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credit: New Directions

Christine Wunnicke, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura (New Directions, 2019), pp. 160

Christine Wunnicke’s The Fox and Dr. Shimamura (2019, New Directions) is a novel that blends science and the supernatural, East and West, past and future. It tells the story of Shun’ichi Shimamura, a Japanese neurologist whose life is altered by a mystical experience that brings him face to face with the politics of gender conformity in late 19th century Japan and Paris. Drawn into the pathologizing world of medicine and psychiatry, he confronts some of that era’s most significant and controversial historical figures as he strives to understand his magically altered relationship to masculinity and femininity.

In her native Germany, Wunnicke is already well known for her stories that explore sophisticated and paradoxical themes through the lives of enigmatic personalities. In a 2017 interview with Antje Weber for Süddeutsche Zeitung, Wunnicke describes herself as interested in “disintegrating persons, fragmented figures… intermediate states, border crossings, dubious identities, doppelgangers,” perhaps as concise a summary of Shimamura and the competing logics of his world as it is possible to muster. Like The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, Wunnicke’s 2006 novel Missouri also draws on cultures outside of Wunnicke’s own in a similar tale of queer liminality about the gay romance between an English poet and an American outlaw. Her 2001 half-biography, half-novel of the castrato singer Filippo Baltri, The Tsar’s Nightingale, won multiple awards for its portrayal of a complicated and irreducible personality. This places The Fox and Dr. Shimamura as the latest entry in a long-standing literary trajectory in which Wunnicke investigates themes of gender, non-normative sexuality, science and the paranormal, the insufficiencies of language, and the infinite complexity of human relationships.

Fresh out of graduate school, the titular Dr. Shimamura is charged by his academic supervisor to travel to remote areas of Japan to investigate reports of “fox possession,” a long-standing Japanese myth in which foxes are said to possess the bodies of young women, causing them to display a range of shocking emotive and bodily symptoms. Trained in the medical sciences, Shimamura can only understand these symptoms as evidence of epilepsy, hysteria, and “female disorders.” At the end of his voyage, Shimamura’s certainties are shattered when he sees the spirit of a fox moving physically beneath the flesh of a young woman named Kiyo. From this point forward, Shimamura’s narration of his own life is fragmented: he may or may not be possessed by a fox spirit himself, he may or may not be implicated in murder, he may or may not be dying from tuberculosis. In the midst of this confusion, Shimamura travels to Paris’s infamous Salpêtrière hospital to work with Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, the western world’s leading theorist in female hysteria. This encounter sets in motion a powerful tension that drives the novel to an ambiguous yet deeply satisfying conclusion.

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura is a brief, but richly layered book, drawing together disparate narrative threads: Shimamura’s rural journey to investigate fox possession, the world of psychoanalysis and neuropsychology in fin de siècle Paris (peopled by real historical figures such as Charcot, Josef Breuer, and, briefly, Sigmund Freud), and the lives of the four women who care for Shimamura in his old age. That these variously cultured and gendered worlds are not only well-realized but meaningfully synthesized within an efficient 160 pages is a major credit to Wunnicke as a writer. Her compelling blend of historical fiction and magical realism brings to mind other recent popular works of historical re-imagination such as Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Reaching back further, one can also find Wunnicke’s novel in communication with a much older tradition—the late 19th-century psychological literature such as Andre Breton’s Nadja and Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” which drew together medicine and myth to interrogate questions of identity, gender, and the inscrutable ambiguities of human life.

These are the same questions that drive Wunnicke’s writing. By situating narratives of relatively grounded disciplines such as history and medicine next to narratives of mythology and the supernatural, Wunnicke fills her work with rich and engaging contradictions and paradoxes. For every narrative possibility that is closed off by the diagnostic fixity of Charcot and his medical theories, another is opened back up by the persistent uncertainty of the supernatural. For instance, as Shimamura thinks back on the cases of fox possession, he turns first to the works of German neurologist Wilhelm Griesinger, who assures him that “with instances of induced insanity (folie communiquée, folie à deux)… the secondary cases are in the rule slow-witted people with very limited powers of psychic resistance, chiefly women.” Before the page has finished, however, the voice of Shimamura’s much more mythologically-inclined assistant rises up, challenging him to return to the supernatural register by which the women describe their own maladies: “Do you also remember, sensei, when you were little, the screwneck ghost? The one that creeps up from behind and suddenly grabs you by the throat and then stares you right in the eye? Do you remember? Do you?”

