Mason, Daniel. A Registry of my Passage upon the Earth. Little, Brown, New York 2020. F; 2/22.
This is a collection of short stories by a psychiatrist who also teaches writing at Stanford University. It was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, won by The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich which I read but didn’t review. I sensed from my impression of that novel and its winning the prize the usual virtue-signalling we see from artistic juries these days. Most of Dr. Mason’s stories are historical and the style is intentionally and almost ironically formal.
Death of the Pugilist is a harsh suspense-filled history of a young stevedore-turned-fighter who eventually comes up against a monstrous undefeated opponent, told from the main character’s point of view giving it coming-of-age content in its credible 19th century English workingclass world. Two or three of the stories are scientific in their feel and content, sometimes ironically as an Egyptian king experiments with his subjects’ children, trying to discover truths about human beings. But some of the stories’ focus is also historic and touching on science-philosophic as Alfred Russell Wallace waits for correspondence with Charles Darwin over the both of their contemporaneous understanding of natural selection. There is a feminism and spirituality in On the Cause of Winds and Waves as a female balloonist discovers strange realities in the clouds.
The longest story’s title is the same as that of the collection and had to me at first rolling my eyes at nonsense fragments and irrational punctuation until I realized that the narrator is a schizophrenic who is eventually captured and shut up in a mid-20th century madhouse. Dr. Mason’s training combines with his impressive literary scope to show this character’s point of view.
Daniel Mason is in his 40s and his accomplishments look enormous in their reach. Had I not managed to drag my way into and through medical school I might have been a literature teacher or even a fiction writer, but from where I stand late in life this young guy seems a giant with a big foot in each of two interests of mine and his head somewhere up in the clouds.
Well worth the trouble. 9.0/8.7