Philosophically ambitious and surprisingly sensuous, Isaac Fellman’s quick and blunt novel The Two Doctors Górski has a lot to say. The central theme that Fellman ponders is schisms of the self—how one represses, escapes, or reconciles them—but the novel also wrangles with gender, academic careerism, identity, trauma, and neurodiversity into a scant 176 pages. In this minimally plotted novel, Fellman defies the constant admonishment to writers to “show, don’t tell,” but he succeeds because what he has to tell readers about ambition, abuse, and healing is heartfelt and necessary.
At the start of the book, Annae Hofstader is an academic outcast, a googleable disaster turned down by every program except that of Doctor Marec Górski. Górski is a recognizably bitter character, an aging man who neared greatness in his youth and then wasted his talent in a vain attempt to perfect himself as a magic user. He is known for his conservative and unsupportive style, first entrenched in his youth, which has not evolved in decades. His is not a desirable program, and she is not a desirable candidate.
Annae’s interiority—laced with striking sense-impressions (“a wall so thick with books that the sour smell of old paper was squeezed out of it like juice”) and poignant observations of trauma (“What more did he have to offer her in the night market of fear, when she was the richest woman in the world and already owned it all?”)—is the landscape of the book. She is not immune to what she perceives to be the fairytale beauty of her British surroundings, but her status as a tourist within them reinforces the sense that this is a woman who lives largely in her own mind.
With no other options, Annae arrives at the provincial university of Brandford to study with Górski and restart her research into magically removing memories of trauma from the brains of living animal subjects. She is suffering from a near-total paralysis from years of abuse at the hands of her previous advisor, the precocious and popular Professor Jonathon Bayer. Jonathon’s grooming of Annae followed a textbook flatter-isolate-destroy trajectory, reducing her from a rising star in psychiatric magic to a dependent underling.
Having finally left Jonathon, she has developed a skill for mind-reading as a self-defense, feeling “safer reading a person, curled up inside their head as tight as a jarred specimen, than you could in proximity to their body.” Through these second-hand perceptions, Fellman is able to simultaneously maintain the close interior world of Annae, and show how she is constructed in the minds of the men around her. The effect is both intimate and disjunctive, reproducing the gap between herself and the world. While she describes mind-reading as a protective measure, her own self-loathing shows it also to be a form of self-flagellation, confirming the distrust, contempt, and shallow desires of her colleagues.
Annae has learned to navigate misogyny by tempering her obvious talent with a manic pixie dream girl persona, making her an unthreatening exception. The “rare” woman of ability who is celebrated for what makes her supposedly “unique” is what Ursula K. Le Guin called “a wonderful fluke” in her essay “Disappearing Grandmothers.” Removed from any sense that women face very real obstacles to achievement, this phenomenon ensures that, when a female talent emerges, she is embraced, but always praised in reference to her gender. Pretty good for a girl is the unspoken assumption for any success by women. Le Guin argues this tokenization lays the basis for future marginalization, diminishment, and finally disappearance. The importance of isolating women to accomplish our erasure is underlined by the book’s spectacular and pointed failure of the Bechdel test. There are no named female characters outside of Annae. The intense claustrophobia of being the only woman, the perpetual pressure of men’s invasive and appraising gaze, steals the pleasure of Annae’s own thoughts from her. The thrill of discovery should be Annae’s to savor, but, as a woman “with a certain kind of face I never asked for,” Annae is coerced again and again into serving the perceptions of the people around her.
In Annae, then, Fellman fuses the practice of masking neurodiversity with oft-employed feminine tactics of survival. Once an “obviously autistic child … she had studied style, studied whimsy, studied poise. Style, because it was a shield; whimsy, because it was a sword; poise, because it was a suit of armor.” But, like carrying actual medieval arms, wielding feminine weapons isn’t sexy, it’s exhausting: “She had cultivated an air of whimsy until it was so much labor that she could barely think of anything else. In the years of her success, it had felt as if charm was resting on her.”
Doctor Górski is immune to Annae’s charm, and, as much as the book has a trajectory, it is an escalating series of interactions between them, culminating in catastrophe for the university. His toxic hold on the school and town is absolute, and speaks to the very real entrenchment of abusive men in educational and cultural institutions everywhere. That Górski starts every term with five male students and one female, and proceeds to ignore, drive out, and/or fuck the unlucky woman is simply a fact of life for the university. His presence at Brandford is as immovable as misogyny is in our primary world. Annae’s forays into his mind show him to be a man full of regret, not for his mistreatment of students or his destructive impact on the town, but for his loss of his offspring, Ariel. Indeed, the novel treats its speculative elements so casually, and renders the reality of misogyny so perfectly, that one could forget that magic is not a real funded field of research for PhD candidates.
But there are, as the novel’s title suggests, two Doctors Górski. The second titular Doctor Górski of the novel is Ariel, who was created by Marec out of all the parts of himself he felt would be obstacles to greatness. The act of carving out a homunculus decades earlier is what has secured Marec’s fame and position, but in reality the effort has left him miserable. In Ariel, Marec deposited everything that stood in the way of his ambition. “Don’t you usually find that it’s the best of you that distracts you from your work?” he lectures Annae in their one real conversation. “Your moral doubts. Your maddening sense that as you get older, people get more complex. Confusion, about what’s right. Self-hatred, when you disappoint yourself. Knowing your limits.” As a result, Marec is an utter asshole, always able to justify his bad actions, concerned only with how he could have made Ariel differently, or made Ariel stay.
Ariel is something of a walking, talking argument that creation is essentially always an act of compassion. Having excised Ariel, Marec wreaks havoc but achieves nothing. Meanwhile, Ariel has become a successful—if personally melancholy—psychologist in London, whom Annae finds to be warm, sincere, and sterile. In their first encounter, he elicits from Annae a memory of her favorite childhood book: a series of magical quandaries written by none other than a young Marec Górski. Her favorite puzzle in the book is an ouroboros who suffers the pain of eating himself. How can you stop the pain of a subject who seems unconcerned to end it themselves? This problem, of solving other people’s problems while failing to solve your own loops through the narrative, and the interweaving of causes and effects, of authors and readers, is its own ouroboros.
In a more traditional story, Annae and Marec might have some kind of open conflict in which Annae triumphs and strikes a blow for equality, unraveling their connection. But Fellman is more interested in healing than combat. Annae’s own internal division—the personal plurality that’s right there in her name—is driven by blame, including holding herself culpable for the abuse she has suffered, as well as for the harm for which she feels herself responsible.
Despite the often dire tone of the novel, Fellman’s writing glides and sparkles, layered with gorgeous, rapid-fire sensory moments. Walking with Ariel, Annae sees “the buildings around this part of the Thames had taken on a blue shadow, as around a well-penciled eye—London was made up for them.” Marec experiences the pains of old age as “a tree of needles that grew at the base of his spine. Its branches stabbed at his shoulder, and its roots ran to the ankle.” Annae is constantly aware of the heat of bodies and coolness of air; memories of Jonathon bring back rich luxurious smells and textures. Near death, she observes the richness of inhaled oxygen and the diffuseness of her lab-mate’s molecules.
The Two Doctors Górski joins the ongoing conversation about trauma and healing, about perception and performance of gender. Some readers will find the abrupt ending unsatisfying, if only because Annae has only just reached a new beginning. She is not sailing off into the sunset, but undertaking an uncomfortable process of internal reconciliation. This is a strange book whose achievement is to send its hero off to seek a kind of stable mediocrity. But the world could use more heroes seeking wholeness instead of greatness.