Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 09-20-2005
326 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 10-29-2005
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
Lydia Wickett, neé Kilkenny, the heroine of Myla Goldberg's new novel, 'Wickett's Remedy', is a "Southie", an Irish lass from the bad part of Boston. When she meets the sweet but very shy Henry Wickett while working at Gilchrist's, a department store, he's in medical school. But wouldn’t you know it; soon after they marry he drops out, and instead decides to dedicate his energies to creating a patent medicine he calls "Wickett's Remedy", in reality a sweet concoction flavored by Lydia. Henry intends the letters that he sends those who buy the medicine to be the real remedy that he provides. His home-brewed literature will be the balm to cure his customers' ills.
'Wickett's Remedy' is no balm to cure our ills. It's a tart, terse and tense story about memory, the myths of our lives, the 1918 flu pandemic, growing old, economic disparity, certainty and doubt. In a remarkably concise novel, Goldberg covers a lot of territory and packs in a multitude of ideas. She manages this by virtue of an adventurous format, a very low-key and accessible use of experimental styles thoroughly integrated into the narrative. The result is a novel that is page-turningly easy-to-read, but filled with thought-provoking themes. In some ways reminiscent of an almanac, 'Wickett's Remedy' is entertainingly filled with choice bits of unexpected dialogue, news reports and correspondence.
From the get-go, there's something strange happening in the margins of the novel. The pages of 'Wickett's Remedy' sport an unusual design. The main narrative uses about 3/4 of the standard page width, leaving a wide margin within which Goldberg inserts comments on the main narrative. For example, on the first page, readers will find Lydia's recollection of the sound of dray horses and in the margins Lydia's mother's recollection of Lydia's description. The two stories are not exactly congruent. What’s immediately clear is that not everybody remembers the same details from the same events.
Details and memory are the stuff with which we build our lives in our own minds, in much the same way that a novelist builds a novel with third-person narration. Goldberg's core novel, the story of Lydia Wickett as she endures the twin terrors of the World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic, is told with the kind of transparent prose that flows effortlessly and gorgeously into the reader's mind. But that's not all that readers will find here. Unfolding in the present is the story of QD soda, the distant descendent of Wickett's Remedy, and the man who created that flavor while working with Lydia and Henry.
Besides the margin notes from an increasing variety of contributors and contemporaries who take issue with Lydia's recollections, readers will find embedded within the narrative period news stories and advertisements, as well as letters from other characters and snippets of overheard conversations. Goldberg expertly layers her material, revealing the mystery that lies at the heart of the novel. The variety of sources makes the book easy to read and entertaining, but there's a cumulative effect of all the details that Goldberg accumulates. Everything in this novel is there for reasons that are quite satisfyingly revealed.
Goldberg develops a number of themes, including a vision of life after death that is wonderfully original, makes sense and offers her a unique angle on the many deaths in the novel. After all, her subject is the pandemic that killed more humans than all the World Wars combined. That's a lot of death, but in spite of this Goldberg never gets even slightly close to pathos. Everything occurs in prose that seems well-lit and crisply written. Even when she's writing about the actual experiments that the United States government performed on Gallup Island, in which prison inmates were deliberately infected, she manages to seem cheerful and upbeat. Goldberg's ability to pull this off does not diminish the impact. It just makes it easier for the readers to assimilate the magnitude of the pandemic and its effect on America.
One of the more chilling aspects of this novel is Goldberg's unflinching portrait of primitive science that thinks itself nearly omnipotent. As the doctors, nurses and hawkers of miracle cures explain their reasoning with certitude, the reader is constantly aware of just how wrong they are. Goldberg's ability to layer these skewed perspectives -- the characters who are certain their science is right and the readers who know the science is wrong -- give the novel the feel of a science-fiction thriller set in the past. It's almost as if H. G. Wells had penned a novel chock full of optimistic visions of the power of medical science, based on extremely flawed medical science.
The publishers and book design here certainly deserve some credit. It must have been very tempting to put all different parts into different typefaces, to turn this novel into a full-on cut-and-paste extravaganza. But the design is very calm, which accomplishes two goals. It makes the novel a lot easier to read, and it draws in all the disparate parts into a more coherent feeling whole.
Another effective aspect of this novel is the editing. Given the wide range of stories and themes covered, this novel could easily have been twice as long. It's to Goldberg's credit that she managed to pare it down into the narrative we have before us. And it's even more impressive that the work contains so many interesting, intricate fully-finished stories that emerge across the entire variety of narratives included here. The story of Quentin Driscoll is poignant, powerful and plays out mainly in the ancillary materials.
'Wickett's Remedy' is in the end a demonstration of how a talented mainstream writer can include the full spectrum of experimental literary techniques to enhance and enrich a story without diffusing it. Goldberg's use of found articles, imagined correspondence and the margin notes give her word-for-word more punch and more power that she could have possibly got unfurling those same facts and characters in a more traditional narrative style. She's a consummate literary tool-user, a master craftswoman with the talent to pick up any literary device she feels necessary and the intelligence to use these tools to tell a gripping story.