Register Sunday | September 23 | 2018

The Doctor Is In

Liam Durcan discusses the anatomy of his short story “Iraqi Malibu”

In “Iraqi Malibu” (Issue 18), author and neurologist Liam Durcan gently weaves heavy themes—such as war and class—into the story of a young woman in a small town. Recently, staff writer Allison Devereaux talked to Durcan about how neurology complements and complicates the writer’s life.

As a male neurologist and short-story writing Montrealer, what drew you to the perspective of a young woman living in a small town?

I’ve written quite a few stories with female protagonists, some in a female voice, and it’s something I enjoy. It’s more of a challenge, of course, and sometimes I fail, but I think it helps anyone to try and develop a fuller sense of characterization. You tend not to use your own voice, or apply your own biases, so readily. As a reader, I’ve always appreciated writers who tried this (and sort of mistrusted writers who didn’t do it; and it was less about technical prowess, more about whether a writer was interested in the other, whether it’s race or gender or orientation or class.)

Aside from being a technical challenge, there were dramatic and structural advantages in this piece of making the protagonist a young woman. I wanted a sense of unease in the character that might come off as just rebelliousness in a male character; she feels bad when the car is on fire, and that remorse, that common sense, seemed to me to be more authentic in a young woman than a young man. The relationship with her girlfriend is allowed to be nuanced in a way that I don’t think you see in a male character. Also, I wanted Sandy’s interaction with the guy at the party to remind her of her uncle and develop tension in its own right as they head out for a ride.

I think the setting of a smaller town came from the initial imagery of the car barrelling down a country road. The issue of class seems to be so much more personal, and less escapable in a smaller town. I wanted a mixture of open space and claustrophobia, which is sort of the unofficial civic motto of some of the small towns I’ve been in.

Contradiction ignites tension in your work, such as when the protagonist uncomfortably navigates a party where returning university students “slum and chat about film studies or semiotics to whatever blank-faced yokel is standing beside them.” Within this piece, how does the car, the “Iraqi Malibu,” serve as rich juxtaposition?

I liked the absurdity of it. I suppose I liked it because the Iraqi Malibus did exist, inadvertently; that it wasn’t one of those forced cultural transpositions that seem to be a bit more calculated or cynical (Tibetan monks wearing iPods or whatever). It seemed to fit in a story full of absurd (but hopefully to the reader, plausible) events.

I’d like to give you a response full of geopolitical insight but the truth is that I just remember seeing footage from the nineteen-eighties of all these cars waiting on a dock in Halifax (or at least I thought it was Halifax) and thinking that the name seemed so exotic, so doubly cool and contradictory, and yet, for some reason, the sight of all those parked cars going nowhere made me sort of depressed. (Hmm. Maybe that was just the eighties, because I’m fine about parking lots now.)

I think I also just wanted a car with an unusual provenance; one that certain characters would pick up on and appreciate almost more than the vehicle itself. And of course, I wanted to set the car on fire. But that’s beside the point. That’s just me.

Why does the automobile feature so prominently in your work?

Honestly, I was unaware how prominently cars—and not just cars but vehicular mayhem of some type—were featured in my stories until [fellow Montreal author] Andrew Steinmetz pointed it out when he was editing the book. I find cars interesting for a lot of reasons, and not because I’m a fan (I avoid them whenever I can and commute on the train).

It would be hard to imagine another everyday cultural object that people have such a personal, almost fetishistic, attachment to. And other than alcohol or drugs or crowds, there’s nothing like a car—the isolation and anonymity, the false sense of freedom and agency—to bring about disinhibition. To see a normal person transformed into a fist-shaking, swearing, antisocial jerk just by getting into their Hyundai is fascinating for a person like me who has a professional interest in frontal-lobe function (or lack thereof). Cars just seem to be wonderful dramatic devices without necessarily needing to be, with that possibility of change and complication, while at the same time being so everyday that you’re not telegraphing things when you have a character get into one.

On the topic of the frontal lobe, how do your careers—neurologist and author—complement and contrast one another?

I really don’t think being a neurologist gives me any special insight (I’ve never claimed insight of any kind, just curiosity). But I do think, more generally, medical training has helped me tremendously in writing. By its nature, it schools a person in observation and attention to detail—whether it’s physical, emotional or narrative detail.

Of course, when you look at behaviour clinically, there are traps you can fall into, like the tendency to pathologize attitudes or behaviours that you find disturbing (maybe that fist-shaking guy in the Hyundai has pretty normal frontal lobes; maybe his child is sick or his job sucks). I’m trying to recognize and deal with that bias in myself, and not just as a writer.

Working in a hospital, I’m exposed to a barrage of narrative, altered narratives, competing narratives, and I suppose I’m most interested in that: how narrative can be altered, not just by disease, but by emotional context or external circumstance or other psychological forces.

Neurology doesn’t make it into my fiction that often. I’m leery of it. So often, especially in movies, neurological illness is represented superficially, used as a plot contrivance, a sympathy ploy or just an opportunity for an actor to chew scenery with a doctor’s certificate (neurological disorders are always well-represented come Oscar time). I would be more interested in trying to represent the disordered narrative itself rather than the circumstance of the illness. The challenge is how to present a disordered narrative in a way that doesn’t disorient the reader too much. I’ve seen writers like Rupert Thomson, whose The Insult (1996) does this successfully by using the framework and conventions of genre fiction to, in a way, re-orient the reader. The Insult is a fantastic book, a book that shows that you don’t need to be a neurologist to write about the brain in a compelling, utterly authentic way.

