Nobody familiar with Richard Selzer’s career as a surgeon, professor at Yale Medical School, and author (Mortal Lessons, Confessions of a Knife) will be surprised at the dazzling quality of his new collection of stories. Remarkably diverse in terms of setting and plot, the six tales in Imagine a Woman all center on diseases of one kind or another. But this is not a book about doctors and hospitals, nor even about sickness as such. Unlike the more commonplace sort of medical writer, Selzer portrays mortal illness neither as a puzzle to be solved nor an enemy to be conquered. What animates these stories is an almost spiritual sense of wonder at the ways in which people in extremity confront solitude and death.
In ”Whither Thou Goest,” for example, a young Texas widow whose husband was murdered in a roadside holdup becomes fascinated with the idea of once again listening to the beating of his transplanted heart. ”Dead is dead,” she had told the doctor who had first proposed ”harvesting” Sam’s organs. With parts of him sustaining the lives of seven different strangers, however, she’s not so sure. ”If she could find him, and listen once more to the heart, she would be healed. She would be able to go on with her life.”
In playful imitation of the master, ”Poe’s Light-House” consists of what purports to be Edgar Allan Poe’s last short story as told to a young physician who attended his final days of alcoholic delirium. Most dazzling of all may be ”Luis,” a perfectly counterpointed story about a professor of radiation therapy in Brazil whose life — due to an awful accident — becomes intertwined with a desperately impoverished young man who survives by scavenging in the city dump.
If anything, Selzer’s fiction is almost too polished. Though breathtaking in small doses, there’s a static quality to his style that can evoke more admiration than empathy. The title story, for example, consists of the journal of an American woman who exiled herself to a pension in the French Alps after learning that she was pregnant and also infected with AIDS (although the disease is never mentioned by name). In composing an account of her final months, she assures her lover that she harbors no resentment. ”You are hardly to blame for the gray rain of virus that is falling over the earth. Nor do I condemn your secret love. Despite all, I continue to marvel at love however one locates it.” A handsome sentiment, beautifully expressed — a bit too much so, indeed, for this world. B+