• The Experiment

    by Richard Setlowe

    Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1980

    ISBN 0-03-041745-7     Buy This Book

  • Experimentet

     Los Angeles Times masthead 

    Book Review

    A human Neptune returns to the aquatic womb
    By Ray Loynd

    Harry Styles, 36, family man, is a terminal case. But he can be a wretched statistic, or an explorer. So, with awe and horror, he and his wife consent to the experiment. Doctors remove his cancerous lung–"there goes his jogging," remarks the surgeon–and suture an artificial gill into his trachea. Harry takes his last breath–and wakes up to find himself submerged in a huge tank, breathing water like a fish, a human Neptune in the grotto of marine science. And, more particularly, our imagination. This science novel succeeds in eerie proportion to your real and subconscious experiences, your fears about a world under water. The author, a former journalist, sets up a laboratory freak show in which gill-like devices commonly used in heart-lung machines are carried one fathom further. Nicknamed Glaucus (for the ancient mortal turned sea god), Harry is an unexpectedly triumphant experiment, a giant fetus returned to the aquatic womb, acting "like Neil Armstrong and Jacques Cousteau rolled into one." Setlowe punctuate his story with brisk, alternate viewpoints, and the horror is psychological–mutual trauma between Harry and those around him, particularly his family. Setlowe's imagery can be swift and suggestive ("husband and wife fading together like cut flowers"). But the early narrative sometimes gasps acknowledgment in a kelp bed of medical and technical data too often passed as dialogue. Here the homework shows too much, for fiction. The page impresses enough. But the momentum gathers, scientific, spiritual, ecological, political and media forces create metaphors for any number of recent, real-life, life-support dilemmas. Harry in his wet suit dives deep into sea off our coast, "weightless in a great blue void that had neither top nor bottom nor sides but only shadings of light;" the "chamber of liquid light" turns dark with new terrors, man-made. The resonances suggest Dalton Trumbo's basket case in "Johnny Got His Gun" and the cold-comfortable seawater of Edward Albee's scaly character in "Seascape." Like those figures, Harry is a true alien who compels a kind of uncanny attention that has nothing to do with fantasy.

    — Ray Loynd, a journalist-critic, authored "The Jaws 2 Log."


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