Taking the World in for Repairs
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...
(The entire section is 2,313 words.)