Operation Wandering Soul

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1719

Richard Kraft, in his early thirties, son of a peripatetic father whose family accompanied him to various foreign outposts during Richard’s childhood, entered college late, using the span between eighteen and twenty to attend a conservatory of music in Boston, where he hoped to perfect his skill on the French...

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Richard Kraft, in his early thirties, son of a peripatetic father whose family accompanied him to various foreign outposts during Richard’s childhood, entered college late, using the span between eighteen and twenty to attend a conservatory of music in Boston, where he hoped to perfect his skill on the French horn. On a winter day when his water pipes froze and an old man was beaten with a baseball bat by thugs in Roxbury, not far from where he lived, he resolved to leave Boston. At semester’s end, he retreated to North Dakota, where his father now lived. He slept for the better part of six months, after which he went first to college, then to medical school.

Now Kraft, modeled on author Richard Powers’ brother- Kraft in German means “power”-is in his fifth year as a surgical resident doing a six-month rotation in pediatric surgery at Carver, a large southern California hospital (possibly Harbor Hospital in Torrance). He is in the third week of his rotation. The reader is first introduced to him on the highway as he worms his agonizing way through rush-hour traffic to Carver.

The freeway and its traffic snarls set the tone for the metaphor Powers is building. Complicated, congested, irrational, impersonal, and eminently dangerous, the freeway is not unlike contemporary life itself, particularly on the sprawling urban field where Operation Wandering Soul, one of five finalists for the 1993 National Book Award for fiction, is played out.

Most of the societal problems anyone can envision flourish in the microcosm Powers has chosen; Kraft has to deal with overwhelming numbers of these problems on a daily basis, often as emergencies. The difference between the freeway and the hospital is that on the freeway Kraft is less personally involved with those around him.

The instant he sets foot in the hospital, Kraft is pulled in conflicting directions by the pressing needs of massed humanity, often self-destructive, who have overdosed, had knife fights, or engaged in gunplay. They are poor. They are in dire and immediate need. Many of them are not fluent in English.

One boy, whose parents speak only Turkish, is brought in with his hand a rotting, foul-smelling mess, because his parents did not understand that they were to change the dressings regularly. The son’s wound, quite unnecessarily, has festered for a fortnight. Kraft, beneath his mask a sensitive person, has struggled consciously to develop the self-protective carapace that will keep him from dying a little every time one of his patients dies, from himself feeling the pain each time he probes an open wound of a suffering child.

Kraft’s hours, like those of most medical residents, are so long and taxing that, within the hospital’s windowless surgical theaters he loses track of whether it is day or night. He sometimes hallucinates. He has mastered the art of snatching quarter-hours of sleep—just enough to rehabilitate momentarily his sleep-deprived body and a mind sodden by the physical and emotional overreaching that his residency demands.

The pediatric surgical ward Kraft serves offers all manner of bizarre etiologies. Not yet an adolescent, Chuck, born without a face, has endured reconstructive surgery for most of his life. He can now manage a near-smile on the hole in his face that may one day-after several more operations-resemble a conventional mouth. Ben, a double amputee gets around with considerable difficulty. Nicolino, precocious in every way (including sexually), suffers from progeria, that mystifying progressive disease that catapults children into old age with alarming swiftness. His body is already well advanced in that strange aging process.

The most beguiling of the children, twelve-year-old Joy Stepaneevong, is a South-east Asian boat person who endures unimaginable privation and insecurity with amiability. Joy excels in her studies, never complains, is grateful merely to be alive. Her devoted father, whose status as an illegal immigrant prohibits him from visiting her openly during her illness, slinks in under cover of night for surreptitious visits, hovering apprehensively about her bed. The growth Joy has above her right ankle turns out to be malignant and finally results in the amputation of her leg.

One night, Mr. Stepaneevong is discovered in Joy’s ward. He bolts but is finally cornered-not to be turned over to Immigration, as he fears, but merely to secure his signed permission for the surgery that may save his daughter’s life.

Kraft, self-protectively, has gotten to know as little about his patients as he can. He will treat them like objects, pieces of furniture in the shop for repair: no emotional involvement, thus less risk of personal torment and disquieting dreams. Yet he has not bargained on Linda Espera (Perfect Patience, if one overlooks the gender of the first name), the ward’s physical therapist, a warm, outgoing woman in her early twenties, to whom Kraft is sexually attracted. Linda succeeds in her work with the children by becoming involved with them, by getting to know each of them well. She will accept nothing less from Kraft, their surgeon. The effectiveness of Linda’s moral suasion increases geometrically as Kraft’s physical involvement with her progresses.