Wunnicke’s telling of Shimamura’s life materializes the centuries-long conversations between science and other, often gendered, sites of knowledge production as a fertile ground of philosophical contrasts. Early in the novel, Shimamura is fixed within just one of these modes. He travels to the rural parts of the country as a hardened scientific skeptic, certain that the assignment to investigate fox possession is merely a practical joke played upon him by his faculty supervisor (who also happens to be his father-in-law, a detail that subtly hints at the status of women as commodity in 19th-century culture). Crowds of exorcists as well as those who call themselves “receptacles”—disenfranchised human beings who willingly offer to become hosts to the spirits possessing others—surround the sites of reported fox possession, and Shimamura responds to them both with a kind of practiced loathing. He has, in a sense, solved these cases before he ever examines or speaks with the women in question. As a result, his journey is rote in a way that allows Wunnicke to foreground an understanding of medicine as a narrative in and of itself, one told by fallible people. She tells us that “after many cases of tuberculosis, one of meningitis, three simple flus and all manner of non-specific paralytic disorders, Shimamura had had enough and with no real justification he diagnosed one case of choreatic mania, simply because he liked the sound of the words, as well as one of gravidity psychosis.” When Shimamura’s assistant, a young man who is so “carefree and assertive in his sexual affect” that Shimamura will later recall him with a “strong defensive reaction” barely concealing homoerotic attraction, grows weary of the doctor’s reductive attitude, he offers a rebuke that challenges the centrality of “diagnosis” in Shimamura’s worldview, inviting him to consider Kiyo in terms of identity and spirit:

“She isn’t getting exorcized because there’s nothing to exorcize… There’s nothing to drive out. A fox doesn’t live inside a fox. The fox is the girl’s soul… Oh, sensei, you’ve got it all wrong! In my family, four hundred years ago, people used to know about these things.”

Unconvinced, Shimamura subsequently brands Kiyo with his learned diagnosis: hysteria.

Following his last encounter with Kiyo, however, Shimamura believes he has taken her fox spirit into his own body. He thus becomes a material vessel for the counternarrative logics of mythology and the supernatural, and his life becomes less easily categorizable. He begins to elicit “unusual reactions from his female patients” and manifests a magnetic yet non-sexualized rapport with them that suggests something of an identification with women. In Paris, he is said by the professionals there to exhibit signs of hysteria himself, a neurotic condition described by his own mother as “soft and beautiful… this beautiful, soft, sympathetic and almost feminine madness….” These traits mark Shimamura as someone who is navigating the hazy boundaries of gender, finding through the fox spirit some access to an internalized femininity that is rebuked by his society in the form of history’s most gendered diagnosis.

His cultural clashes with Parisian psychoanalysis and neuropsychology thereafter take on an explicitly gendered dimension. Forced to speak in German in order to communicate with his colleagues, Shimamura continually laments that he cannot speak in Japanese, a language that lacks gender and is therefore, he thinks, uniquely suited to nuanced philosophical investigation. When a female friend helps him prepare for a masked ball, he chooses effeminate makeup and a nightcap borrowed from the friend’s grandmother. Later, when someone at the party has (what might be) a seizure, his attempts to help are regarded as suspicious and aggressive, his now-feminized appearance no longer according with the social expectation of a medical professional. These slippages of gender increasingly mark Shimamura’s life as unintelligible to the scientific discourses that surround him. Students who deliver speeches at his retirement ceremony ignore the mythological aspects of his life’s work which were most important to him, and his mother Hanako, attempting to write his biography, struggles to find a binary that can explain him. She auditions both “Obligation and Inclination” as well as “Genius and Insanity” and finds both lacking.

