Forward to my upcoming book
A novel by
Frank J. Edwards
By Jonathan Lathan de M’Pasquale
Baldashian Professor of Anthropology and Social Rhetoric
Simpson University, 2011.
(Author of Early Morning Musings on a Fitful Globe at Dusk, A Memoir)
When first approached by the author of this novel to generate a forward apropos to one of its themes, my initial disinclination vanished after reading the manuscript, which was more pleasurable than I had expected, though my purpose is not to judge its literary merit. It is a story that falls essentially within the bounds of a novelistic form known as the medical thriller, though the terms medical suspense and medical mystery are equivalent descriptors of the same subgenre.
It is interesting to note that medical thrillers are written exclusively these days by members of that profession, and conversely, when a physician takes up the pen to write a novel, the end result is almost always a tale of this ilk. The reason for this phenomenon is uncertain, but may relate to the early channeling of imagination or a lack thereof. These novels have several common denominators. The hero is an attractive physician, male or female, who is faced with a hidden conspiracy of some sort involving health care (often specifically related to the procurement of certain body parts, or their disposal) and in the process of miraculously salvaging things at the brink of disaster the hero will enjoy an intimate relationship with a member of the opposite sex. They are usually written in such a fashion that the reader is dragged almost against their will from one page to the next by the author’s withholding of crucial facts in a more or less artful manner. The most successful practitioners of the medical thriller are frequently found on the bestseller lists, and a few have been able to retire from clinical work at an early age—the brass ring, so to speak.
As I noted, however, my job is not to pass judgment on the literary merits of this particular specimen. The tale is workmanlike in its creation of the necessary fuel to keep the reader turning pages, so the author has done his job well in that regard. Some readers will doubtless loose sleep trying to chase after those artfully withheld crucial details. Of interest, it is actually a sequel. The characters of Jack Forester, MD and his paramour (now wife) Zellie Anderson first came to life in a novel called Final Mercy, which curiosity impelled me one night to download into my reading device. Despite the implausibility of a raging psychotic becoming the dean of a medical center—or perhaps because of the skill with which the writer pulls this one over on the reader—it’s not an un-engaging read. The same can be said of this book, which takes the not so young anymore Dr. Forester on another “wild romp.”
Forgive me if I ramble. My goal, as I understand it (though I still remain puzzled as to why the author reached out to me in the first place) is to give the reader an elevated springboard from which to take the plunge into this tale. Rather eccentric for a work of genre fiction, I agree. I suggested that if he wanted to sell more books he’d be bloody well better off spending the money on a promotional campaign instead of commissioning a superfluous forward in some vain attempt to elevate the tone or whatever.
We had met at a coffee shop in Simpson and he actually bristled when I said this, by which I mean he sat up in his chair, frowned and flushed. He had taken umbrage over my suggestion that his motives were mercenary in wanting to tap my erudition or what little prestige attaches itself to my name. That’s an admirable character trait, vis-à-vis Don Quixote, one of the greatest characters ever created, the true prototype of the questing man, so I agreed. If he wants to tilt at windmills on a higher literary plane, who am I to deny him the illusion?
At any rate, since my retirement from teaching, I find myself with a fair amount of free time and a lingering desire to communicate the insights I accumulated over decades of reflection (the rationale of many boors, I realize) and this seemed a reasonable venue, my memoirs now being out in the world and behind me.
As a preliminary disclaimer, I would add that I have no financial stake in the success of this novel. I received a fixed fee (since devoted to a backyard swing apparatus for my grandchildren in Spokane), and neither do I have professional or family bonds with the author. He was a student of mine but I have no specific recall of his name or face (more a testimony to the size of freshman survey courses than to his lack of memorability I suspect).
So, in essence, dear reader, I will say at the onset that I do not care if anyone reads this forward. I shall attempt to render it palatable and relevant, but my own academic and literary reputation, as secure as it is small, would benefit no further by any amount of buffing. In the unlikely event this book is successful, I might bask lunar-wise for a brief while in its glory. But this novel is almost certain to find but an extremely tiny circle of readers among those bound to the author by blood or friendship (the fate of so much genre fiction metastasizing wildly these days thanks to an indiscriminate Internet panderer of electronic books who’s name conjures up the feminine warrior ethos), meaning that my participation will remain obscure.
