Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book #8: Arrowsmith

I wanted to let this book marinate in my brain a bit before trying to write about it. You see, this book annoyed the living hell out of me. I don't mean that in a "wow these characters are so annoying that they frustrated me" kind of way. I mean in the "ISN'T THIS STUPID BOOK OVER ALREADY? WHY DID I SIGN UP FOR THIS &@$%*! CHALLENGE IN THE FIRST PLACE!???" sense. But  with a few days between me and the 400+ pages of pain it took to get through it, I think I understand Sinclair Lewis' aim a bit better.
At first, I thought I was just reading a very long and painfully drawn out story about a jerk. Jerks make for great entertainment. Some of film and literature's best characters were jerks. However, the amusement can only last so long without being placed against other sane and kind people to balance everything out. Arrowsmith had no such sane or kind people. Each character was a completely unbalanced human being either possessing extreme ego or selflessness to a fault. I am absolutely not saying that Sinclair Lewis did a poor job in writing these characters. I am just saying that they were all more than a little bit off their rockers. So imagine 400+ pages of one jerk swimming in a sea of loonies and you have Arrowsmith.

I suspect most people are irritated and bored by the lengthy discussions about the scientific works of the characters. They were very heavy handed (and written with great assistance from an actual scientist who received a hefty portion of the book's royalties) but they didn't bore me so much as they just left me depressed and wondering why I've never done anything as important as attempt to find a cure for the plague. What I did find hardest about this novel were the L-O-N-G patches of dialogue. If you thought bloggers were wordy, you are sadly mistaken. Some of these characters had uninterrupted speeches that last an entire 3 pages. I realize that some people do actually talk that way but that doesn't mean I need to read it 10 or 20 times from multiple characters. My eyes would glaze over through these dense passages and I found myself needing a nap before I could finish them. The good ones would make me chuckle before putting me to sleep but the bad ones would make me want to return the book to the library and tell Maria I was giving up on all of this Pulitzer nonsense once and for all.

Having given myself a bit of time to digest things, it is clear that Sinclair Lewis was trying to write an epic novel about science, specifically medicine. The titular character, Arrowsmith, starts off as a 14 year old physicians assistant and goes through undergrad, med school, residency, private practice, and eventually private enterprise as the book progresses. At every turn of this unlikeable man's painfully realistic life, we are watching the evolution of modern medicine into the Big Pharma and political mess it is today. Anyone who has even a passing interest in healthcare reform or homeopathic medicine would definitely take a lot away from the many conflicts presented in this book. Every corner is covered from the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, the reliability of published medical research, the role of profits in medicine, and the motivations behind the politics of public health.

As one could imagine, a book about the politics and profitability of modern medicine is bound to be depressing. Especially when you consider that the book was written in the 1920s and no one has seemed to learn a damned thing from it in almost 100 years. Profits before patients, marketing over results, publicity over science. It's a sad bit of medical tradition that goes back hundreds of years in the Western world and doesn't seem likely to leave us anytime soon.

The story also takes us through the entire midwest (urban and rural), the east coast, peeks into Europe, and goes even as far as the West Indies. At each stage the science narrative continues amidst the cultural diversity of early 1900s America before immigrant bloodlines became more muddled and foreign tongues faded into regional accents. Every so often we would encounter  an odd and out of place personality who clearly was meant to represent an entire minority population who otherwise would have had no place in his world. These tiny little extra characters were true bright points in the book. For Dr. Arrowsmith, they provided squeaky clean windows to help him see his bias and ignorance about the world around him. There are also bright moments of interesting human interaction between the jerk and his unbalanced family, friends, and colleagues. When you are following a man's life from adolescence to beyond middle age, there are endless opportunities to examine his personal relationships as they change over time.

Okay, so yeah. I can admit in hindsight that I did enjoy this book. I may not have enjoyed reading it but I did enjoy reflecting back over it just now. It is kinda like reading a novel wrapped around a much bigger issue (similar to how Water for Elephants was a heavy handed lesson about animal cruelty and lower class working conditions hidden in a novel about a circus veterinarian). Perhaps had I known what it was about beforehand (and it had been about 25% shorter), I wouldn't have gotten so angry and frustrated while reading and could have enjoyed the ride.


Maria said...

I'm glad you aren't giving up on me. Remind me again how I talked you into this...?

Louise Treadwell said...

I have no clue. I agree to a lot of things while pregnant that make absolutely no sense. That's how I ended up island hopping on a speedboat through rural Colombia while 5 months pregnant... At least this blog doesn't have kidnap potential (yet).