Tony Tulathimutte’s Brains—winner of the Malahat Review’s annual novella contest—is a great story by a talented writer, despite the unappealing title.
At first readers might be put off by the somewhat affected, if self-assured, narration that introduces the main character, Diana, a child prodigy who becomes the unpopular valedictorian of her high school class at the age of fourteen. Though Tulathimutte’s formal diction keeps the reader at arms length, it aptly reflects the condescension and emotional distance of our brainy, friendless, perhaps even asexual protagonist, who sees herself as separate from the rest of her species:
When she thought about her classmates at all, it was with a zookeeper’s forbearance at their axillary reek, girls and gum, men and mud, sex whispers, headlong glandularity.
Throughout the story, characters are viewed with a clinical distance that is appropriate given Diana’s aspiration to become a doctor. And despite Diana’s aloof nature, Tulathimutte treats her and the rest of his characters with a knowing respect. Mari, the popular girl whom the rest of Diana’s class wants as their valedictorian may be described as “energetically hospitable: a human puppy,” but her goofy dialogue has its own brilliance, as in this exchange in the school’s dining hall:
“You’re Diana, right? I mean, of course you’re Diana. I sit across from you everyday. Ha-ha-ha!… You prefer eating alone, huh?”
“I guess I must.”
“Oh, that’s funny! Where is that from?”
“Where’s what from?”
“It’s not ‘from’ anywhere. It’s not a line. It was me talking.”
“Still, that’s awesome. So, Diana, I hear from everyone that you’re going to be the valedictorian, which is so great. Because you’re so young! It’s awesome. Are you nervous?”
When Mari then offers to help Diana write her speech, a gesture that is of course rebuffed, the reader experiences the attempt with a clear view of both sides of this unbridgeable divide.
Brains is divided into numbered and titled mini-chapters, each one centering upon an important development in Diana’s life as she begins college, enters medical school, and works her way up the surgery ladder. Tulathimutte’s habit of summarizing information swiftly and efficiently gives the story an old-fashioned feel and keeps the reader from growing close to the characters—yet this approach suits a story about a young woman whose greatest lack is empathy. A sketch of Diana’s life as a too-young college student beautifully illustrates this void. (Note the excellent use of verbs.)
Remember, remember, remember—it was all Diana did…. Her dorm mates functioned as moments of interruption: the occasional whack of an unarrested Frisbee against the façade of the dorm , the low frequencies from a neighbour’s speakers faintly jittering the pens in the cup on her desk. Hysterical parties on her dorm floor concussed the hallways with music and produced a semi-permanent layer of trodden chips flypapered onto the carpet by spilled beer. The girl in the adjacent room could often be overheard weeping by herself, for reasons Diana never learned.
Years later, this wall between Diana and others will prove to be her downfall.
In these early pages, Diana is so disconnected from others that she at times seems an exaggerated artistic creation more than a genuine human being. Interestingly, it is the descriptions of peripheral characters that save the story, via their simple trueness. Take, for instance, Diana’s college roommates
whose conversations were ruled by a simple universal taxonomy: a thing was either hot, cute, lame retarded, hilarious, or the opposite of those things, and they devoted hours and hours to boiling various clothes, movies and people to one or more of those five designations. Diana categorized them as both hot and retarded.
Such wonderfully specific mundanity helps us believe in the world of the story—more, perhaps, than in our protagonist. For there is truth in those details. And so in such passages, merging contemporary language with a classically haughty tone, the narrative achieves a timelessness that roots the reader in its authenticity.
Meanwhile, Diana matures at her own retarded pace—emotionally and, we find out, physically. Only when she develops a relationship with a new roommate, Simone, does she become more than a curiosity to the reader—despite the fact that Simone, a dubiously employed hoarder, is pretty farcical herself, arriving with
Her drum kit, her cross-stitching supplies, her skis and fixed-gear bike and longboard and the brass cage that housed a pink-footed mynah; her crates of vinyl LPs, her terrariums, her hookah, her beer fermenter and bottle capper, her portable darkroom, her lathe and jigsaw….
(I love that “terrariums” is plural; details like that heighten the humor throughout the story.)
Simone and Diana are the roommates we’ve all had or heard about. Simone: the unworried, more-troubled-than-you-first-realize hippie girl who believes, as she tells Diana, “The universe just takes care of you.” And Diana: the one who studies nonstop in her room, eating her meals there, dirty plates piling up. It is Simone—a sometime-artist, older than Diana and precocious in her own right (she has photographic memory) who gets Diana drunk for the first time and gradually teaches by example a kind of friendship. Like a spouse, Simone stays by Diana’s side over the years, the inveterate housemate who even relocates with Diana to other cities, though she no longer pays rent. Simone’s lack of any ambition or goals in her life bothers Diana more than the missing rent check: “She had hobbies, diversions, and side projects, but whenever pressed about her direction in life, she only gave non-replies: ‘I’m not stressing about it.’ But what was ‘it’? Was ‘it’ a career? Was this ‘it’?”
In Diana’s world, a career is the primary love-relationship. She is the doctor with no bedside manner, not unlike the brilliant but troubled surgeon she works for. He describes his young wife: “You either share in her random depressions and her neuroses, or else you’re ‘distant.’ Am I distant because I recognize that there’s a difference between one person’s feelings and another’s? Does that make me unfeeling?” Similarly, Diana is of the mindset that “I operate on brains, not people”—which leads to the professional gaffe that provides a point of crisis for the story. Fittingly, Diana refers to the subsequent malpractice suit as “her predicament,” rather than trying understand the viewpoint of the parents whose daughter remains comatose; after all, Diana insists, the daughter does not feel.
It takes the confluence of two sudden events to shock Diana out of her own realm of unfeeling. By that time, the reader has become invested in Diana, and sympathetic to her pain, making the story fully satisfying: funny, sad, and, in its disappointments, true-to-life.
Brains is a joy to read, and I savored many phrases. When a doctor enters the operating room he “gets spanked by the swinging door, which cannot be touched.” A description of people browsing Simone’s garage sale includes “homeless men looking on in unhurried silence.” My favorite sentence describes a cadaver: “She wore an expression of disappointment, disappointment.” The labored repetition of the word conveys the great heaviness of life’s final and ultimate disappointment; this level of attention gives Tulathimutte’s story its soul.
One quibble is the unexplained absence of Diana’s parents throughout the narrative, which felt unrealistic to me. But overall I enjoyed the jubilant excess of Tulathimutte’s prose, in particular the depth and richness of his verbs, even simple gestures, as when a character “works a finger behind his glasses to rub his eyes.” It is that kind of small, unassuming moment, more so than the many comic pilings-on of detailed information, that makes a scene come quietly alive.
Despite its 47 pages and its status as an award winning novella, I would argue that, Brains is best considered as a short story. Not that it matters. But held up against classics such as “A Simple Heart” or, perhaps a more apt comparison, “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Brains feels smaller—not in a diminished sense, but in that dollhouse way that characterizes many of the best stories: a slice of a life in miniature. Tulathimutte is especially adept at the one-paragraph character summary, such as that of the surgeon with whom Diana will have her life-changing encounter. This economical narration, where a novella might move at a more leisurely pace, lends Brains the feel of a well-told tale. So does the formality of diction, which keeps the reader just far enough from the characters to view them as pieces in a diorama or some other interesting scene replicating life in a precise, genuine, and artful way. This is not a criticism; for such is the gift of all good stories.