Louise Aronson’s book of short stories, A History of the Present Illness, was published in 2013, and just came out in paperback a few weeks ago.
Each protagonist in the sixteen tales, all set in the San Francisco area, is a different doctor treating a new patient, but Aronson varies the voice, the gender, the age, the venue, the disease or circumstance, and the background of both. As we turn the pages, either physically or electronically, we view assorted scenarios through the eyes of a changing cast of physicians as the dramatis personae move from one theater to another. Aronson examines the traditions of their globe-spanning histories as if she were watching culture grow in a Bay Area petri dish, so much do these immigrants vary.
The author, a doctor herself, describes these fictional cases in a dispassionate, clinical manner while at the same time imbuing them with an underlying humanity that explores the ethos of the events. Not all the characters are likable. Aronson details the course of an illness alongside the complexities of assimilation in a different nation with a minimalist touch. The characters inhabit a shared community within a medical setting—which represents yet another new nation in which they must adjust to an unfamiliar culture.
Aronson maintains a running commentary on the surrounding society all the while. She notes in passing, for example, the architecture of prisons as she gradually peels back the layers of a psychiatrist designated to determine for the court how a prisoner (who is a doctor) came to be where he is. One encounters moments of brilliance here, such as when the physician under examination realizes for the first time what “doctor mode” actually looks like—a demeanor that a medical person “could apparently turn on or off at will.” He mulls over the ensuing “silence standoff” between himself and the psychiatrist, allowing the reader in on his musing.