As in each of his previous novels-Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985), Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988), and The Gold Bug Variations (1991)-Powers interrupts his intricate story with regularly occurring interchapters that are essentially historical/philosophical essays. In these interchapters, he relates his main story to its broader historical context. The interchapters, some of them motivated by children’s comics and other books Kraft comes across in the pediatric surgical ward, focus on children and their relationship to society through the ages. These stories are generated by Linda Espera’s attempts to find materials to read—one tale a night for an entire year-to the children with whom she works. In doing so, she recounts horrors that have been visited upon children through the ages: a king’s order that twin sons of a Vestal Virgin and the God of War be drowned in the Tiber; the routine killing of female babies in China; the sacrifice of weak and deformed babies; Herod’s massacre of the innocents (Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 1565 painting of that massacre adorns the dust jacket of this book).

The first such tale that Powers presents is of children whisked away to Canterbury early in World War II to be spared the devastation of the London Blitzkrieg. Canter-bury’s citizens, sometimes with prurient intent, offer shelter to all but the hopelessly ugly. Ironically, Canterbury becomes one of the most heavily bombed cities in Britain. Other interchapters relate the Peter Pan story, the story of how the Vatican used street urchins for protection during the Sack of Rome in the sixteenth century, the story of the futile Children’s Crusade of 1212-1213, and-perhaps most important of all-the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

This story is interwoven with the main plot: Nicolino, ever the promoter, devises a plan to which Linda Espera consents. He and the other children on the ward will prepare a dramatization of the Pied Piper story to be performed extramurally-this, given the physical condition of the children, makes it a high-risk enterprise.

The Pied Piper story, recounted in vivid detail in the chapter that precedes the account of the children’s dramatization, is the artistic apex of the novel. The description is exact and highly detailed, doled out in carefully controlled portions so that the tension builds inexorably as the climax nears. Bedlam abounds when the kamikaze Judas rats, following the irresistible melodies of the Pied Piper’s flute, lead their fellow rats into the river to drown. One has the sense of a virtual jihad between rats and humans in which, ironically, the behaviors of the two are hard to differentiate.

Another interchapter (pages 254-266) is both biographical and autobiographical:

Powers, who lived in Thailand between the ages of ten and fourteen, recounts an episode when the adolescent Kraft was living in Krung Thep. After receiving instruction for confirmation in the Lutheran Church, he spends an exploratory month in a Buddhist monastery, seeking “something he badly needed to remember.” Here Powers writes about the impoverished children of Thailand, but he also reveals much about the genesis of some of his deepest thinking.

Of Powers’ four novels to date, Operation Wandering Soul is by far the most pessimistic. It is not apocalyptic; the ills it points to are real and immediate. The book focuses on daunting, very present dilemmas that face contemporary society. It proffers no solutions, perhaps because the problems it depicts are too great to be solved by human means. What a world under such pressure apparently needs is a Savior—or, at least, a White Knight. Instead it gets self-seeking politicians.

To say this is not to suggest a deficiency in Powers’ novel, by any reasonable standards a prodigious piece of writing and thinking, surely one of the most genuinely provocative and cerebral works of fiction in recent years. His easy and accurate command of information in a dismaying range of fields, his dazzling wordplay, and the powerful architecture of his sentences and paragraphs-all present in his earlier novels, hut coalescing uniquely in this one-give convincing evidence that his impact will long affect the course of American letters.

If Operation Wandering Soul offers the tiniest smidgen of hope, it comes from the realization that Richard Kraft, a once-sensitive musician now dehumanized and impersonalized by the horrors to which his profession exposes him, has, through his contact with a twelve-year-old Southeast Asian girl who loves him innocently and who depends upon him unquestioningly, recaptured some of his humanity. Perhaps Powers is suggesting, however faintly, that it is at this one-on-one human level that a society in serious trouble can embark on the path toward regeneration. If salamanders can regenerate lost parts, can human society not he called upon to do as much?

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. July 18, 1993, p. B3.

Chicago Tribune. May 23, 1993, XIV, p.1.

Choice. XXXI, September, 1993, p.122.

Library Journal. CXVIII, May 1, 1993, p.117.

Los Angeles Times. August 23, 1993, p. E2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, July 18, 1993, p.19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 5, 1993, p.63.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XIII, Fall, 1993, p.208.

