Obsession Finds a Form: A Review of The Two Doctors Górski
The Two Doctors Górski. Isaac Fellman. Tordotcom, November 2022.
Isaac Fellman’s The Two Doctors Górski feels clever in its earliest pages, perhaps excessively so. The novella opens on a room full of graduate students vying to impress each other through linguistic repartee replete with Latin puns. But, like its prickly protagonist, the novella quickly reveals a more sincere underbelly. The Two Doctors Górski is a quiet story with personal stakes, compared to other books with similar premises that feature magical wars, social revolutions, or secret societies. It falls in line with a handful of recent “dark academia” books—e.g. R.F. Kuang’s Babel and Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House—more interested in challenging the genre than paying tribute to its aesthetic.
The intimate, psychological tale feels at times bewildering and claustrophobic—a mirror of disgraced magician Annae Hofstader’s emotional state as she rebuilds her sense of self after an abusive romantic relationship with her ex PhD supervisor. The former wunderkind has found herself blackballed, her life’s work branded as juvenile and underdeveloped. Only one professor will take her on: Marec Górski, a near-mythic magician famous for snipping away a part of his own mind, condensing all his better impulses into a homunculus so he could focus exclusively on his work. What’s left is a grumpy, alienated savant known for squashing the aspirations of students at an Oxbridge-adjacent magical university program. Meanwhile, the homunculus Ariel, out of the public eye, leads a life dictated by Górski’s more expressive emotions.
While Annae tries to focus on her work, life thwarts her at every turn. Her ex-lover/ex-advisor sends a nasty email to Górski, who seems ready to neglect his grad students for any reason; an inexplicable fire and other bouts of ill luck seem to plague Annae’s picturesque campus. Of course, Annae only knows much of this because she spends much of her time in other people’s minds, obsessively reading their impressions of her from the outside. The dissociative habit is framed as self-protection—if she knows what people think of her, she won’t be fooled again. But it’s also a form of self-harm: Annae “loved ripping off Band-Aids, popping pimples, breaking scabs. It was impossible to resist the urge to know someone who might think ill of her.”
The academic environment around her certainly encourages these impulses, as Annae struggles to complete her research under intense scrutiny and emotional malaise, with little support from her judgmental, withholding supervisor. In these scenes, we see pivotal emotional moments (for Annae) from the perspective of another character, as she observes them observing her. It’s this dissociative act that feels most central to how the novella works, and who its main character ultimately becomes.
Doctors Górski is interested in applying the speculative on an personal, smaller scale as a metaphor for mental health, trauma, and relationships, much like Fellman’s recent novel, Dead Collections. It’s a small book packed with ideas. Most pressing among them, Annae’s research question: What if you could remove trauma, anxiety, mental illness with a single, magical snip?
It’s a troublesome question, not least for its real-world eugenic associations. Annae’s answer—for mice, at least, not humans—propelled her to academic fame as a young, precocious student. The idea of magical psychology interventions is one of the central speculative conceits of the book, but it seems curiously unwilling to address this topic head-on. In the first few pages, when Annae describes her field as “mental illness and trauma,” Górski quips, “Are you pro or con?” then changes the subject before Annae has a chance to answer.
The book has similarly glancing engagements with other thorny topics. It drops a single-line comment about the imperial mythology of British universities. And it dabbles with sexual identity through Górski and Ariel: when they split, Górski kept sexual urges while Ariel received the romantic. (Some readers may find that this sits too close to negative stereotypes of aspec individuals as partially human.)
While the novella declines to address many of these questions explicitly, it does speak to all of these themes through its structure and character arcs. The result is a distance from its topics that mirrors Annae’s—and academia’s—tendency to intellectualize and avoid significant personal and social problems. From a sheer technical perspective, this suits the story. But it also means that the book lands in a tricky space: Its careful character work sometimes stands at odds with its intellectual obsessions, even though they reflect each other conceptually. Readers looking for an emotional experience may not find it in Annae’s removed interior narration. Meanwhile, readers interested in the novella’s philosophical questions may feel somewhat thwarted by the ways they are primarily explored through personal stakes that avoid larger political and social ramifications. That conflict is also central to the book.
It’s Górski’s literal better half, the homunculus-turned-psychiatrist (and yogi) Ariel, who puts words to that particular thematic core: “In a sense, I am an illness, but it’s a mental one. Starve a fever, feed an obsession. And eventually your obsession will find a form.”
The act of mind reading operates the same, for Annae, as Gorski’s act of splitting himself in two to create Ariel. For both of them, these magical feats are symptoms of their alienation from others, their desires to just cut that anxiety and disconnection out, and their obsession with work.
Though the book’s blurb claims it is a trauma recovery narrative about a woman who is “reclaiming personal power in the aftermath of abuse,” it’s more of a pre-recovery narrative. Annae drifts and copes until her mind-reading leads her to accidentally commits a disastrous consent violation against another student, twinning her academic research with her self-harming habits. It’s those circumstances—and a few kind words from Górski’s homunculus—that compel her to heal, off-page, between the final chapter and the epilogue.
The epilogue, set years later, completes Annae’s tale—at least intellectually. Emotionally, her narration is sparse, and it feels as if the book’s final moments hold one at arm’s length from its emotional truths. That’s where The Two Doctors Górski may lose readers who hope to experience a more direct catharsis for Annae’s final pages. But it’s also the novella’s greatest strength, as it creates a delicate journey wrought with implications for readers who are enticed enough to stay in that conceptual space.
Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. After staring at the news all day, they like to unwind by reading queer sci-fi, horror, and romance—ideally all at once. Their book reviews and author interviews have featured in their local public media member station, city magazine, and alt weekly. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.
This article was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.
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