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Doctors seek love in medical collection

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The stories in this debut collection by an Ontario-based family doctor, poet and critic, are for the most part powerful and incisive.

Mainly set in the Maritimes, they remind one the doctor-author has a long history in literature, including Canadian Giller Prize-winner Vincent Lam and former Manitoban Kevin Patterson. And if Chekhov, their distinguished forerunner, is invoked in comparison, it isn't out of place.

The collection offers, in its longest and best section, stories of doctors, some patients and survivors of the dying.

Shane Neilson is no romantic about the profession, though he clearly seeks mercy in the world and understands we live in a world where it remains a mystery. Compassion may be present, but it isn't enough. Often there is only despair.

The brilliant, alcoholic surgeon; the harried young ER doctor who keeps losing patients; the father holding on to his epileptic son after a near death seizure: all struggle through, but never fully understand, the inexplicable in the cycle of life and death.

Many of the 18 stories are about a search for love, or its rejection, but what can that mean? The key story, Man in the Mirror, is a monologue by an anesthetist addicted to a powerful anesthetic.

He notes the cliché of following one's heart and doing what one loves is exactly what he fled from when he became an anesthetist.

He draws people, and himself, away from feeling; a patient's greatest compliment is that "I felt nothing." His name, as far as we can tell, but we are never sure, is Koller, the same as the founder of modern anesthetics.

He rambles on about pop culture, arriving at an analysis of the singer Michael Jackson, who saw only pain in the mirror, and, understandably, wanted to feel nothing.

Neilson makes this addicted doctor repellent, creepy and sad.

Another grouping of family stories set in the Maritimes has the same resonance. They seem like memory tales from the young who witness, and sometimes suffer, the overflowing violence stemming from the bitterness of adults, as with the father in the title story, Will.

The young are observers and never actors, though they suffer the consequences of the adults' frustration. These stories strike an odd balance with the doctors' tales. In those, feeling is eschewed and compassion fitfully achieved.

Yet look what happens when everyone expresses every emotion, from the seething jealousy of a family quarrel over a dead mother's possessions, to the meaningless confrontation over a small plot of land. Best keep clear of feeling, or try to find a small mercy in it, the tales say.

There is another grouping in the collection that could be called post-modern fantastical stories.

JD Accidental is like entering the mind of a sinister fantasy video-game and implies a bleak future.

Meant has a creative-writing instructor faced with various fictions (realist, romantic, etc.) manifested in some sort of consciousness. Live as you read is the point, and its philosophy is as good as any in Neilson's world.

In the longest, and most complex story of this group, The Great Newfoundland Novel, Neilson imagines Vladimir Nabokov comes to Newfoundland as writer-in-residence and meets the province's first premier, Joey Smallwood, who is on the verge of closing the small outports. Nabokov recognizes a Cossack when he sees one.

Neilson's style is dazzling, but on the whole the conceits in this group become, in retrospect, a bit tiresome.

Still, a writer of his artistry is permitted anything, even post-modern craziness, as long as he produces stories as compelling as these in the future.

Rory Runnells is artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 A1

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