This year four illustrious writers – Susan Faludi, Russ Rymer, Jaed Coffin, and Sarah Braunstein – have joined Professor of English Brock Clarke to teach courses in fiction and creative nonfiction at Bowdoin. Below is an excerpt from Rymer’s novel Paris Twilight.
Patients after an operation notice the constrained, private look on their surgeon’s face and assume he’s being stoic about all the gore he’s been made to witness, and they feel chagrined about putting him through such horror. What the surgeon can’t confess is that he’s witnessed them at their most magnificent, seen a side of them so brilliant and extraordinary, so exceptional to their dreary daily exterior that to admit the preference in its full blunt force would trouble people, would seem to revel in a ghoulish perversion of blood-love. For blood-love it is, an awe for the whole wet, mad, divine, ingenious jalopy, and even its genius afflictions, because the tumor and the lesion also attest to miracle, are full of the mystery of striving.
And the colors! To delve beneath the skin is to part the lapping flannel of the grim Atlantic and dive into a South Sea paradise, its coral reefs and tropical grottoes inhabited by every outrageous iridescence. Organs are as day-shy as deep-sea creatures; they oxidize to dun in the open air. The heart that appears a rump-roast russet when hauled out of the chest is a carny of neon inside of it. Its atria are aubergine and violet, and the red-veined fat swaddling its ventricles a synthetic, delicate, cautionary orange, the whole of it moody and mercurial, spangled as a butterfly and glistening like a poisonous frog.
Back when I did my anesthesiology residency, they encouraged us to slip around the ether screen and get some feel for the other guy’s job, and one day the surgery was a transplant—it was a fairly new procedure then—and the surgeons asked if I’d like to help out.
I scrubbed in with a fresh set of gloves and when the suturing was done I reached in through the chest spreader and cupped the scared little organ in my hands, clenched up hard like a kitten, and when toward the end it started to beat in my palm, I can’t begin to tell you how that felt. It’s mortality’s orgasm! There’s no sensation even remotely close.
I bet you didn’t know this, Daniel, that the heart doesn’t beat on command.
We drop a new one into someone’s empty chest and its nerves aren’t even hooked up to anything, and it will lie there dormant for a while, and then it will start to beat. As soon as the clamps are released and the first corpuscles spill from the sutured vein, it senses them, as though the heart can taste what the heart has swallowed, and of its own will, or the last life-will of the person whose heart it used to be, it picks up its duty right where its duty left off and goes to work pulsing this stranger’s blood through this stranger’s body. It’s voluntary, so to speak: autonomous. There’s no cable of communication between the body and the organ beyond the message in this offering of blood. I can’t think of it without wonder, the sensation in my hands of the first faint spasm of acknowledgment and acceptance, and then collaboration—this willingness, this ultimate generosity.
From Paris Twilight by Russ Rymer, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.