One might ask why then did I bother? Why write something no one will likely read? That, however, is like asking why do I open my eyes in the morning knowing I am not immortal? Or why do I take a breath knowing it might be my last? Camus, of course, had it right when he noted that suicide is the only philosophical question. Why do we bother doing anything knowing that everything is ultimately pointless? Why am I sitting here at this little table in a coffee shop in Houston, for example (where I’m attending an anthropology conference) wondering why at the age of seventy-four I still fantasize that the lovely young woman who just sat down at the next table might suddenly fall into my arms? Ridiculous, I’ll be the first to concur. I could be in the auditorium right now listening to a former colleague talk about his work at Gobekli Tepe. I could be texting my grandchildren or paying a visit to my wife’s grave back in Simpson. Yes, that’s correct. My wife’s grave. Does that cast me in a morbid light? Fact is that Marleen and I were together forty-two years. We had our ups and downs, but they were good years and they glow intensely in retrospect, a gift she continues to bestow.
She was a beauty in her youth, a runner-up Miss North Dakota, but it was her quirky wit and sense of humor that stole my heart, her astonishingly sunny disposition (she never read Camus, thank God) and her ability to forgive. She may have been a little obsessed with her orchids and she did tend to treat the cats with far more respect than they deserved—almost with veneration after the boys left home—but she tolerated my bouts of peevishness and my insistent attempts to draw humor out of digressions, among many other irritating traits I had. All in all, she coaxed me out of my shell, and since she died I have been gradually retreating.
The boys settled out west, you see. They’ve been at me to relocate but I love our old house in Simpson and I love the New England landscape and I intensely enjoy the winters. It’s just gray and wet out there and the thought of a life in Florida nauseates me. Give me a blizzard and a few cords of seasoned oak and maple and I’m happy as a clam. I traipse everyday with the dog, rain, sun or snow, often enjoying a cigar. I play chess with my ten-year-old granddaughter Eleanor via Skype several times a week and it takes me two months to go through a bottle of good scotch.
That young woman sitting next to me truly is a stunning creature. She’s been writing something on a battered looking HP laptop and drinking what appears to be a latte. Marleen was not unlike that, would smile to herself when she was focusing on something. And oh, how the fall of dark brown hair mirrors the curve of her lovely calf.
So, getting a grip, the reason I write this is because I like to doodle with words as much as I like to breathe. And I don’t have to worry about a single damn footnote—oh freedom—for this book will not be mistaken for scholarship. I could even cram this forward full of bald-face lies with no one the wiser, not that I would, mind you—but the fact (or illusion) of having a choice is delicious. Hence, the lure of democracy. But that’s a digression for another day.
And now that I am sufficiently warmed up, let me approach the subject at hand. I give you fair warning that the following essay is being pieced together off the top of my head using bits of various lectures I gave over the years to thousands of undergraduates at Simpson. The difference is that I never strung these ideas together in one sitting. This I shall now do, though you must excuse me while I go ask the barista for a coffee refill.
All right then. Here we go. Why not just imagine yourself in my lecture hall at Simpson. It’s five after eight in the morning. I enter and go to the podium. I pretend to study notes while waiting for the stragglers to settle. I clear my throat, then offer a hearty good morning.
Studying the population of humans on earth, Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834) observed an occurrence of regular cycles of growth and decline and concluded that during times of plenty we reproduce like rabbits until we outstrip the food supply, whereupon we die off precipitously due to famine, pestilence and territorial conflict. We still honor Malthus for his theory, but ever since he came up with it two centuries ago, his cycles seems to have gone by the wayside. (Some wiseacre student might raise his hand and mention with false solemnity that a watched pot never boils. There’s always one kid overly eager to impress the females). Thanks to advances in agriculture and medicine, the population has been steadily growing since the industrial revolution—yes, even in spite of the countless millions who perished during the twentieth century’s conflicts and upheavals—we’re on an ever upward trajectory.
I imagine there would now be a some freshmen in the back row beginning to nod off, under-groomed young men and women who’d been up all night doing what freshman will do. At at this point I would flip the toggle switch below my podium and a steel drum version of La Marsailles blares over the speakers. Just for about ten seconds. Worked like a charm. Alpha male.
