Book Review: The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome
by Serge Brussolo
translated from the French by Edward Gauvin
Melville House, 2016
The good folks at Melville house, in their commendable decision to introduce the novels of smart and occasionally best-selling French author Serge Brussolo to monoglot English readers, have decided to start with Le syndrome du scaphandrier from the halcyon days of 1992. Here, in a lovely blue edition (the arresting circular cover design is by Christopher King) translated by Edward Gauvin, is The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome.
It’s an appealingly strange book, a sometimes-surreal combination of science fiction, magical realism, and post-modern psychological drama. It’s the story of David Sarella, a “medium” who launches his consciousness deep into the realm of dreams in order to retrieve manipulable ectoplasm that can then be shaped into high-priced works of art in the waking world. He and his fellow mediums make these expeditions in teams under carefully-monitored conditions and must consult with on-staff psychologists after every return. David Sarella imagines his own “dives” as glamorous high-end art heists he carries out with his colleague Nadia, but his identification with this kind of dramatic imagery poses a bit of a danger, as one of those psychologists sternly warns him:
“That’s enough!” Marianne hissed, stabbing the notebook again. “Keep this up and you’ll wind up confusing dreams and reality, which is what happens to old dreamers. I believe that among yourselves, you call it ‘the bends’ – see, I’m familiar with your jargon. Be careful, David. I repeat: there is no down below. The whole break-in scenario is just a ritual, something that helps you do your work, a kind of magjc formula that allows you to concentrate. Some dreamers imagine themselves on safari, hunting a mythical creature; others are climbing an unconquered peak in search of some undiscovered mineral. Still others explore space in a rocket, landing on unknown planets. I could go on; examples abound. All these patterns stem directly from a childhood stock of images. They must not be romanticized.”
The intriguingly declasse world of the mediums is captured by Brussolo with an off-key candor reminiscent of William Gibson’s cyberspace novels. The mediums might be risking their lives doing something not everybody can do, but they aren’t heroes, and when they gather together at the Diver’s Cafe, it’s not exactly a stirring atmosphere:
David didn’t really enjoy the company of other mediums. He’d soon realized that in such a confined setting there was no such thing as conversation; everyone soliloquized without paying any attention to what was going on around them, drunk on the sound of their own voices, sinking in self-hypnosis and narcissistic vertigo, endlessly recounting their last descent and the miracles they’d performed down below.
Those miracles are taking their toll on David Sarella; he’s burnt out and dreaming of one last grand “dive” – a kind of dream that’s unfortunately common in novels like this one (such valedictory notions run all throughout Gibson’s books, for instance). Brussolo works David’s dream into a steadily-escalating increasingly surreal climax that stands several of the book’s premises on their heads and brings the whole thing to a sharp and satisfying final page. His characters are a bit on the rote side, but then, The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome was written a quarter of a century ago. Even novelists can sometimes pick up a trick or two in such a stretch of time.