“The Beak Doctor” by Eric Basso (1976) is a novellette about a sleeping sickness. Reading it now comes at a fortuitous time, since I’m fresh from watching Season 1 of The Sandman, the Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s famous comic series.
However, unlike Sandman, which has an easily intelligible plot and is easy to talk about, “The Beak Doctor” is none of those things. It’s a modernist, surrealist masterpiece.
Make no mistake that “The Beak Doctor” is difficult reading. Its imagery-rich, fragmentary ‘muscular’ style the editors accurately describe as “Joycean.” It is difficult in the same sense that modernist poetry and Finnegan’s Wake are difficult. Published in The Chicago Review, it was hailed by the avant garde. Basso has not written commercial fiction here. (Reviewers on LibraryThing have expressed their frustration with reading it.)
Yet, the intoxicatingly vivid, broken up style is a dreamscape to lose yourself in—an appropriate style for a story about a sleeping sickness. Reality is only glimpsed partially, as if through a permeating fog that hides the moon. It is a challenge at first to recognize how the episodes are connected. However, determining the final meaning of this story like one does in a standard English class is not the point.
Basso’s description of the fog-drenched, empty decaying streets describe the city as much as the experience of the reader:
“Familiar landmarks which never appeared, or loomed up suddenly. Less than a yard off. Vast truncated bases. Without background. Too huge to be taken in whole by the eye. Routes you thought you knew like the back of your hand. Unrecognizable. Your hand in front of your face. Nothing more. The ideal space in fragments.”Eric Basso, “The Beak Doctor”
Not only is the fragmentary nature of Basso’s prose on display here, but he also hints as to the purpose of its difficulty: to render the familiar strange. The difficulty of his prose alienates one from the familiar cityscape he describes and estranges the reader from the comforting signals of mainstream storytelling.
In a sense, adopting this stream-of-consciousness lets Basso craft a more realistic impression of what he seeks to depict: a pandemic of sleep seen through the bleary eyes of an insomniac.
The plot revolves around the viewpoint character’s investigation into a woman’s death. Her body turns up in the street, naked, raped and mutilated. A victim of the sleeping sickness, her body is presented in gory detail.
The rest of the story consists of the viewpoint character’s attempts to stay awake. He receives milligrams of a sleeping sickness vaccine that immunizes him and makes him see visions.
In one dreamlike sequence, Basso describes what it is like to keep watch: “This is how you keep the vigil. To lie where the dogs lie on a bed of rotting mandibles. Part of a woman’s skull that they use as a basin for rainwater you use as a pillow to mark the well-yard in the mist.” The prose is impersonal, unsentimental, and stark.
Even if the plot is at times unintelligible, you can soak up the descriptions and lose yourself in the noir aesthetic. Take this description of a pool hall:
“The cool marine obscurity masks a no man’s land between the pool tables. Eddies of cigarette smoke drift toward low, canopied lights with the dust. Green baize and clicking balls. They come in by an old spittoon that keeps the inner door ajar, past nearly empty coatracks to a smell of stale tobacco juice and grease-stained leather…”Eric Basso, “The Plague Doctor
What plot does exist is united to an extent by the man known as “the prankster.” He is a man described as having a panache (a feather in his cap) like the Fool from the Tarot deck. Appearing in several scenes, such as the pool hall episode above, he is revealed to be a serial rapist who preys on victims while they are asleep. The various items and doodads in this overcoat pockets allude back to previous scenes, turning his character into a kind of unifying symbol.
In addition, a second disease is ravaging the world, in addition to the sleeping sickness.The victims decay and break apart, dissolving. In late stages, food cannot even be digested. Instead, “any solid or liquid nourishment placed in the mouth fell through the floor of the buccal cavity to the ground before it could be swallowed.” This focus on decay brings to mind Alfred Kubin’s “The Other Side.”
The human mind finds comfort in order, so it might be possible to think the sleeping sickness and dissolution are connected. However, the narrator makes clear that “one cannot be absolutely certain that the dematerialization is in any way connected to the endless sleep.” It is possible that dual plagues, unconnected with each other, have descended on humanity, who has no special place in the universe and is subject to the arbitrary whims of nature.
Basso’s “The Beak Doctor” is an avant garde work of surrealism. In the words of Matthew Pridham, his work “reward[s] careful attention and a willingness to temporarily surrender some of one’s expectations.” Many of the signals readers look for in parsing the meaning of text will not be found here. The text makes different demands, creates its own rules for how it should be read (if there is one way it “should” be read at all).
Comparisons to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake are apt. Pridham states that Basso, in his essay collection Decompositions, expresses his value of the openness of the text, that interpretation should be taken as a joy in itself, a kind of secular holy writ (in Basso’s case, like the Talmud). Readers interested in diving deeper into Basso should get their hands on a copy of these essays.
Roland Barthes in S/Z describes the contribution that readers bring to any text. Readers create the text in the act of reading by interpreting what they find; no two readings are the same. Keeping this in mind, a Barthesian reading might be the best way to tackle “The Beak Doctor.”
Try opening “The Beak Doctor” in the middle and let your mind wander on the track Basso’s prose leads you down, unfettering yourself from any obligations to seek ultimate meaning. Or, in other words, just soak up the vibes of his prose and enjoy.
Next week I will be reading Jamaica Kinkaid’s “My Mother” (1978).