Back to it:
In any case, by 2011 we had reached the seven billion mark and are now upticking our numbers at an average daily rate of 367,000. That’s a goodly-sized city a day, my friends. Every day! Since you began reading this, in fact, dear hypothetical reader, approximately 325 human beings exited the womb, most of who will survive into their eighties and beyond.
(“Hmmm, what is he leading up to?”)
But the planet’s resources are finite, obviously, and growth cannot go on forever. (“Ah hah!”) What exactly will the future hold for mankind in this regard? Might some cataclysmic planet-wide war or epidemic erupt and obliterate us in vast number? Or could another massive asteroid blast into the earth as triggered the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction that ushered out the dinosaurs? Or, far more likely, will it be something related to global warming?
Everyone would be awake now. I’d have drawn the sentences out . . . posing each question in such away that many students would fear I was about to call one of them to answer. (The Republicans would feel like I was baiting them over climate change). I would hesitate at least thirty seconds before proceeding, skewering many of them with eye to eye contact. A hand might even rise to answer one of these rhetorical questions. I miss the classroom. But, onwards.
The only thing we can say for certain is that our descendants had better achieve a steady state of population before we pass the theoretical upper limit of about forty-five billion. If we exceed this, mis amigos, we’re going to be in for some serious trouble—for no amount of technological magic will provide us with adequate water and food. One hates to even image what such a world would be like.
Okay then, let us say we manage to level off at around 40 billion by the year 2250—what will that world look like from a demographic standpoint? It’s only logical to assume that the birth rate will be very low because the average life expectancy will be very long, which raises . . . an altogether different . . . but plausible . . . doomsday scenario. Does it not?
There will be an awful lot of old people. A huge, unimaginably vast number of elders. There will be far, far, far more old people alive then than when the baby boomer generation all retires over the next couple of decades. And are we not worried about that? Billions and billions and billions more old people. Therefore . . . ponder the thought, if you will . . . that it might be the simple cost of health care that finally brings mankind down to just another layer in the fossil record.
Will our world end with neither a bang nor a whimper but with the emptying of bedpans and the dripping of IVs?
I must confess that this image of the end of the world being bedpans and IVs just came to me. I know quite a lot about about these things, you see, because Maureen had home hospice care for the last two months, nor would we have had it any other way. My sons and I were holding her hands when she drew the last breath.
Enough said. This is a striking image though, the end of the world being bedpans and IVs and I shall save it for use elsewhere. But we must push towards the point, which I have intentionally kept obscure.
Continuing: Such a squalid, hopeless vision of our future isn’t so far-fetched when you stop to consider that medical expenses currently threaten to overwhelm the budgets and productive capacities of many developed nations and is inflating faster than any other single economic index. Every year we add expensive new tests and treatments to the “arsenal” designed to keep alive (or in some semblance thereof) more and more people who would have previously moved aside to make room for the next generation.
Visit a college career counselor today and you will be informed that a job in heath care offers the only bulletproof career in the modern world. As it stands now, we train more nurses, doctors, and various other health care providers than we do engineers, teachers, scientists and computer programmers—all combined. Vast hospital complexes are now the major employers in cities where once people once invented and made things.
Looking way way into the future, a reasonable person might wonder who will remain to build the engines of growth and prosperity? What resources will be left to free us from this coil of mortal flesh and lift us off a dying planet so that we might explore and spread life through the universe, if that’s what we were destined to do?
And as an aside, I would mention that even if we do “spread life” throughout the universe, the universe itself must end someday. Now there’s a plug of tobacco to chew, as my grandfather liked to say. Camus would certainly agree. But does this fact dampen our enthusiasm for life? Heck no. It only brings us down if we’re clinically depressed. My lord, what hopeful creatures we are when the neurotransmitters are in balance.
But, back on point. As Freud wrote, “biology is destiny.” Genetic predisposition accounts for the lion’s share of our most economically burdensome diseases, from coronary artery disease to dementia. None of us would slap down good money on a sophisticated machine we knew was pre-engineered to suffer critical meltdowns. We would demand that the design flaws be fixed before making the bloody machine in the first place. No offense to God, but the human blueprint is riddled with such mistakes; and worse, we automatically sow the future with these land mines, passing them down to the next generation and in so doing cause them to multiply exponentially.
