As the title of Merrill Joan Gerber’s new novel suggests, The Hysterectomy Waltz is a satirical, dark comedy in the tradition of Joseph Heller. Think Catch-22, but instead of young men trapped by the absurdity of war and the military machine, this is women caught up in the clutches of the gynecological profession, at the mercy of paradoxical medical rules and regulations over which they have no control. Or rather, one woman, the unnamed protagonist and narrator of the novel.
The story basically takes place in three parts: the discovery of a tumor on the narrator’s ovary during a visit to her cocky male gynecologist, to whom she has gone thinking she may be pregnant again; her stay in the hospital with all its maddening absurdities and bureaucratic blunders and rigid procedures; and finally the post-surgery coming to terms with her new condition, her new conception of herself as a woman (mother, lover, sensual being).
The narrator has three teenage daughters at the time that she goes to her gynecologist to confirm her pregnancy, and hopes this time she’ll have a son. But her hopes are dashed when the doctor breaks the news to her that she has a tumor and spells out her options in cold-blooded fashion. Like all of her male doctors before him, pushing and prodding her intimate parts, he is insensitive and has no respect for her privacy. So Gerber’s protagonist consults a female doctor, Laura, who lives in Beverly Hills. Thirty years before, Laura had been her best friend, in Brooklyn. Laura turns out to be only marginally better than the guys. She’s part of the medical establishment, after all, that seems to be a pretty narcissistic bunch.
Through her narrator, Gerber describes the indignities of the check-up process with grim humor, from the gowns that never quite preserve one’s modesty to the dreariness of the waiting room.
I tried to swallow my poisonous envy and checked into the giant medical machinery for tests. Appearing humble and grateful, I was shunted here, transferred there, given occupancy of a dressing stall that was shaped like an upright coffin.
Robed as if for entry to heaven, I carried my key on a silver circle from the cubicle to the arena of judgment...
Laura refers the protagonist to her brother Jeffrey, a surgeon. The protagonist is back where she started, in the hands of another male doctor. She has a history with Jeffrey as well.
The stay in the hospital is especially dark and farcical, like an episode from Joseph Heller or even Franz Kafka, from the first visit with the hospital counselor, who shows her a filmstrip called Waltzing Through Your Hysterectomy, to the bureaucratic nightmare of the hospital room arrangement, and the surgery itself. Her roommate is a Mexican woman named Carmen Garcia who is having her tubes untied so that she can have more children. Over the course of the few days that she and the protagonist share a room, suffice it to say that many weird things happen, including the crank calls from “Dr. Nickelodeon.”
“Just as your marriage began in romance and wonder, so it may continue as a blessing from heaven after your hysterectomy,” the voice–over in Waltzing Through Your Hysterectomy assures the group of women there for orientation to the surgery, while “The Anniversary Waltz” plays in the background.
The narrator’s three unnamed daughters all have bizarre boyfriends of their own, from a marine on a motorcycle to a figure on horseback from a romance novel to a falconer – though the first daughter ultimately becomes involved with a Chassidic Jew – whom the narrator/mother finds more repellant than the motorcycling marine, with his hyper-religious observance, at once arrogant and misogynistic.
Indeed, as with Heller, there is a strong element of Jewish slapstick in this story, from the protagonist’s aunt, known simply as “the sage,” full of Yiddish wisdom and wisecracks, to the narrator’s own ambivalent feelings about her religion. (“I heard the old sage saying, ‘...so don’t be ashamed to tell me, darling. Did you move your bowels yet or not? Ask for prune juice. And don’t be embarrassed to discuss this with me. I used to diaper your tushy.’”). Even the repeated obsession with having a son feels very Jewish, in Gerber’s hands.
Names are important in this story. It is significant that none of the narrator’s family is ever named, from the aunt to the husband to herself and her daughters. This allows us to take them more seriously than we do the characters with the more cartoonish names (well, given the daughter’s romantic interests, they are hard to take completely seriously, too.). The hospital staff confuse her with various other patients, from “Mrs. Von Furstenberg” to “Elvira Sweet,” bizarre postmodern names, as ridiculous as the shadowy pornographer in the story, “Dr. Nickelodeon” (to be confused with “Dr. Calliope”) and her surgeon, Laura’s brother Jeremy, whose last name is Katzenellenbogen, a real mouthful. As in Heller and other postmodern masters (Nabokov and Pynchon come to mind), these names at once make the characters figures of fun whose evil doesn’t seem so horrifying, adding an air of the surreal, but there’s no mistaking their essential malevolence. Think of Humbert Humbert. Jeffrey is like that.
The protagonist’s witchy, oddly-named neighbor, Aroona, figures into the revenge part of the plot when she casts a spell on her dog, MacBeth, that causes him to stop making noise when he barks, and throws a spell on Dr. Katzenellenbogen as well.
Does Gerber have an ax to grind in this novel? It’s not clear. Certainly it turns out that there are many unforeseen consequences of the hysterectomy that were never mentioned in the feel-good filmstrip nor by the medical professionals, including the obliteration of her sex life, and this feels like betrayal. And was the surgery even necessary? “It’s the policy of the Gynos on the staff here. Once they’ve got you opened up, they want to get it all. They can’t install a zipper, you know, and you wouldn’t want to have to go back in a year and be opened up again for fibroids or endometriosis or some other nonsense. Once in there, they might as well get everything.” The protagonist feels hoodwinked, cheated, her whole reproductive apparatus (and sexual feeling) taken away fort a benign tumor. Even her breast is mutilated by careless doctors.
The protagonist is indeed resentful — she’s furious! — and exacts revenge, but this book doesn’t feel like a polemic against overzealous surgeons so much as utter bewilderment at the way lives turn out. Indeed, a final chapter on the vicissitudes of “luck” and what it all even means to have it or not, seems to be the final statement about justice in the universe. Justice, luck; luck, justice: what’s the difference? A Jewish joke, indeed. Woody Allen would appreciate it!