Music, Hypnosis and Love Wrapped in Magisterial Prose

Perlman’s Ordeal , by Brooks Hansen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 329 pages, $24.

What do we mean when we say that a book is “hypnotic”? What exactly is a “mesmerizing” novel? Not one that puts us to sleep. Nor does a prose-induced trance necessarily suppress our critical faculties, as true hypnosis can. What the cliché does mean is that a deft author has destroyed our sense of control. A mesmerist like Melville or Nabokov wraps us up in words and dares us to break free.

In his new novel, Perlman’s Ordeal , Brooks Hansen exploits the metaphor to the fullest: He casts a doctor of suggestion as his protagonist; he also hypnotizes the reader with magisterial prose. Mr. Hansen’s hero is August Perlman, a Jewish doctor from Vienna who emigrated to London in 1899. Dr. Perlman operates a clinic where his methods of hypnotism or suggestion–defined as “the act by which an idea is introduced into the brain and accepted by it”–have earned him a strong reputation and enough income to indulge frequently in his greatest pleasure: hearing Grieg, Sibelius or Mahler at the symphony.

One Monday evening in 1906, a stern man brings his 13-year-old girl to the doctor’s clinic. Sylvie Blum is completely dehydrated from hydrophobia; her father demands that Perlman “hypnotize her and tell her to drink again.” But when the doctor begins his treatment, “Nina,” a second personality, emerges from the schizophrenic girl. Through Perlman’s hypnosis treatment, the girl begins to drink and eat again, but the Sylvie who was admitted as his patient seems irrevocably lost to the dominant Nina.

Meanwhile, at the symphony one evening, Perlman meets Madame Helena Barrett, a glamorous Russian emigrée and spiritualist whose brother Alexander, now dead, was a composer who Perlman believes wrote “the most spontaneous and downright defiant melodic lines of any composer of his generation.” The doctor and Madame begin a flirtatious friendship.

Perlman’s Ordeal traces the weeklong trajectory of Perlman’s loss and recovery of his patient’s psyche, alongside his stunted pursuit of Madame Helena. The doctor makes a serious mistake by mixing the professional and the social: When Nina and Madame Helena meet, the elegant woman takes an uncommon interest in the girl. She manages to hypnotize Nina better than Dr. Perlman ever could. In the novel’s central, protracted set piece, Madame and a group of her friends draw a bizarre story out of Nina. Her original neurosis and malady–hydrophobia and dehydration–seem to be lingering symptoms brought on by underwater experiences in the kingdom of Atlantis.

Perlman’s in a pickle. He is spellbound by Madame Helena, yet she has caused his patient to spiral into the realm of the fantastic, where the doctor steadfastly refuses to go. As in Mr. Hansen’s extraordinary first novel, The Chess Garden , an unconventional doctor stands at the fulcrum of the story’s moral and metaphysical universe. In that earlier book, the pathologist Gustav Uyterhoeven creates an elaborate chess garden in his backyard and invents a fantastical imaginary universe in which chessmen and other game pieces come to life. Uyterhoeven is a doctor who forsakes medicine for the vitalist teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg.

In Perlman’s Ordeal , Mr. Hansen gives us another doctor with a fertile imagination. Though Dr. Perlman is less of a fabulist than Dr. Uyterhoeven, he has a fatal weakness: He loves music. Perlman’s fascination with composers–his ambivalence toward Mahler, his reverence for the dead Alexander Barrett–threatens to overshadow his faith in his science, medicine. In fact, his view of musical structure and genius is barely scientific at all. In one debate, as Madame Helena’s self-styled intellectual friends allude to new forms of orchestral composition–you can almost hear Schoenberg on the horizon–the doctor argues against atonality: “You can’t get beyond melody.” When asked why, he gives a beautiful answer: “Because … melody expands. It’s been expanding for the last 3,000 years.”

One of Mr. Hansen’s achievements is to invent doctors who consistently elude the clichés of that profession. Doctors who expand. Perlman is an esthete, a connoisseur of music. He is also a hypnotist: a “doctor” whose greatest tool is narrative. Rather than poke with a scalpel or listen with a stethoscope, Dr. Perlman soothes his patients with words, and seeks to draw out the same in them. Mr. Hansen slips in a few understated allusions to the fledgling Freud, not surprising in a novel about a Viennese Jewish doctor transplanted to London. When, for example, Perlman picks up a copy of Freud’s newly published Interpretation of Dreams , the hypnotist quickly falls asleep.

But Perlman’s methods, and by extension the wheels and machinery of this novel, are not psychoanalysis. That is, they depend less on the patient’s stream-of-consciousness than on the doctor’s powers of suggestion. Helena claims that Perlman’s “guiding faith” is “that man is a very suggestible little creature.” The issue is control. It’s like Perlman’s reverence for composers who expand melody, or our reverence for authors we describe as hypnotic: They wield power. Hence the doctor’s explanation of how a master musician composes: He confronts “what might at first seem like chaos and, simply by applying his mind, manage[s] to make sense of it. Tame it.”

Composers aren’t the only ones in Perlman’s Ordeal to apply their minds to the subjugation of chaos. Hypnotists, too, tame the wild. Nina, Sylvie’s alter ego, seems at first essentially chaotic. Dissociative personalities are, according to the novel, ” miroirs brisés “: “absent any real history, they tended to reflect whatever was put in front of them.” As Perlman later says of Nina: “She is a shard; she’s a broken mirror.” A similar dynamic is played out in Nabokov’s Pale Fire , in which shadow, warring versions of Kinbote and Shade work to create each other. A struggle between two stubborn figures, each seeking tyranny over the other, results in mutual reflection.

If the properties of music spill into the practice of hypnosis, the enchantments of hypnosis transcend the doctor’s clinic as well. Love, of course, can be hypnotic; the doctor confesses to Madame Helena: “I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you, you’ve a mesmerizing presence.” Music blurs into hypnosis, hypnosis into infatuation, and it all blurs back into music. Thus, when Perlman listens secretly to a Welte-Mignon, a sort of player piano, of Alexander Barrett’s music: “[A]s the flat ivory slats began curtsying before him, he found himself very nearly mesmerized.”

Take even Nina’s preposterous story about Atlantis. Her extended recovered memory is probably the weakest part of Perlman’s Ordeal ; tales of Atlantis sound as ridiculous to us as they do to Dr. Perlman–not necessarily a good thing. Sylvie gets obscured by Nina, her dominant other self, but even Nina remains a cipher to us. Still, the very notion of Atlantis, and the girl’s stubborn belief in the reality of her experiences there, remind us of the true virtue of mythical places: They are exactly what we make of them. As Madame Helena explains, Atlantis is “the one place about which we are free to think anything we like”; Atlantis is to Madame Helena what she and Perlman both want Nina to be–the template for their fantasies.

But fantasies are never simply benign for Dr. Perlman. Nina’s storytelling is no different from his own medical practice–both doctor and patient want to discipline the other. “The girl’s behavior was fairly obvious,” Perlman feels. “This garish fairy tale she’d concocted was nothing but a kind of revenge on him.” When that master hypnotist, Nabokov, wrote that “all novels are, in a sense, fairy tales,” he must have had this ruthlessness in mind. Mesmerizing novels lure you with otherworldly tales. Then they ensnare you.