In terms of contrast, I’d have to say that with writing I have less of a sense (or even an expectation) of having an effect on people. In my work as a doctor, I see patients, I work with residents and medical students and on those occasions where you’ve helped, you sense it. The satisfactions in writing are mostly self-generated. I write to satisfy my sense of curiosity, my sense of pleasure in a sentence. I’d hate to say it’s selfish, it doesn’t feel like that, but it is far more self-contained.

Has writing always been a part of your life?

No. I began writing about five years ago. I hear so many anecdotes about writers who were writing stories when they were young and I feel so deficient, so lumpen. I may have scribbled something on my crib, but it would have only been the rough, pediatric equivalent to cave art. No alpha-ghetti librettos. No Refrigerator-magnet haikus. I’m ashamed.

In a story that begins with a scenic drive, many larger issues—including war and class distinctions—are later woven into the text. Did you originally set out to address topics of this scope?

I didn’t set out to discuss war, it arose largely out of trying to contrast Ron’s absurd death with another just-as-absurd death. If you want absurd deaths, war is, as they say, a high-value target. I was also intrigued that some deaths might be valued more highly by a society. After Canadians soldiers were killed by US friendly-fire in Afghanistan, I was troubled by what I sensed, even in myself, as that slow surge of righteous glee: the Americans had finally messed up, publicly and profoundly, and now they really owed us. It seemed to be a particularly immature response, and one that, while giving more immediate attention to the soldiers’ deaths, turned them into fodder for how we feel about America. Over the long-term, I suspect more media attention was given to the American pilots than the soldiers. What causes us to think like that? I suppose I’m preoccupied with the notion that we’re constantly using the US to define ourselves, and that it isn’t particularly healthy.

I tend to think about class a lot, especially when I’ve written about a protagonist who is, or feels themselves to be, disenfranchised. So, in a way it was more determined by choices of character and circumstance. In some ways, I think issues of class are ignored (or felt to be passé) in contemporary fiction, we tend to be more inclined to discuss ethnicity or gender or race than class; maybe anything else not to discuss class. I thought it was important for the protagonist to be self-aware in this way, to understand that she was an interloper at the party primarily because of where she was driving from.

Canadian identity is sometimes more rooted in what we are not than in what we are. Can you elaborate on how Canadians use the US to define themselves?

It goes without saying that the US exerts unprecedented cultural and economic influence; it’s also understandable that people in other cultures react to that by either identifying with or repudiating these influences. But if that’s all that defines who you are, then you’re either a teenager or a colony; it strikes me as a developmental stage rather than an identity.

I always thought that Canada’s relationship to the US had the psychological dynamic of a less-than-mature sibling relationship (I wrote about it in a story called “American Standard”). The younger sibling focusses so intently on the older, more powerful sibling, developing a conception of this terribly important contentious relationship, one defined by injustices and occasional triumphs while the older sibling is unaware of all this drama, only vaguely aware of the kid brother as a pest.

The protagonist's uncle makes what is described as a “piss-poor martyr when you have a full-fledged CNN conflict going on somewhere else.” What is your stance on the current state of television news coverage?

I tend to stay away from television news, there’s only so much I need to know about runaway brides. Catastrophes are another matter; I admit that I watch like anyone else in that state of imagery-hypnosis. In September, I watched the hurricanes come ashore and the only in-depth analysis was from the meteorologists, using their Doppler radar and satellite imagery to actually enhance their ability to explain something.

It’s such a paradox—at the same time we have unprecedented access to the visual image, with its the immediacy and apparent clarity, news analysis is absent. Like everyone, I saw days of images of people in New Orleans hacking their way out of the attics with hatchets, and I thought, “Why do people have hatchets in their attics? Who would have the presence of mind to bring a hatchet into the attic as the water’s rising?” No one answered this question on television; they just showed the same images over and over again. A week later, I read that the ninth ward of New Orleans, the poorest area in the city, has flooded so many times before, and that the residents are so used to being abandoned by civic officials to fend for themselves, that people simply know it makes sense to have a hatchet in the attic. That small amount of information says a great deal about the socio-cultural history of a place, but even that is absent on television news.

What I really love is that news ticker that all the news channels simultaneously adopted after September 11, as though we needed our attention diverted away from abbreviated news coverage with even more abbreviated—and moving—news coverage. I can only imagine what’s next, maybe random word clusters flashed across the anchorperson’s forehead: … avian flu … Keanu! … Category 3 … help.

When not working at the Montreal Neurological Hospital and penning books of short stories, what reading—if any—do you enjoy?

I read a lot of short fiction, some recent favourites have been Love and Hydrogen by Jim Shepard and People I Wanted to Be by Gina Oschner. I have T. C. Boyle’s collected short fiction, sitting like a smart bomb of great writing, on my night table. The story “100 Faces of Death: Volume IV” is worth the price of purchase alone. I like Chekhov, and not for the obvious reasons of identification (one can only come up short identifying with Chekhov), I’m just a fan.

The last novel I read was A Complicated Kindness, and I thought it was fantastic. As for non-fiction, I’ve been reading The Ethical Brain by Gazzaniga and works by David Dennett.

Oh, yeah, and The Da Vinci Code. I splay it open in front of me like a high-culture cow-catcher while I ride the train, and nobody messes with me. Nope, can’t get enough of The Da Vinci Code. Viva sarcasm.