“The New Rays”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is a tale of weird science, alienation, and medical humilation.

Review: “The New Rays”, M. John Harrison, 1982.

London seems to be our setting with the offices of Dr. Alexandre in Camden Town. The time? Well, that’s not so simple to establish. Since we hear of wounded soldiers about in the streets, maybe it’s the First World War. Maybe the Second. It could be either since there is really no mention of automobiles, only of trains.

And it’s a train that our narrator takes from the Midlands with her husband or, perhaps, just a lover, designated only as W.B. 

She is ill. With what, we don’t immediately know. It was her idea to visit Alexandre at his clinic on Agar Grove Street. The treatments are free, but she initially balks at knocking on its door though it was her idea to come. W.B is, not for the last time, impatient.

From the beginning, Dr. Alexandre seems a weird, unsettling character. The narrator, at the clinic, meets a “beautiful crippled girl” whom Alexandra claims he can cure, but the narrator doubts it. She’s Alexandre’s interpreter. The doctor emphasizes that the narrator can’t bother the other patients and that her treatment depends on her full confidence in it. 

Washing his hands of her, W.B. leaves the narrator to stay at a hotel, and he returns home leaving the first of many notes indicating his and the narrator’s estrangement. It urges her to “have some thought for other people”. People calling the narrator selfish is a recurring motif in the story. 

She perceives Alexandre as a quack and doesn’t think she can be cured. Alexandre’s treatment involves some new form of radiation discovered years ago in some lab but ignored since then.  No one is sure where the rays come from. 

The narrator is suffering from some form of goiter though other patients of Dr. Alexandre’s have other illnesses. Some live at the clinic, and some don’t. 

The narrator has chosen to get free treatments which means there is no anaesthetic as her insides are bathed in radiation after she drinks a nasty “bluish milk” concoction to coat her insides with something that will absorb the rays. They come in two varieties. The “stealthy gold or russet” ones comfort despite the pain that follows. The others are a “blue-black” color which cast odd shadows in the treatment room and give a “jetty gloss” to Alexandre’s teeth. Since no one really knows how the rays work, the narrator thinks they are probably killing her quicker than the disease. 

When she mentions this to the girl, the latter tells her she won’t translate complaints for the doctor. One morning the narrator is taken to the treatment shed in a poorly tended garden and thirty yards from the clinic. Supposedly this is for reasons of safety, but the narrator wonders if Alexandre isn’t afraid of “accidentally curing passerbys”. 

The treatment scene is weird, horrifying, and humilating. 

The narrator is put on a table, restrained and a guard put in her mouth. Alexandre seems panicked and concerned about time as if he has no real control over the rays and when they come. All the time she is harrangued: 

Are you conscious!  Can you raise your head? Are you aware that you have lost control of your bowels? We must know. 

Alexandre and the crippled girl wear “yellowish rubber suits and tinted goggles”. We hear about a black fog and then a yellow fog filling up the street. We don’t know if this is somehow the result of Alexandre’s rays. 

Later, in a casual mention, we are introduced to the “blue body” in the garden with the treatment shed. We don’t really learn what it is. It seems humaoid and wandering about confused. 

There is also the motif of stolen items. On the train journey down to London, the narrator lost a travel clock W.B. gave her. After she has a dream on a train on a day she isn’t getting treatment, she finds her gloves are stolen. 

The narrator doesn’t find W.B’s letters, “full of solicitude and domestic calm”, comforting at all.  She has a vision, when she goes out, of “a human face turing away forever”. We hear of wounded soldiers in the street whose eyes stare at things not present. 

She lies in letter to W.B. that she is feeling better and that she gets along well with the other women at the clinic. In reality, she feels as if poisonous metal has been deposited in her body.  The other women are not sociable –

a desperate, frightened bunch, concentrating on the only important business we have left, which is survival. 

We hear about blue bodies getting loose and wandering into the clinic. One was “supposed to have been left on the bench” but wanders around blindly, “a mannequin made of transparent blue jelly”. We learn the blue bodies have no internal organs, “are not alive in any way medical science can define.” The narrator wonders what happens to the blue bodies when the doctor is finished with them. 

At one period, the narrator lies in bed in her hotel room for three days, ill and depressed. She writes to W.B. wondering why she has a “mania” to surive. Is it worth it? She can’t even go for a walk. She hates her self for surviving. 

She is painfully gaunt, and she has a dream that her goiter “drained all the virtues of the world around me” and makes everything unrealistic and two-dimensional. (This echoes a painting she saw in Alexandre’s office of a woman also suffering from a goiter.) 

She wonders if W.B. let her pay for treatments (they seem to have the money) things would be better. As the treaments go on, the rays seem to rot the wood of the treatment shed, and fungus grows inside the wall clock. Alexandre tells her to stop bothering the other patients with questions though there is no indication she has been.