At last we’re coming to the heart of this discussion, and I guarantee you that if this were a classroom instead of the written word (I was about to write anachronistically a “sheet of paper”) the students would be opened-eyed to a person.
The idea of improving the human genome though selective breeding—biological quality control engineering, if you will—was given the term “eugenics” in the nineteenth century. (And I would pause here, looking around). Less a science than a utopian social movement, it was once quite the rage. In the decades before World War I, there were major international eugenics conventions in London and New York. Alexander Graham Bell, Leonard Darwin (one of Charles’ sons) and a young Winston Churchill were among many famous advocates.
Unfortunately, so was Adolf Hitler, who proposed a rabidly racial brand of eugenics in Mein Kempf, and once he came to power he wasted no time. He began sterilizing mixed-race children, systematically murdering “defectives,” and ultimately tried to liquidate or enslave entire races.
With its monstrous underbelly on full display during World War II, human eugenics was soon swept into the dustbin of history. Today we hear of it mainly in the context of such things as lawsuits still being brought in North Carolina over a long ago program to sterilize certain young people deemed unfit to reproduce. And in case you hadn’t heard, the American Eugenics Society changed its name to the Society for the Study of Social Biology and at last report was living in an academic cubbyhole on the West Coast, ungraced by even a separate page on Wikipedia.
Now we shall prepare to set the hook:
To avoid a future of massive, choking infirmitude, might we someday need to consider resurrecting “Social Biology” so that our descendants could live long, productive and low-maintainence lives and that our resources could be devoted to progress instead of bedpans and IVs?
However, given the ethical issues generated by eugenics, could it ever set sail again?
Pause again, look around, clasp my hands behind my back, stroll from one end of the platform to the other.
Possibly. Perhaps. But to avoid the icebergs, it might need to go submarine, aiming to pick barnacles off our collective DNA in the depths, operating in the dead of night while the rest of us loll in the dream ocean . . . where currents from time to time sweep us into whirlpools and lurking beasts await our throat.
Silence now and a dimming of the lights. Adieu. The rest is up to you. I invite you to dive into the story world now. I have done my duty. Which I suppose is why we continue to rise from bed in the morning and persist in the habit of breathing. It’s what we humans do. Our duty as we see it.
Here in the coffee shop the young woman is closing her laptop, putting it away, rising. She smiled at me a few moments ago, an expression of comradeship directed at a pensive old gentleman whose longings for love she might realize have yet to wink out.
But wink out I shall from this book and will not darken its doorstep again for fee for fiefdom.
Jonathan Lathan de M’Pasquale
September 14, 2011
Houston, Texas (a big lonely place)
Forward – An addendum
After reading a draft of my forward above, the author texted me and made what seemed like an exceedingly odd request. Would I mind if he wrote me into the story? Wrote me into the story? I thought I knew a touch about the mechanics of creating fiction. “Haven’t you already written the damn thing?” I replied.
He assured me that the process was very fluid, that he and his editor were taking the manuscript though final revisions. It would be a reasonably simple matter. It was actually his editor’s idea.
I told him I’d think about it. Later that week we were sitting in my study on a chilly autumn day, sipping scotch. He had driven all the way from upstate New York again. I was impressed.
“So, what kind of a character would you make of me?” I said. “Are you in need of more villains or what? I’m not sure I’d fancy wearing black and poisoning people.”
He gave me assurances I would remain true to life. I wouldn’t be given cannibalistic tendencies or other lurking evil attributes. Nor would I be graced with super powers of any sort. I wouldn’t be able to fly or see through walls. We had a good laugh then took the dogs out for a walk and had a nice supper at The Flying Duck.
So, be forewarned. I assume no liability.
Jonathan Lathan de M’Pasquale
November 13, 2011
Cito necatus insignis ad deformitatem puer esto
(If a child is born with a deformity
He shall be killed)
From Table IV of the Roman Law of the Twelve Tables, 449 B.C.