Tuesday, 27 November 2007

This Won't Hurt a Bit: Representations of the Dentist in Modern Fiction

This mini-exhibition is on the dentist in modern fiction. Art about dentistry is of course nothing new, the earliest known examples dating back to the third or fourth century BC. And yet, despite the passage of time and the considerable advances that have been made in the dental profession, art and dentistry continue to make uneasy bedfellows.

Books such as Malvin E. Ring’s massive Dentistry: An Illustrated History confirm how much the subgenre has been dominated by artistic representations of the derisive sort, works that poke not-so-gentle fun at dental procedures and stick it especially hard to the perceived root of the attendant pain, the dentist himself. Given the relative crudeness of dental practices—then in the hands of barbers, blacksmiths, and others less capable—before the 18th century, this seems perfectly understandable. And not only that: such art has at times assumed an important corrective function, as in the etchings of Thomas Rowlandson, the brilliant English caricaturist who in such works as “The toothache—or, Torment and Torture” (1823) made sport of then-current practices like human tooth transplantation with a shocking force that helped bring about their demise. The subsequent changes undergone by the dental profession during the 19th and 20th centuries—basically becoming more sophisticated in its understanding and treatment of tooth disease—seem not to have affected the way artists treat practitioners. 

Edith Calmenson, in a 1966 article on dentistry in fiction, writes, “Favorable allusions to dentistry and dentists… have been rare,” while as recently as 1987 Suzanne Poirier could lament how “few multidimensional dentists [exist] in fiction.” What follows is meant neither to confirm nor challenge such claims. The goal of this exhibition is admittedly more modest: to present just some of the variety of literary depictions of the dentist on offer from 1899 to present, with an emphasis on more recent works. It is left for readers to decide whether in a given portrayal we are getting the full story or a lot of hot air. Novels are listed in order of their original publication. –Armen Svadjian

15. Tama Janowitz. Peyton Amberg. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003. ....................................................................................................................................................................1. Frank Norris. McTeague. New York: Doubleday & McClure, 1899. 
Not for nothing did we set 1899 as the cut-off for eligibility. Any exhibition such as ours would be amiss to overlook this landmark meeting of dentistry and literature—also the inspiration for Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 butchered silent film masterpiece, Greed, and an opera directed by Robert Altman. Author Frank Norris joins Theodore Dreiser at the dawn of American naturalism, that Zola-derived, Mencken-approved school of fiction whose exponents turned their backs on the genteel tradition for the primitive, the real. And so we have in the novel’s title character a protagonist who is regarded by his author as “stupid, docile, obedient.” He is, furthermore, the archetype of the oafish, ham-fisted itinerant dentist who the moment he blows into town sets up shop and bare-handedly goes at his patients’ teeth. For all that, Norris had no particular bone to pick with dentistry. His fiction as a rule takes a low view of all of mankind, declaring at every turn how indistinguishable human nature is from that of animals; thus McTeague is variously compared to a bull, bear, ox, horse, St. Bernard, slug, etc. However, a 2002 article by Lawrence Scanlon brought to light how muddled Norris sometimes gets his dental facts, although with Scanlon’s belief that “such analysis may cast doubt on the credibility and reputation of the novel” we beg to differ, McTeague’s marginal place in American letters having little to do with how faithfully Norris reproduces the mechanics of turn-of-the-century dental treatment.

2. S.J. Levy. Broken Bridges. Brooklyn: Self-published, 1924. 
Most of these sketches appeared first in The Dental Outlook, where Samuel Jacob Levy, DDS, was himself managing editor. The book is subtitled “A collection of short stories and plays of dental life” and, according to Dr. Leon Harris in his introduction, its author “has acquired the reputation of being the minstrel of dentistry.” Like another literary man of medicine, Anton Chekhov, Dr. Levy’s short stories and plays are almost miniature tragedies of petit-bourgeoisie life which observe his characters’ foibles from a clinical—though not unsympathetic—distance. Things invariably turn out badly for Levy’s dentists, who are too far gone into their own get-rich schemes to realize they are about to be betrayed—by a lover, or a business associate, or a patient. This pattern repeats itself so often that it becomes difficult to believe Levy is not indulging a little in cruelty—though since he writes as a practicing dentist and not merely a grudge-bearing patient, I suspect his claims hold some truth.