Time. CXLII, July 19, 1993, p.62.

The Wall Street Journal. July 13, 1993, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, June 13, 1993, p.2.

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

As in his earlier novels, Powers sustains several narrative strands in Operation Wandering Soul, The story of Linda Espera's romance with Richard Kraft becomes the convincing pretext for Kraft's eventual change in attitude toward his patients and, indeed, toward life.

Each child in the novel involves a narrative strand, yet these are all part of the broader narrative fiber that deals with them as members of a group. The group story is skillfully connected to the regularly interspersed interchapters, each offering a historic account of major historical events relating to children.

These accounts, all of them gracefully interspersed as a part of Linda Espera's story-telling, cover a broad chronological range. Notable among them is King Herod's massacre of the innocents in early Christian times. A reproduction of Peter Brueghel the Elder's renowned depiction of this massacre, painted in 1565, appears on the book's dust jacket. The stories told in the interchapters include accounts of the Children's Crusade of 1212-1213, of the Vatican's use of street children for protection during the sixteenth century sack of Rome, of the ill-fated evacuation of children from London to Canterbury during World War Two, and of other historic events that affected children.

The story the children on the ward are to dramatize for extramural audiences, however, is the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This story emphasizes the trust children have in adults and implies the responsibilities adults have toward the children who trust and follow them.

Social Concerns

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Using the children's surgical ward of a large metropolitan hospital in California as his microcosm, Powers populates the ward with a sampling of children who represent the most significant ills of contemporary society. He focuses on how these children interact with a society that essentially has cast them aside. More important, he demonstrates how these children create their own society, a society within a society.

The spotlight Powers aims at the children also encompasses Linda Espera, a compassionate physical therapist in her early twenties, and Richard Kraft, a surgical resident in his early thirties serving a rotation on the ward. Powers examines what happens to a sensitive young man who initially anticipated a career in music when, a decade later, he finds himself a sleep-deprived medical resident forced on an hour-to-hour basis to deal with insoluble dilemmas.

Kraft reacts by withdrawing emotionally from the maelstrom that is his professional life. He does his job, but, self-protectively, he refuses to know his patients. Linda Espera's approach is quite the opposite and, as love blossoms between the two, Kraft becomes humanized.

Powers does not suggest that his slight softening solves any basic problems. Joy Stepaneevong still loses her leg; Tony the Tuff will not grow another ear nor Ben another pair of legs; Nicolino will surely succumb to his progeria. Perhaps, however, because Kraft has allowed himself to care, these patients will face their clouded futures with more acceptance than they otherwise might have.

Powers has been scolded by critics for writing an apocalyptic novel that seems devoid of hope. His response is that Operation Wandering Soul is not apocalyptic: What it reports can easily be documented by examining the medical records of the patients in most children's surgical wards or, indeed, by reading the daily newspaper.

Literary Precedents

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Charles Dickens was the first writer in English to present children as literary characters meant to be taken seriously. His depictions of David Copperfield, Little Nell, Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, and numerous others uncovered a fertile literary field. Among the scores of notable novelists who have capitalized on this field either by using child protagonists or by presenting their stories from children's points of view are Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Henry James in The Turn of the Screw (1898), J. D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye (1951), Harper Lee in To Kilt a Mockingbird (I960), Paul Zindel in The Pigman (1968), Jack Schaefer in Shane (1949), and countless others. Operation Wandering Soul is clearly a part of this tradition, although it in no way apes the books mentioned above.

Powers's novel is also one of a substantial number of novels that select hospital settings as their microcosms. Thomas Mann's use of tubercular sanitorium in The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1914) and Alexander Solzhenitzyn's Cancer Ward (1968, 1969) are striking examples. Hospitals become worlds within worlds, as Powers demonstrates amply in Operation Wandering Soul. As such they present a controlled yet socially representative environment within which novelists can work.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. July 18, 1993, p. B3.

Chicago Tribune. May 23, 1993, XIV, p.1.

Choice. XXXI, September, 1993, p.122.

Library Journal. CXVIII, May 1, 1993, p.117.

Los Angeles Times. August 23, 1993, p. E2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, July 18, 1993, p.19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 5, 1993, p.63.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XIII, Fall, 1993, p.208.

Time. CXLII, July 19, 1993, p.62.

The Wall Street Journal. July 13, 1993, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, June 13, 1993, p.2.

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