People in Trouble

The Terminal Man

by Michael Crichton
Knopf, 247 pp., $6.95

Open Heart

by Frederick Buechner
Atheneum, 276 pp., $5.95

Enemies, A Love Story

by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 280 pp., $6.95

It may help to think of novels as commodities, produced and distributed much like Hushpuppies, hide-a-beds, and frozen peas. Technology is a function of population growth, and since a world full of people doesn’t usually feel like a world full of God, the novel from its beginnings has dwelt upon the secular life, men and women making do in a realm God hasn’t visited for quite a while. Here people are on their own, they have careers instead of vocations, stories don’t always predict their own endings, meaning is not found in events but gets attached to them more or less provisionally.

So here we are. Living in a world whose mysteries may be meaningless, secular man is necessarily man in trouble. Rather than learning truth, he can at best only solve problems, and his temporal rewards, like money and marriage, seem finally enigmatic or ambiguous, spiritually speaking. The novelist may heroically settle for social blessings, as Jane Austen and Fielding did, or like Dickens, James, and Tolstoy he may weigh the compromising costs of social accomplishment, how it shall not profit a man to gain the world. But genuine mystery always comes as something of an embarrassment, whether in gothic tales, devotional allegories, or the tremors of mystical portent in Conrad and Forster.

This by way of getting at three new novels that have nothing in common except a decent technical conventionality and a sense that secular man is somehow in trouble. The Terminal Man, a routine science-thriller by the author of The Andromeda Strain, tries to be worried about medical technology. A computer engineer named Benson, who thinks the machines are taking over and who has a way of smashing people about when he’s had a drink, is diagnosed as a stage-two (drug resistant) psychomotor epileptic. In spite of the misgivings of his “tall and exceptionally good looking” girl psychiatrist, Dr. Ross, he is given behavior-modification surgery by a research group that’s a little too eager to see what happens when you insert electrodes into the brain and hook them up to a chest-implanted minicomputer programmed to stimulate pleasure terminals whenever a seizure begins.

But they forget about autonomic learning—Benson likes having his pleasure terminals stimulated, as who wouldn’t, and so he involuntarily initiates ever more frequent seizures, like any lab rat, just to get his kicks. Since he also feels, not too unreasonably, that the doctors have turned him into a machine, he escapes from the hospital, kills or mutilates several citizens of Los Angeles, and finally is gunned down by tall, good-looking Dr. Ross (who almost got him earlier with a microwave oven) when he comes back to get even with the main computer, which has gone a little nuts itself.

The story is pure “Medical Center,” right down to the little psychological touches that go out the window when the chase begins—the neurosurgeon who’s myopic, balding, and lame (heal thyself, we mutter knowingly), the professional woman …

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