THE CLOSING MOMENTS of the 19th and 20th centuries are proving to have some uncanny similarities. At both points, medicine championed new methods of treatment. In 1900 it was "suggestive therapy"--i.e., hypnosis--and salving wounds; now it is gene therapy and psychotropic drugs. In technology, the automobile was coming to life in 1900; now it is the Internet. These similarities could be what makes Brooks Hansen's new novel Perlman's Ordeal, which is set in London in 1906 and deals with a hypnotist's fight for a patient's soul, feel so close to the bone. As it conjures up the fin-de-siècle period with stylish, European-mannered prose, the novel digs at metaphysical issues: Do we need faith in something greater, something unexplainable, when humankind seems so capable of shaping its destiny? As a character in Hansen's novel reasons: "The point...was not that God did not exist, it was that He did not need to. Man could write his own laws and do his own good without resort to some unseen Other."
With polished, at times awesome craft, Perlman's Ordeal brings this dilemma to life in the story of August Perlman, a Viennese-born Jew who practices suggestive therapy in London. Born of an atheist father and schooled in hypnosis, Perlman finds no need for faith. In his mind "suggestion...was the great unsung force guiding history....[A]ll human behavior, from child rearing to nation building, was subject to its power." The closest the doctor comes to having faith is in his love of grand concert music, which he follows as an avid patron and a committed armchair critic. Accordingly, though Perlman takes the lead in healing his patients, he knows that as a listener, he must follow. As he explains it, "The good modern melodist was like a frontiersman in that respect; the good listener a settler." Moving deftly between the doctor's daytime shamanism and dilettante nightlife, the first act of Hansen's novel constructs an orderly house of cards. In the book's second half, this structure threatens to fall when a stubborn spiritualist forces the doctor to use the listening ability he applies in music to a patient he treats.
The patient is the teenage Sylvie Blum, who appears at the doctor's clinic dehydrated and catatonic. When hypnotized, she adopts the persona of Nina, a brat with an imaginary friend named Oona. Speaking in tongues and threatening Sylvie's safety, Nina defies the doctor's attempts to heal her host. Quickly losing control of the situation, Perlman is saved by Madame Helena Barrett, sister of his favorite composer, the late Alexander Barrett. While Madame Barrett possesses a "manifestly keen mind, a razor-sharp intellect, and canyons of retention," she is more Dionysian in her approach to life than Perlman.
Yet, being the "librettist and unofficial dramaturge of all her brother's narrative efforts...[and his] principal companion and muse," she intrigues Perlman. Here she plays this muse role to Nina/Sylvie, coaxing from her a story of improbable proportions. As it emerges, this story bears eerie resemblance to the myth of Atlantis. Shocked at Madame Barrett's intervention, the doctor protests this indulgence in fantasy. Yet with Nina threatening to harm Sylvie, and his deadline for healing the girl looming, the doctor has no choice but to watch as Madame Barrett and her actor uncle give voice to Nina's story in a homemade play.
Like the music that Perlman loves, Perlman's Ordeal is orchestrated on many levels. In closing, Hansen ingeniously ties its many themes together with a climax that proves--as in his highly acclaimed novel The Chess Garden--that narrative trumps all. Just as the composer Barrett has struggled through a songbook to unlearn his boundaries and become, once again, "a vessel for the music to just pour through," in Sylvie and her improbable story, Hansen's cast unlearn their skepticism and begin again to wonder.