The Pharmacists Mate
By Amy Fusselman
McSweeneys; 86 pp.; $16
By now youre familiar with Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and his humorous and wildly experimental literary journal, McSweeneys. On its sibling Web site at www.mcsweeneys.net, you can get your daily fix of content similar in spirit to that found in the journal. If youve visited the site, you know its maintained by and for purists, those who love the simple and beautiful sight of black ink on white paper. No banners here, no color. Just words. Gorgeous.
McSweeneys also publishes books, nice little hardbacks. Amy Fusselmans The Pharmacists Mate is the fourth book to receive the honor. Fusselman responded to and won a McSweeneys Web contest in which the entrant who submitted the best idea for a book on marine electrical engineering (a typically arcane Eggers idea) would enjoy an authorcentric publishing deal with McSweeneys. Fusselmans book doesnt really have anything to do with electrical engineering, but there is a boat in there.
The Pharmacists Mate is a nonfiction journal of sorts documenting a period of confusion and sorrow and wonder in Fusselmans life: While undergoing the emotionally excruciating ordeal of employing the best obstetric sciences in order to get pregnant (a virtual impossibility for her -- shes healthy and married but evidently her mind is unconsciously rejecting her bodys every attempt at fertility), her beloved father, the one-time pharmacists mate of the title, takes ill due to his emphysema and unexpectedly dies. He spends his last few weeks coming in and out of the altered state of the dying; the spirit world seems to beckon to him while his daughter and wife do their best to hold on to what precious little time they may have left with him.
Interspersed with Fusselmans journal entries are those her father wrote when he was the young pharmacists mate on a merchant marine vessel during World War II. Often, his sometimes haiku-like entries parallel Fusselmans beautifully. She has obviously studied his wartime journal well in her desperation to somehow bring her father back, to savor him. It appears that when something from his journal alludes to or presages one of Fusselmans very human dilemmas, however obliquely, she places it within her supple, loving narrative.
For a short journal, this book is quite a rumination on death, love, music, and life. One thing that particularly struck me is the way in which the author sees everything anew. She is fascinated by things she has taken for granted all her life, such as the invisibility of music, the miracle of hearing, and the silly theatrical appearance of, say, an AC/DC concert to a deaf person.
It seems that her fathers sudden death and the awful regimen of trying to get pregnant in a doctors office are what triggered this enhanced sensibility. Her heightened awareness begins to manifest itself soon after her fathers death. In one insightful passage, Fusselman tells us, I have
never had anyone so close to me die. I am trying to pay attention to what it feels like.
After I finished this book, I felt as if I were reeling. The deadpan manner in which Fusselman describes her attempts at pregnancy gently forces you to empathize with her plight, and the plight of all childless women yearning to be mothers, as her desire for kids and her anxious fear of kids collide like an unstoppable force and an immovable object. The passive voice employed, the lack of acerbic irony when faced with overwhelming psychological duress, renders Fusselman saint-like.
The Pharmacists Mate is touching, somehow reminiscent of Vonneguts best (especially in the closing paragraph), and a morsel of shattering prose. Out with formulaic writing, in with the heart letting it all hang out. I want more.