Doctor Bloom's Story

by Don Coles
ISBN: 0676976026

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A Review of: Doctor BloomĘs Story
by Michael Greenstein

Dublin, June 16, 1904-James Joyce's "Bloomsday." Exactly one hundred years later Don Coles's Nicolaas Bloom comes into being: a cardiologist by day and writer after hours, Dr. Bloom looks out from his attic windows in Amsterdam, Cambridge, and Toronto into hearts of darkness and the lightness of being. Surveying with and through Bloom are a host of other writers: Joyce, Henry James, George Steiner, Iris Murdoch, Chekhov, Heinrich Bll, Pushkin, Isaiah Berlin, Simone Weil, Dante, Camus, Rilke, Mandelstam, Strindberg, and others who internationalize the creative writing class Bloom attends in this novel. Despite these highbrow accomplices, Don Coles succeeds in writing a page-turner, albeit a paced page-turner replete with nuances.
Tone, irony, mystery, and shifting psychological perspectives keep Doctor Bloom's Story intriguing at all times-it is both readerly and writerly (as indicated in the cover design's pen and ink spots). Larry Logan runs a writing workshop at Ryerson University in Toronto where many of his students come from immigrant backgrounds. By coincidence, Larry is Bloom's neighbour, and Bloom, as interested in writing as he is in medicine, joins Larry's class where a kind of mnage cinq ensues (Bloom gets involved with Larry's ex-wife, Marianne, and classmate Sophie's husband, Maggione). The eponymous protagonist is the centre of consciousness whose interior monologues keep modernists Joyce, Woolf, and James in mind. Like Joyce, Bloom has a way of playing with his name-O'Bloomov, Blomski, O'Blomski, Bloomovitch-to lighten his identity as postmodern Everyman with Russian-Irish overtones. Similarly, the names of other characters in the novel are loaded with allusions. Events take place and pace just in the "Nik" of time.
In Bloom's medicine chest we find Chekhov- "the dazzling seven-letter name again." As Bloom walks toward Mount Pleasant Avenue, he thinks about a specific image in Chekhov's story-a little herd of antelopes in the dying character's mind. The antelopes run through a clearing that the character had read about the day before. Meanwhile, commentary on Chekhov gives the reader a sense of the receding past as Bloom lopes or marches forward, and foregrounds Chekhov's minimalism of not elaborating on the antelopes: "Chekhov just gives you the one glimpse and then, with his terrific sense of timing, gets out of the way."
Coles emulates Chekhov's sense of timing. Witness Bloom jogging (Joyce beside him, but also Bellow with his combination of sure-footed athletics and lofty thoughts). During the jogger's "thumpety-thump," Bloom's eye catches Blake's God Nobodaddy as well as orange leaves on the ground: "Thumpety-thump, heavyfooted Bloom running pensively along a quilted orangey path." The sentence's rhythm leads to Spinoza's philosophy and "soaring infinite things." The four-page jog covering "vastnesses" of thoughts culminates in a different kind of thump: in a negative epiphany, as Bloom sees a man beating a woman and taking off with her in a red car. Eventually he recognizes the couple as his classmate Sophie Fhr and her abusive husband, Rollo Maggione, who suffers from a cardiac condition that leads him to seek medical advice from Dr. Bloom. Ultimately, Bloom intercedes in this intricate moral dilemma through medical manipulation to save Sophie from her husband's violence.
In contrast to Maggione's heavy-handedness, we see Bloom's gentle touch. His mind flashes back to his years spent at Cambridge where he ran amidst almond-tree blossoms on Barrow Road. He is lucky in his neighbours, in this case George Steiner and his wife, both short in contrast to lanky Bloom. "Since I am, in the Dutch fashion, ridiculously tall, communication between us might have been awkward, but this was never really put to the test." George Steiner's cameo appearance is comic, but even though no words are exchanged we know that his thoughts transcend the almond trees. Bloom covers the path to Cambridge's Botanical Gardens: "In certain moods I used to think I could wander about very slowly in those gardens for the rest of my life without coming to the end of the many moss-covered fragments of seventeenth-century paved pathway that I, bending or kneeling to do this, liked drawing my hand over or pressing my hand against. I'd try to decide, while doing this, whether this was a fragment my hand could remember having been in touch with before or whether it was, in some significant private sense, untouched." Bloom's spot of time occupies Bishop Berkeley's, Isaac Newton's, and Wordsworth's footsteps, as well as Herzog's tactile imagination. His brief passing shadow is aligned with so many other fragments in the chiaroscuro of Amsterdam's canals, Cambridge's gardens, and Toronto's ravines.
Like Leopold Bloom, Nicolaas unravels his associative mind: "Funny how an image will work towards its own clarification in your mind just by hanging around." A sight downtown reminds him of the picture of Maggione sitting on Bloom's porch, seeking medical advice. "Sitzriese" or "seated giant" comes to his mind. "The advantage of a language that crams images together like that." For the reader, the word "Sitzriese" has two advantages: on the one hand, it points to the use of foreign languages translated throughout the novel, which in turn point to the foreignness of a multicultural city; on the other hand, the almost oxymoron-like term highlights the distinctions drawn between brutality and domesticity in Doctor Bloom's Story. Bloom and his story are also "sitzriese"-combining expansiveness and poetic conciseness. "Story, I thought. There was always this thin line. The one between fiction and undisguised self-revelation." Bloom runs the fine line of fiction where form itself forms a kind of sub-plot.
Coles's narrator-protagonist has an unusual way of addressing the reader. Echoing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English novels, he takes the traditional form of address one step further to awaken the reader's very existence: "Reader, if you are there." This kind of Brechtian alienation paces the narrative: "I'm stopping this scene right here. For three reasons. One, why should you have to endure any more of this, supposing it matters to you? And two, if it doesn't matter to you, just screw off." In his self-conscious narration Bloom reveals and conceals, unraveling the knots of plot at the precise moment, and behind him poet Coles safeguards language itself: "This is because a word like this, if it's kept quiet and unused, if you don't crease it up with imprecisions or embellishments, such a word might be a nice thing to have around later on." And later on Sophie repeats Logan's poetics: "A word may not wish to be mixed in with another word. It may require to be alone. It may require its aloneness, in order that it may be-may be purely seen." Substitute "character" for "word" and you may get a better sense of Doctor Bloom's Story.
Threads converge: in the 1920s Sophie Fhr's grandparents were friends with James and Nora Joyce in Zurich. Sophie's name underscores the polarity between wisdom or thinking and driving or action-the running-thinking theme in the novel. Sophie's submission to her husband's beatings is linked to her masochistic immersion in the works of St. Theresa and Simone Weil. At the end of the novel Bloom buys a copy of Cees Nooteboom's Dutch novella The Following Story, which ends in cyclical fashion la Finnegans Wake. Coles's novel ends in similar fashion with Bloom switching professions from medicine to writing. "I'm testing another one." Coles's Everyman without qualities passes the test with flying colours.

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