as he is in Cuba, when he shoots an enemy soldier in the head.
Munro leaves the ship in 1756, while Dyer, a licensed surgeon by this time, leaves it in 1758 with Gummer and becomes Munro’s partner in Bath, England. Because of Dyer, the practice flourishes. However, Agnes, Munro’s young wife, falls in love with Dyer. She entices him, and he kisses her, which confuses him. In his mind, he sees the panoply of human suffering and realizes he will die, and still he feels nothing.
Dyer’s fame as a surgeon spreads. He performs a gallstone operation on a rich musician, Salvatore Grimaldi, and takes a watch in payment, with which he subsequently times his operations. He even pioneers the cesarean section procedure. Because Dyer does not care about Agnes, Munro...
(The entire section is 1842 words.)