In 1779 Anton Mesmer proposed everything in the universe influenced everything else, and this was accomplished through “fluid universally diffused.” It is this premise that is the driving influence of Tom Bradley’s 2009 novel, Vital Fluid.
The story follows two sets of rival hypnotists; Phil Deacon, scion of an old-style showbiz family, and his nemesis, Simon Magus, who occupy center stage in our century. Their story is paralleled by the tale of historical mesmerist Charles LaFontaine, and his erstwhile rival, Baron Dupotet. Both sets of hypnotists are the yin and yang of one another — Phil is light, and Simon is dark — LaFontaine is famed and kind, while Dupotet is despised and cruel.
Bradley’s writing is deceptively easy, the plot whisking you through the pages with distractions and legerdemain worthy of the hypnotists of which he writes. But more than that, it is a fine satire of modern America, Christian fundamentalism, modern notions of what passes for entertainment, and the nature of professional rivalry and envy.
At times his characters and his prose are foul-mouthed and disturbing — a few of his characters are caricatures, but most of the time, you feel they are real people, even if you only spot them in the crowd. And there are hundreds of acute moments of fine observation and touching humanity, such as this scene at a native reservation in the desert:
“An amazingly beautiful girl of about fourteen walks by. She trusts the Medicine Man enough to try out what promises, someday, to be a formidable set of flirtatious skills. She eyes him sidelong and makes tentative little motions with her slender hips.
“The Medicine Man tilts his head and sighs, as if overwhelmed with adoration. His knees start to wobble comically and he grabs his chest. She breaks into girlish giggles and scampers off.”
In history, Mesmer’s proposition was first proved unscientific by a French Royal Commission in 1784, and then parodied by Romantic writers in the early part of the next century. But here in the new millennium, at the end of Bradley’s book, you’ll discover that the vital fluid has always been with us, and with any luck, always will be.
You’ll just have to read it to see how.