Published by – Mantle
Publication date – 14 May 2020
Source – review copy
On a fated flight, a balloonist makes a discovery that changes her life forever. A telegraph operator finds an unexpected companion in the middle of the Amazon. A doctor is beset by seizures, in which he is possessed by a second, perhaps better, version of himself. And in Regency London, a bare-knuckle fighter prepares to face his most fearsome opponent, while a young mother seeks a miraculous cure for her ailing son.
At times funny and irreverent, always moving, these stories cap a fifteen-year project that has won both a National Magazine Award and Pushcart Prize. From the Nile’s depths to the highest reaches of the atmosphere, from volcano-wracked islands to an asylum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, these are lives of ecstasy and epiphany.
Fifteen years in the making, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth is a collection of nine short stories featuring pugilists, doctors, telegraph wire operators and balloonists. There is an opulent feeling to the stories, perhaps lent by the time period many are set in, when adventures into the wild interior and bare knuckle fighting could rub shoulders so easily.
There is a sense of antiquity about the stories, even those set in the more distant past. There is the sense that someone has sat down and is reciting the stories, a teller of tales to entertain.
All look at the psyche in some sense, obvious perhaps given the author’s vocation. In the pages there are examinations on why a fighter fights, on the existential connection a balloonist has with the sky she sails in. There is a mother’s need to cocoon her ill child, to create a protective bubble. There is a study on isolation, on how it can affect individuals in different ways, even if the type of isolation is the same.
There were many stories in the collection that felt anything but short. They felt like complete novels, told over a tenth of the usual pages.
Of the nine, my favourites were Death of a Pugulist, about bare knuckle fighter Jacob Burke and his famous fight against Blindman McGraw, The Second Doctor Service, which sees a doctor slowly taken over by seizures, On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases, in the Midst of the Smoke of London, where a mother will do whatever she can to protect her ill child and The Line Agent Pascal, which sees how the loneliness of the jungle can be embraced or rejected.
There is a skill to writing a good short story. All the richness and entertainment of a novel has to be condensed into a few pages. There has to be an introduction that grabs, a middle that doesn’t sag and an end that satisfies, or at least delivers the desired effect of the author. That is the case with the stories contained A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth. The last story, which lends its name to the collection, is perhaps the hardest one to engage with initially. However, on reflection, it is perhaps this way because it is written from the perspective of someone living with schizophrenia, a perspective which many of us will never have faced.
This is an interesting, varied collection of stories. I’ll be interested in reading more from Daniel Mason in the future.
About the author
Daniel Mason is a physician and author of the novels The Piano Tuner and The Winter Soldier. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, and adapted for opera and theatre. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, where he teaches courses in the humanities and medicine. He lives in the Bay Area with his family.