3. S.J. Horn. Paul Adams: A Novel of an American dentist. New York: Benedict Publishers, 1929. 
 S.J. Horn’s little-known book is, as the subtitle suggests, “a novel of an American dentist,” though it in fact endeavors to be something much more definitive, perhaps The Great American Novel of Dentistry. Paul Adams is a recent DDS of whom great things are expected: his father was “prince of the [dental] profession; his great-grandfather, Josiah Adams, no less than “the father of the art and science of dentistry in [America].” In 345 pages, the novelist describes Paul’s effort to stick by his inherited ideals, a prospect made increasingly difficult by a public that cares nothing about addressing the underlying causes of its dental problems and wants only the quick fix, and a compliant dental profession that happily exploits this indifference. The tendency to romanticize in too-simplistic terms the vocation of the ethical dentist can be off-putting, especially when it leads (as it often does) to rhetoric. Fortunately, Horn’s attitude towards “the masses” never hardens into contempt, and at a time when the medical arts seem overrun with careerists, dentistry needs principled role models.

4. John O’Hara. Apppointment in Samarra. New York: Harcourt, 1934. 
Hemingway once said, “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra.” All that is good and vital in the art of John O’Hara (who holds the record for most stories published in The New Yorker) is indeed concentrated in this minor American classic. The influence of Hemingway is immediately apparent in O’Hara’s clean prose and ear for vernacular. In his novelistic concerns, however, he is closer to Henry James, granted one bears in mind Edmund Wilson’s qualifier that where the “older novelist dealt almost exclusively with a well-to-do upper stratum…O’Hara subjects to a Proustian scrutiny the tight-knitted social web of a large Pennsylvania town.” This social web comprises at least one dentist, Dr. Ted Newton, whom we are told is given to drink, drives a Buick, and wears a raccoon coat, though serves no real dramatic purpose in this otherwise very fine novel.

5. Graham Greene. The Power and the Glory. Mattituck, New York: Amereon House, 1940.  
The Power and the Glory is Greene’s masterpiece, with his trademark economy of expression and sincerely cynical view of religion on full display, this last matched only by the author’s utter lack of faith in human nature (from whence comes his tenuous religious faith). The first of several characters we meet, Henry Tench is an English expat practicing dentistry in 1930s Mexico, at a time when anti-clerical mania has purged the country of priests, and the country is ravaged by decay both spiritual and physical. This environment has helped to make Tench who he is, allows him to deliver the news of a man’s murder with shocking indifference, and when we read of him leering at a pretty young girl we are almost relieved to learn that he can still be moved by beauty, that he is, after all, human. An obvious parallel is made between Tench and the novel’s protagonist, the notorious Whiskey Priest. One attends to dental matters, the other to spiritual, yet each man is deemed equally unfit for his charge, Tench on account of the enormous reserves of bile and phlegm in his throat, the priest because his own spiritual life is in such shambles. Near the book’s end, however, Tench is witness to a murder, and this time he cannot remain indifferent, resolving instead to “clear out for good” at the first available opportunity, an important move that, hints Greene, may ultimately lead to the dentist’s salvation.

6. Gabriel García Márquez. In Evil Hour. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979. (First English language version) 
Before One Hundred Years of Solitude earned him kudos from Oprah Gabriel García Márquez wrote this slim novel about a small town in Colombia suddenly besieged by slanderous posters. Because the source of these broadsides—which make public the townspeople’s filthiest laundry—remains unknown, suspicious neighbours turn against one another until finally a boy is made the scapegoat and killed. Overt in its politics, In Evil Hour is essentially a book about social decay and oppression, forces represented by the town’s tyrannical mayor and his henchmen, and against which is set the local dentist, a man with revolutionary sympathies who is responsible for perhaps the book’s most memorable scene, in which the he treats the mayor’s abscessed molar and refuses him anesthesia, simply because, “You people kill without anesthesia.” The mayor, as a result, experiences “the most terrible moment in his life,” and however small, we feel that justice has been served.