Then, as he speaks in English, we get another hint about the blue bodies: 

Matter is cheap in the universe. It is disorganized, but yearns to be of use. Do you see? We do nothing wrong when we create these blue bodies. We violate no laws. 

The narrator replies she just wants to be sure they are doing the right thing. She wants to know what happens to the blue bodies when the treament ends. Alexandre reminds her she is getting free treatment. The crippled girl says she is not making “fast progress”, that the narrator isn’t sleeping. Why? The narrator should move to the clinic. And then, again, he assures the narrator everything at the clinic is “humane and legal”. 

The narrator doesn’t move into the the clinic, but she can’t stay in the hotel. Someone is always using the lavatory on the floor of her room, and they stare at her. There are silverfish in her bathroom. (The lavatory and bathroom seem separate rooms, perhaps there is some British usage here I don’t understand.) She’s told that, with her sleeping all day, her room can’t be cleaned regularly. 

W.B. shows up. One night, in bed, he asks her what she’s thinking. “That I had died and the doctor had gone to tell you.” 

She tries to get a furnished accomodation elsewhere, but there’s nothing in Bayswater in November or rooms are too expensive (showing her and W.B.’s funds are not unlimited). 

At first, having W.B. around reminds her of “something of our youth”. But, eventually, they have a very public argument about Alexandre, and W.B. tells her she’s disgusting, “stewing in your self-concern”. 

After the argument, she goes to another art gallery which she likes to do on non-treatment days and sees a painting of an overcast beach scene with indistinct figures. Signifcantly, all their faces are turned away. A man says the painting tells her the scene has a “certain atmosphere”, but tells her she has to leave since the gallery is closing. 

On the way out, she vomits (a key to her dehbilitated state is that she vomits “unexpectedly and painlessly”) on the man’s sleeve. Returning to the hotel, she finds her bags packed and by the door. She’s told W.B. left and that she told the hotel she was moving. However, they agree to let her stay another week. 

Very sick the next day, she writes to W.B. to take her away, but she tears the letters up. It seems she soils the sheets since she has an argument about the state of them with a maid.

(Spoilers ahead) 

She is frightened and decides to vist Alexandre after hours. In the treament shed, blue light bleeds from under the door. The narrator is disoriented , can’t remember where anything is in the clinic. A blue body is blundering about into the walls and heating pipes. The crippled girl urges it along. 

Revealing more about how the blue bodies are related to the treatment, the narrator says to the girl she didn’t know she was getting treatments. The girl tells her she’s not allowed in this part of the clinic after hours. The blue body holds its arms out like a policeman directing traffic and touches the girl’s face, and the narrator notices it is the exact image of her. 

The girl grabs the blue body out of the linen closet where it’s gone. She manhandles it into a door further down the corridor. There she drags it onto a table and lies beside it. She puts her arms around it and presses against it. Nothing happens, so the crippled girl gets off the table and looks out the door and gets back on the table 

Then something happens though the narrator doesn’t know what. The blue body falls off the table and pulls the girl with it. The girl begins to scream, and the narrator notices that her legs and those of the blue bodies have joined together. The cripple screams at the narrator, “Help us join back together!”. 

But the narrator bolts from the room and runs upstairs. Later that night, she hears Alexandre and the girl shouting. 

The last scene of the book has the narrator back in her hotel room for her last night there. She just wants to stay in the room sleeping and reading, but the maid reminds her she’s out of there the next day. W.B. is coming and they are going to France for treatment elsewhere. 

She ruminates on the conscripts in barges “being towed up and down the river” (which seems rather pointless and not something I’ve heard before which again makes me wonder when this story is set). 

She ruminates on how

‘Places are not so easy to escape from.’ I will never go back to Agar Grove, but I see my own blue bodies everywhere. Spawned in the violence and helplessness of the treatment shed, shadows of myself cast somehow by rays that no one properly understands, they bob and gesticulate dumbly at the edge of vision. How many times have I said, ‘I would do anything at all to be cured!’ 

The story’s last sentence ends on a despairing note on how the treament has changed her:

Now that I have done everything I feel as if I have been complicit in some appalling violation of myself. 

I take the story to be a metaphor for the chronically ill, particularly cancer patients, and how, when they desperately concentrate on the “important business” of being cured, they can find themselves alienated. People like W.B. prod diseased loved ones to just get cured yet are impatient with being told the problems and doubts the diseased may feel in pursing a “cure”. To a W.B., this is just a problem to solve even if it involves weird rays of unknown origin and effect or French chemists. Nor is there even any sentimental sisterhood of victims here. The narrator is cut off from the other patients at the clinic. In the end, the narrator wonders if, in seeking to live, she has destroyed herself.

I can’t say this mirrors people I’ve known who have been in this situation but that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t contain psychological truths that manifest in some circumstances.

As to the blue bodies, they seem to represent some ineffable part of themselves they lost under Dr. Alexandre’s rays and wish to reunite with. Whether that or a cure can be effected, we don’t learn.

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