The Wonder-Worker, by Dan Jacobson

Like a few dozen million other people, I am waiting to learn in a few days just what the point of watching six years’ worth of “Lost” was. At this point, I’m convinced it will turn out to be the world’s longest and most expensive shaggy dog story. Even so, “Lost” has been remarkably effective in getting viewers to accept that seemingly unrelated narratives are, in fact, linked in some elusive but profound way. Which is very much the feat Dan Jacobson pulls off in his 1973 novel, The Wonder-Worker.

Cover of Penguin edition of 'The Wonder-Worker"The Wonder-Worker opens on the night that Timothy Fogel is conceived. His mother wakes up screaming. Other people in the boarding house are stirred, thinking she was hurt or raped. She had had a sense that “all the devils of hell” were after her husband, Gerhard, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Timothy’s advent, Jacobson writes,

… was thus accompanied by omens. Within the moist, lightless crevices of Maureen Fogel’s organs of generation, two minuscule germs came together, and the result was that her entire system was convulsed with terror and wonder. As well it might be. But neither she nor Gerhard had any inkling of the significance of her cry. Nine months had to pass before they were to be enlightened.

Nine months from then, Maureen goes into labor in the newsagent’s where she works. Summoned to her side, Gerhard knocks over a small stove and part of their house burns down.

“A windy blue and white sky outside,” the next chapter opens. The nameless first-person narrator describes his hotel-like room, and tells us that he was writing. “Gerhard! Maureen! Timothy! At best they’re caricatures, cartoons, cheap satiric spooks and might-have-beens.” Apparently, the first chapter is a novel he’s writing. But then he tells us, “I wait for the doctor to arrive.”

As the next few chapters alternate between Timothy’s story and the writer’s, we learn that the hotel-like room is in Doctor Wuch’s exclusive sanatorium somewhere in Switzerland. The doctor, an older, refined man in well-tailored suits seems to have a most casual relationship with the writer, although he does stress the need to reach some level of Selbsverstehen (self-understanding). It is quite clear that there is much we are not being told by the writer.

Timothy’s story, on the other hand, is rich in small, magical details. Jacobson’s prose in these chapters is the most deftly poetic I have read in years:

The house itself seemed to remember that it was his, and made him welcome every time he returned to it. Some places inside it, however, were more grudging than others in their welcome, especially when the light began to fail at the end of every day. The kitchen was always a safe and cheerful place to be in, it was always glad to have him; the little front hall, on the other hand, contained more than a hint of menace, which not even his mother’s presence could entirely abolish. In the kitchen there was warmth and activity: pots on the gas stove, peelings and tea leaves in the rubbish bin, steam on the windows insulating the room from the darkness beyond. In the hall, the narrow staircase silently debouched strange reflections of itself on to a floor of polished linoleum; the hallstand leaned back against the wall with a trapped, desperate air, and held before it the only weapons it had, its prongs for coats to hang on. From the ceiling, much the tallest in the house, there hung a lightshade that was as copiously befringed as a lady in an eastern tale, and that looked quite capable of lowering itself and advancing in stately fashion on a boy whose back was turned.

It is not just Jacobson who animates these everyday objects. Timothy discovers that he has a magical power–the ability to project himself into objects and take on their senses and viewpoint. All he needs to do is take an object–soap, sugar, brick, brass–place his forehead against it, and close his eyes. Soon, he can spend hours inhabiting a thing such as the desk of a schoolmate who fascinates him. He wonders “what it would be like to be wind, words, a cloud, a star, a note of music, not his eye or his mother’s but the glance between them.”

Meanwhile, all is not well with the writer. “There hasn’t been a word from them all day,” he writes in one entry. “I don’t know how to fill in my time.” His father comes for a brief visit. Offered the manuscript by his son, he reads a few pages and then hands it back: “Very amusing.” He leaves advising the son to trust in Doctor Wuchs, having seen something quite disturbing.

We continue to follow Timothy’s story interspersed with the writer’s meditations until, within a dozen pages of the end of this short novel, a transformation takes place. In the space of fifteen paragraphs or so, Jacobson manages to pull these parallel narratives together just as simply and miraculously as one creates a Möbius strip from a flat piece of paper with a single twist. He does it so subtly that I went back and read the passage again just to convince myself that my mind hadn’t played a trick on me. I won’t spoil the effect by explaining any more. But in its way, it’s as stunning a moment as when Aureliano Babilonia sees the pig’s tail on his dead infant son in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And I will say that when I finished the book, I went back and read it again–and found it was as if I was reading it for the first time. It’s the kind of reality-warping experience a fan of “Lost” could appreciate.

The Wonder-Worker, by Dan Jacobson
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 1973
Boston: Little, Brown, 1973

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