7. Piers Anthony. Prostho Plus. London, UK: Victor Gollancz, 1971. 
This sci-fi fantasy curio landed in our collection some years ago through the generosity of Dr. Fenton. Of the few fiction titles at the Abbott Library, Prostho Plus holds the distinction—perhaps by fault of its tacky-and-thus-intriguing cover art—for most sign-outs. A mustachioed forty-one-year-old prosthodontist is dragged off to space to care for a race of aliens and train its woefully backwards dentists. Scared at first, Dr. Dillingham soon grows accustomed to life among dinosaurs and blobs, finding it in many ways superior to the monotony of his former existence. Something fun and light to help pass the time between classes.

8. Stuart Kaminsky. The Howard Hughes Affair. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. 
To date, Stuart Kaminsky has written twenty-four comic thrillers featuring his gumshoe-to-the stars-of-old, Toby Peters. As well as the many references to 1940s Hollywood, the series is reliable for the presence of Sheldon Minck, Peters’s dentist pal and officemate, a “bathtub” of a man who sucks away on cigars while working on his patients. In contrast to Peters’s reserve, Minck is positively overgenerous with his words—crude, too: “He talked of cavities and made a bad sex joke about a dentist who seduced one of his patients and got sued for filling the wrong cavity.” Although he seems to not care much what happens to his friend, he is compelled into action once or twice, and on the one occasion when Peters “get lucky” it is in Minck’s dental chair.

9. Philip Roth. The Counterlife. New York: Vintage International, 1986. 
Artifice and contradiction abound in The Counterlife, Roth’s thirteenth and perhaps most ambitious novel, one whose self-reflexivity convinced many readers (though certainly not all: fellow meta-artisans Martin Amis and William Gass could barely hold back their huzzahs) that its author had lost the plot, so to speak. As a good-looking and successful young dentist, Henry Zuckerman is finding it hard to cope with impotence—a side-effect of his heart medication—and so undergoes a chancy multi-bypass that ends in death. Yet we read in the next chapter that the operation was a success, and that Henry, alive and once again his old virile self, has moved to Israel to learn how to become an “authentic Jew.” Placing the novel’s characters with anything like confidence is made nearly impossible, so much does Roth delight in upsetting the reader’s sense of certainty. Yet his control over the material is so masterful, his sense of fun so apparent, that the mental work is truly a pleasure.

10. Jane Smiley. The Age of Grief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. 
Of this volume’s five short stories and novella we are concerned with the latter, The Age of Grief, all about the grieving experiences of a thirty-five-year-old dentist who learns that his wife, herself a dentist, is having an affair. Reticent by nature, the husband chooses not to openly address the fact that their marriage is falling apart; instead he wallows in bitterness (his thoughts bordering at times on the homicidal), wonders how to act on a hunch that his wife’s lover has spurned her, and for the reader’s benefit mulls over the minutiae of his family life, moving between the past and present with great ease. The couple’s marital crisis is further complicated when their five-year-old daughter becomes seriously ill. Things conclude on a tentative yet satisfying note in this lyrically-written novella, also the basis for a 2002 movie, The Secret Lives of Dentists.

11. David Thompson. Broken English. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry and Whiteside,1987. 
We gather from the jacket blurb that the author wears many hats: lawyer, professor of legal philosophy and film theory, and, finally, published novelist. Set in 1980s Belfast, this political thriller—with its fetching and unmistakable cover of Prince Charles caught in a sniper’s cross-hairs—faces head-on the violence and terror that was a fact of daily life for Northern Ireland’s population. The novel’s dentist character, Charlie Lynch, gets bumped off only thirty pages in, though not before impressing the reader with martial instincts most certainly not acquired at dental school, of the kind which enable him to disarm a military operative in a bathroom brawl and knock him senseless against a toilet bowl and later somersault out of a moving train.

