by Lawrence Douglas; New York, Other Press, 2006, 276 pages, $24.95
Dr. Simpatico is associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Division of Public Psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and medical director of the Vermont State Hospital, Burlington.
In The Catastrophist, first-time novelist Lawrence Douglas reminds us that "the world is a hostile place for most life forms." In a manner reminiscent of David Lodge's Changing Places, The Catastrophist is set in the world of academia and spins a comic tale with serious and foreboding undercurrents.
Protagonist Daniel Wellington is a respected art historian, recently tenured professor, and rising academic celebrity with a beautiful, intelligent wife. Although he has known nothing but success, he responds to his wife's joyfully announcing her pregnancy and his impending fatherhood with a full-blown existential crisis. He confesses to an artist-ex-wife-turned-mother-of-three "how much easier it would be to have a sweet little child with Down's syndrome who would grow up to bag groceries at Stop & Shop, and would be spared learning what a fraudulent and mentally ill loser his father is." What then follows is an inexorable self-inflicted chain of events that results in the mother of all self-fulfilling prophesies. Our hero, tragically and comically burdened "by imagination, introspection, and disorder," repeatedly provokes the very catastrophes he fears most. As he perceives the chaos he creates as being perpetrated by others, he then wonders, "is humiliation necessarily a crime of intent?"
Douglas, a professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst College, can truly turn a phrase. Although I initially experienced some of his language as pedantic, I soon found myself jotting down many of his playful and evocative descriptions in order to read them again. His creative use of language has an artistic efficiency reminiscent of the way a great musician economically uses just the right notes to create a mood or evoke a memory. His talent is evident in the pithy manner in which he describes Daniel's wife, R., whose image and persona are made all the more powerful in the same way an expertly laconic hypnotic induction allows the subject to provide vivid and personal details.
Daniel Wellington's tragic flaws have to do with the fact that he envies people who can fully participate in their own lives. The more he envies, the more he becomes isolated and lonely and the more he panics. This leads to the humorously deranged behavior that threatens to alienate him from all that is truly important.
Although the book is technically a comedy by virtue of its brilliant academic satire and relatively happy thematic resolution, The Catastrophist is rife with serious and challenging moments. As I read, I thought what a great movie this could be. I then remembered director Garry Marshall's interpretation of Exit to Eden and how it was played for laughs, focusing on base humor at the expense of the essence and tension of Anne Rice's novel. I hope The Catastrophist would not be similarly misrepresented.
The Catastrophist is a winner and too witty and haunting a tale to be thought of as summer reading. As I approached the end of the story, I wondered about two things: would Daniel Wellington fall victim to the foreshadowed German aphorism "Better Abel than Cain, but better Cain than zero," and when would the next piece of Lawrence Douglas' fiction become available.