Despite portioning most of my reading into bite-sized chunks of a book before bed (with bigger bites the more appetizing the book), I have never been drawn to short story collections, preferring to sink my teeth into plots of novel-sized proportions.
Vincent Lam’s short story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is the exception that makes me want to reconsider the rule. His interconnected stories following a group of medical students as they become doctors are both finely realized, self-contained morsels and part of a larger, satisfying whole.
It’s not hard to see why this 2006 Giller Prize winner was recently snapped up for development into a TV series, a medium that thrives on distinctive characters, settings containing a bottomless well of dramatic moments, and the potential for individual stories to coalesce into a bigger picture.
Lam demonstrates a polished, profound touch unexpected in a first book (though he’s previously written articles about real-life medical issues such as SARS and ER overcrowding for national newspapers, and subsequently co-wrote the non-fiction book The Flu Pandemic and You). He also demonstrates an insight and precision not unexpected in someone intimately familiar with the science and art of medicine. If his writing career fades after its spectacular debut, he still has his not-too-shabby job as an emergency room physician to fall back on.
The stories revolve around the personalities of Ming, Fitzgerald, Sri, and Chen, their careers, passions, and obsessions – which are not necessarily three distinct things. Their romantic entanglements and professional dilemmas are presented with an almost clinical detachment that paradoxically doesn’t take away from the emotions brewing under the surface. If there’s such a thing as scientifically poetic, Lam’s style fits that description.
These are characters struggling with the dispassion expected, even necessary, in the medical profession and the messiness of human emotion. We can chart their progress from the driving passion to get into medical school, seen in “How to Get Into Medical School, Parts I and II,” a passion that either mutates into a passion for medicine itself, or mutates into something a little less noble, as in “Night Flight.” In the earlier stories, we can see the traces of the doctors these medical students are to become in later ones.
The book delves into questions of medical ethics and human ethics, and gives an accessible insider’s view into the strained Canadian medical system, touching on the Toronto SARS crisis in “Contact Tracing,” a crisis Lam saw first-hand in the emergency room. But primarily, it is a highly entertaining tale – or rather, they are highly entertaining tales – of life and death and the meaningfully mundane moments in between.
The story behind the stories is nearly as compelling as the collection itself. The tale is that he met Margaret Atwood on a cruise ship where he was working, and convinced her to read his manuscript. She admired it enough to act as a mentor to the younger writer and introduce him to his publisher.
Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam is available from Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House Canada.