12. John Updike. S. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. 
Updike’s oeuvre is filled with references to teeth and dentistry, a theme whose recurrence author and dentist Irwin Mandel has attributed to “an oral fixation rooted in his extensive personal experience.” This streak continues in S, Updike’s epistolary reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as written by a modern-day Hester Prynne, Sarah Worth. Our forty-something heroine has traded her affluent New England lifestyle for a communal existence with a group of Hindus in the desert. Meanwhile she maintains regular correspondence with people from her past, including her dentist, Dr. Podhoretz, who is kept apprised of Worth’s dental habits: “The drugstore… does have unwaxed tape and I have been fairly diligent, though sometimes at night I am so tired I can’t make myself believe flossing matters as much as you say.” In another missive she jumps to Podhoretz’s defense when her new dentist—“a much more gracious and efficient practitioner than I had expected, with a definite English accent”—tells Sarah that her crown “had been badly designed and was occluding in a way with the upper teeth that was applying torque and giving me soreness along the gums.”

13. Tim Dorsey. Florida Roadkill. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. 
Tim Dorsey belongs to the Willeford-Leonard-Hiaasen tradition of soft-boiled crime lit; like them, his turf is the Sunshine State, its colorful criminal class his basic raw material. Florida Roadkill is Dorsey’s first novel, an impossibly fast-moving caper which features among its cast of depraved losers one George Veale III, forty-eight-year-old and four-times-married “orthodontist to the soccer moms” who lives by the motto, “In every five thousand dollars of dental work there’s ten thousand dollars to be made.” A chance run-in with a chainsaw leads to the mutilation of Veale’s left hand, and when the five-million-dollar insurance money ends up in the trunk of a couple of unsuspecting tourists, a grand old chase ensues, picking up all manner of human debris along the way before coming to a head at the 1997 World Series in Miami. Veale’s character is granted nothing like dignity, but then, neither is anyone else in this shameless and fun novel.

14. Martin Amis. Experience. New York: Random House, 2000. 
With Experience, written shortly before his fiftieth birthday, bestselling novelist Martin Amis wanted “to set the record straight… and to speak, for once, without artifice.” It reads like one of his novels rather than a typical memoir: non-linear, tangential, and something of a performance piece. Much of the book is naturally given over to discussion of the author’s relationship with his late father (the English comic novelist Kingsley Amis) while also addressing the failure of his first marriage, his friendship with other novelists (including his falling out with erstwhile best bud Julian Barnes), and the life of his cousin Lucy who died at the hands of Britain’s most notorious serial killer. Additionally, a short chapter is devoted to Amis’s lower jaw problems and the set of costly cosmetic procedures he received for them: “a series of extractions, the removal of the tumour, the rebuilding of the chin with cow bone pre-tested for AIDS, and the bedding down of the implants.” Performing these is Dr. Todd A. Berman, DMD, who at one point blurts out, “in a dismissive boast, ‘I haven’t done any dentistry for years.’”

15. Tama Janowitz. Peyton Amberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. 
Tama Janowitz’s artistic vision refuses to budge an inch. As ever, her sights are locked on the ennui-ridden lives of rich and young ne’er-do-wells who seek but never find meaning through the obvious channels, i.e., recreational sex and drugs. Peyton Amberg is her Madame Bovary, pitched by its publisher as “a caustic and brilliant satire of contemporary marriage as it is undermined by free-floating lust and the exploits of a woman yearning for fulfillment outside of a rigid societal structure.” Married to Barry, a Long Island dentist whose short frame supports “a bland big head with smallish features,” Peyton soon tires of her wifely duties and becomes something of a bed-hopper, and however much we may regret this decision it strikes us as inevitable. After all, how long can a woman with her knockout good looks and “free-floating” spirit possibly endure a man whose idea of cleverness means dressing up for Halloween as a spaghetti box: “‘Al dente, get it?’”

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