In this way, the book becomes a meditation on those things that slip between the gaps when one’s perspective of humanity becomes tied to a reductive hermeneutic. Shimamura, in contrast to Charcot and the other famous physicians of Western history, represents a paradoxical suspension of competing modes of engagement with the world. When he is questioned by Josef Breuer late in the novel, Breuer is alarmed to find that Shimamura regards his fox spirit, the chief symbol of his queered relation to gender and sexuality, as “a kind of pet, unmanageable but halfway loved – not merely as a burden, but also as an instrument for sharpening his diagnostic sensibilities and healing talent” (135). That which is understood to be his “madness” by his colleagues is also that which enables him to connect to parts of the world previously closed off to him, becoming a better doctor in the process. When Shimamura operates his own hospital at the peak of his career, he often “cures” otherwise intractable cases of “hysteria” through acting as a spiritual receptacle for the foxes inhabiting his patients (145). Approaching retirement, he becomes fixated with the Japanese fox spirit, Inari, who inhabits the same kinds of contradictions, gendered and otherwise, that have come to shape his own life; the fox has…

“…more tails than human numbers could count. At the same time she always had exactly nine. And at the same time she was also a snake and a spider. She often accompanied herself as her own servant – a winged, single-tailed fox. At the same time she was a bodhisattva, or even seven, and also water, grain, and land. She was a he as well as an it.” (emphasis mine).

Through Shimamura, Wunnicke tells us that a mind open to the animating possibilities of paradox is crucial if one wants to understand the vagaries, ambiguities, and outright contradictions of any one human life.

Admirably, she retains this commitment to the narrative potentials of ambiguity all the way to the end of her work. The real climax of this novel is not Shimamura’s, but belongs to a figure about whom we can definitively know even less. “Sei,” or possibly “Anna” or “Luise”—her real name is never known—is a woman who Shimamura’s wife Sachiko brought to live with the family from Shimamura’s asylum, after no one could remember where she came from, or whether she was a patient or a nurse. Her role in the novel is to perform a series of rote actions in the care of Shimamura, the meaning of which even he doesn’t grasp, and to refrain from speech. That is, until one truly surprising and disruptive moment at the novel’s end that upsets many of the things we thought we had learned and which leaves us with an ending that offers little certainty but demonstrates a great deal of Wunnicke’s literary and philosophical depth.

credit: Christine Wunnicke

All of that said, I question whether the short length of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura is just too small of a space for Wunnicke to give proper treatment to her themes. At the least, one wonders what she might have done with more pages. Many of the novel’s threads, while compelling and suggestive of immense depth, feel as if we had only begun to scratch their surface by the time we reach the end. Chief among these is Shimamura’s relationship with Dr. Charcot. This relationship seems to share its own queer dynamic suggested by the “spark” (83) the two of them are described as sharing (language usually reserved for Shimamura’s relationships with women), and by Charcot’s feminizing of Shimamura through one of his infamous public displays of the symptoms of hysteria, as well as his diagnostic power. Likewise, Shimamura’s relationship with his wife Sachiko is one of tremendous perversity and animosity which is only hinted at rather than shown. This is not to say, of course, that a higher page-count would have brought some sense of certainty and closure to these complex relationships at the core of the novel, and it is perhaps to Wunnicke’s credit that I was left wanting more.

It is worth mentioning the novel’s translation by Philip Boehm. This is a novel full of multilingual characters who constantly complain about the difficulties of conveying what they really mean in a discourse outside of their native tongue. It foregrounds the problem of translation. In many texts, this might present a significant problem, as it would constantly remind us that we were reading a mediated text rather than Wunnicke’s original German. Boehm’s work, however, skillfully highlights the problems of language, and seamlessly slips into brief multilingual flourishes when needed to convey character’s states of mind. His translation comes across as something of a feature in its own right, making certain themes of the novel even more legible to readers in English.

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura performs the delicate task of writing about the ineffable without pinning it down and rendering it mundane. As an avid reader, especially of literature by women, I love it when authors show me parts of life where, as Charcot might say, my prejudices have predisposed me to treat the world as less complex than it really is. Recovering the almost magical counternarratives running parallel to key moments in the history of western modernity made Wunnicke’s novel a welcome surprise, and one I’ll likely return to in the future.

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