PERLMAN'S ORDEAL

By Brooks Hansen

Farrar Straus Giroux. 320 pp. $24

August Perlman, the protagonist of Brooks Hansen's exceedingly interesting and exceedingly flawed second novel, is a doctor, born in Bohemia, reared in Vienna, now (1906) practicing in London. He is the protege of Hippolyte Bernheim, whose famous lecture "Therapeutic Application of Hypnosis and Suggestion," expressing "a kind of Machiavellian altruism," provided the bedrock upon which Perlman's career has been constructed:

"His thesis was simple: Suggestion -- that is, `the act by which an idea is introduced into the brain and accepted by it' -- was the great unsung force in history. It fueled religion, commerce, ideology, more -- basically all human behavior, from child rearing to nation-building, was subject to its power. Bernheim's insight was twofold: first, he proposed that suggestion could be used therapeutically, as a means of treating certain psychogenic disorders; second, that the state of highest suggestibility, what he called credivite, could be induced through hypnosis. Bernheim was espousing an early brand of hypnotherapy, in other words . . . [but] Bernheim advised a more direct approach: identify the most ostensible source of the patient's complaint, induce a hypnotic trance, then suggest a way in which the disorder might be repaired."

Perlman has absorbed and modified Bernheim's teachings, and now practices what he calls "healing suggestion" at his clinic in London, where he is slowly building a following, choosing each case ("Take the cases you know you can treat") with care, never overreaching himself or his hypnotic and suggestive powers, establishing "a reputation for effectiveness" so that "patients would come with higher hopes -- higher hopes meant greater suggestibility -- which meant he could afford more challenging cases, enjoy more success and greater faith."

But one September day, a tiny monkey wrench is tossed into this plan. The hospital to which his clinic is attached brings a case to him without advance warning, leaving him no choice except to treat the patient: Sylvie Blum, 13 years old, who is severely dehydrated as a consequence of refusing all water, who at times assumes a "false identity" that Perlman chooses to call Nina, who in turn spends much of her time speaking to and caring for an invisible companion, Oona. Sylvie's father, like Perlman an Austrian Jew, is aloof and reticent, but clearly is deeply worried about her and expects prompt results. Perlman expects the same, but soon is disabused of any such hopes: "Whether it was a condition the girl brought with her or the result of his own mishandling -- perhaps just a rash of bad luck -- he realized he wasn't going to be able to solve this so quickly, he'd have to wait, now, gain Nina's trust again, then see -- not so much act as react."

It is here, not quite halfway through, that Perlman's Ordeal changes radically, and not for the better. Hansen's prose remains as lucid and engaging as the extracts quoted above indicate, but he veers off into a prolonged scene in which Sylvie/Nina is brought under the influence of Madame Helena Barrett, sister of a composer, Alexander Barrett, who died while young and left an enigmatic but compelling musical legacy to which Perlman is powerfully drawn. Helena is "a poet in her own right, librettist and unofficial dramaturge of all her brother's narrative efforts" as well as "his principal companion and muse" and, just possibly, his former lover, though this is only speculation.

What matters most about Helena for the purposes of this story is that she is a spiritualist whose belief in the mysterious and supernatural contrasts sharply with Perlman's rationalism. As Perlman fails over and over again to snap Sylvie out of the state into which she has plunged -- fails to exorcise Nina and Oona and the various tales and myths attendant on them -- Helena enters the case. She wins the girl's confidence, takes her into her house, and encourages her to bring these strange tales and myths into the open. Helena is "trying to teach a lesson of some kind," but Perlman cannot figure what it is: perhaps "just to show the good doctor what a little encouragement could yield; what happened if you said `yes' rather than `no'."

What ensues is a tug of war between the spiritualist and the rationalist with Sylvie/Nina in the middle. It gives away no secrets -- the dust-jacket copy says as much -- to note that this entails a scene, somewhere between a seance and a theatrical production and an exorcism, in which the girl gradually tells about Nina's past in the lost city of Atlantis, "a very advanced civilization" that "for a time played host to god and man alike," a place the golden age of which coincided "with that period where what had been divine -- or purely spiritual, if you will -- descended into flesh, or matter, once and for all." It is almost more than poor Perlman can abide:

"Up to this point, his connection to [this] world -- the world of mystics, theosophists, apocryphers, the occult -- had been purely peripheral, and rightly so. . . . And yet look what had happened here. These so-called imbeciles had gone and captured one of his patients. They'd sent their most beguiling envoy, who in less than two days had managed to insinuate herself between Perlman and the girl, and now had basically won her. She had beaten him at his own game, and in so doing had managed to fill this empty vessel `Nina' with the rankest [expletive] that idle minds could muster."

The climax comes when Sophie/Nina's narrative reaches the point at which her secret, as well as the explanation for her behavior, is revealed. Readers with a higher tolerance for the occult than I doubtless will find this scene more interesting and persuasive than I did; Perlman himself is eventually drawn into it, however reluctantly, but I was not, as it seemed to me excessively rhetorical and cheaply melodramatic. It goes on far too long and entails too much silliness.

Still, for Perlman it is an educational experience as well as a near-disaster: "He was no healer. He'd narrowly escaped professional ruin by a means he did not understand and did not really care to. What he'd managed to do there at the end . . . had been capitulation. The Madame and the girl had gotten him to play their game, by their rules. All he'd done was surrender -- played well, but in so doing, violated every principle and conviction he'd entered with. For that, it seemed he'd gained Sylvie Blum, but lost forever any sense of worthiness or entitlement. He felt as if he'd finally awakened to his own ignorance and never would sleep again."

Thus the book ends, with a few loose ends yet to be tied. The forces of darkness have had, if not exactly a victory over the forces of light, something very close to one. Reaching that point is, for the reader, a strange journey, at once rewarding and maddening, involving not merely the occult but also extended digressions into music, Alexander Barrett's and others', about which Hansen writes with feeling and knowledge. The intelligence of the novel is what finally redeems it, but it's a close call.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.