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The Pharmacist’s Mate, a memoir by Amy Fusselman, is a series of simply worded musings on loss and the clinical mechanics of trying to get pregnant by artificial insemination. Juxtaposed with excerpts from a diary kept by the author’s father on a ship at the end of World War II, the musings are sometimes casual, sometimes stricken. The author’s perpetual, poignant re-recognition of the fact of her father’s death makes a nice counterpoint to his matter-of-fact diary, which with its blunt, quotidian tone seems to defy the reality of his absence. A scene on an elliptical trainer, in which she speaks to her father’s intangible presence in the air, is moving; her ruminations on mortality are unpretentious and cogent. And Fusselman has a knack for the pithy one-line query. Describing a trip to the fertility clinic, for example, she writes:
I remember sitting in the packed waiting room this morning . . . and noticing one beleaguered-looking woman who brought her singing two-year-old with her. No, noticing how everyone in the room ignored her. And her child. This was a room, clearly, that did not love children.
Thinking, what is it, exactly, that we want here?
There’s a randomness to the assortment of anecdotes strung together in this book: We read about organ-fixing friends, assemblage-artist friends, director friends, a performance of Scenes From an Execution, an acoustics conference, an AC/DC concert. We learn that the author plays guitar and loves music (sea shanties, possibly Sting, the aforementioned AC/DC) but aren’t clear on what she does, say, to pay the rent.
Sure, memoirists are entitled to be selective about which fragments of their experience they weave into their work, but a nit-picking reader might itch for more method to the whimsical madness—a little less ghost, a little more machine. The Pharmacist’s Mate is the bound equivalent of a pile of Post-Its beside the telephone, replete with jottings both trivial and serendipitous; it has an unedited feel. Apparently somewhat arbitrarily chosen for publication—having won a characteristically whimsical McSweeney’s contest that asked for works about engineering on ships—this is a well-meaning piece of writing, but not really a book.