Saturday, March 22, 2014

Writing Doctors - 2: Martin Winckler, and The Doctor As a Character.

I have read or seen several pieces of fiction that portray doctors. As a general rule (with exceptions, I grant you), they tend to fall into four broad categories:

1. The superhero (or the saint) (e.g. ER's Dr. Greene, or Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules). Here the doctor tends to be a profound workaholic devoted to his patients, often to the point of neglecting the rest of his life. These are close cousins to the workaholic police detectives who sacrifice everything for their case, the prototype of which is probably Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. They make for fun characters to root for, but tend to be pretty one-dimensional.

2. The (sort of evil) representative of “the man” (e.g. Any goddamn psychiatrist in almost any goddamn movie or book, who always judges the main character in the wrong way). These are usually just a technique used to allow another character to oppose the establishment, and rarely are full characters in their own right.

3. The mad scientist (e.g. Dr. Frankenstein). Need I say more?

4. The messenger (e.g. Too many to list). These are usually just there to tell the main characters some information that is needed for the progression of the story. “Your wife is dead.” “You have two months to live.” “Your brain has been been invaded by an alien parasitic fungus that makes you capable of jumping over buildings but will kill you in nineteen days unless you travel to Titan and then inject this (usually glowing blue) liquid inside your heart with a needle the size of excalibur; this I know after doing a routine blood test and a friggin' chest x-ray that's hanging upside-down on the negatoscope.” They are basically just mouthpieces for the plot, and even less of a character than number 2.

There are probably other variants. But my point is that it is rare to see a doctor as a multi-dimensional, flawed, human, complex and interesting character, but who still is a doctor (as opposed to just bearing the title).

That's where Martin Winckler comes in. He is a French M.D. born in 1955, and also an accomplished writer. I won't go into his detailed biography, you can use google as well as I can. What I want to tell you about him is that he wrote the best, most honest, most beautiful book about a doctor that I've ever read.

It's called La Maladie de Sachs (The Case of Dr. Sachs, in English translation). It tells the story of Dr. Bruno Sachs, a country doctor who also writes, and who is setting up his new practice. It's written in second person, from the point of view of each patient that comes to see Dr. Sachs. Now, usually works in the second person are mostly pretentious and annoying, but in this case it suits the book perfectly. It captures in a very astute manner the way in which each encounter with a patient contributes to shape you, as a doctor and as a human being. It also serves to create mystery, as a little of each patient's story is revealed at each encounter, as well as a little of Dr. Sachs' story. It's a very good book and if you want to read something very real about being a doctor, you could do worse than pick up a copy of it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go interpret a foot x-ray and forestall an alien invasion.


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