In Search of Altruism

A novel explores the possibility of truly selfless acts.

Call it what you will—material, inspiration, fodder, oxygen—writers do not write books without it. They wait for it patiently, like a trout fisherman or a birdwatcher or a rock climber trapped by inclement weather. They imbibe extravagantly or enter a convent or (in countless movies, including the recent Limitless) just stare at a blank page or screen, fingers poised. They troll for ideas in newspapers, old newspapers, Wikipedia, WikiLeaks, old photo albums. Old-school writers have file cabinets full of yellowed clippings and photos, notebooks with scraps of conversation, journals with pages studded with asterisks marking plot or character details or ideas, or titles for a novel. Modern writers (most are both modern and old school) have bookmarked websites and flash drives full of downloaded PDFs; maybe someone is working on an Inspiration app. The muse often hibernates for years, like an old dragon in a cave, or an exotic plant that only flowers every seven years, or a comet rarely visible.

Cynthia Holz found the first inspiration for her latest novel, Benevolence, while having lunch with a writer friend on Harbord Street in Toronto, and being introduced to a psychiatrist whose area of expertise was approving candidates who wanted to donate organs. The second source was her husband, a retired railroad locomotive engineer, whose train lore she had never used in her fiction; she had always wanted to write a train crash, and one opens the book. Her third inspiration was time she spent a few years ago at Findhorn, the spiritual ecological community on an island in northern Scotland.

Over six years, Holz worked with these disparate elements. Characters emerged—two professional listeners, Ben, the psychiatrist whose job it is to probe the motives of those (too few) individuals who come forward to donate an organ; his wife, Renata, a psychologist who is currently counselling Stella, a young woman suffering from trauma after a train crash. Arthur is a retired locomotive engineer who has come forward to offer his kidney to a neighbour; in his retirement, he has created an organic garlic garden in eastern Ontario not far from the lake.

Plot elements emerge—Ben and Renata are unhappily childless and his widowed, demanding mother, Molly, even more unhappy about Ben’s marriage to a shiksa: “She’ll never make you a proper home. She’ll give you goyishe children!” But Molly’s attentions are diverted by a lodger, a man from her past … Renata’s despair about her marriage is sharpened by the pregnancy of her client Stella.

Themes crystallized—this is a novel about altruism, motives, secrets. It has all the hallmarks of being by a writer who carries within herself the benefits of wisdom and reflection that come with age. It is a piece of writing that is carefully, thoughtfully constructed, that wants to be taken seriously, which is not to say that it is without humour; Holz has an eye for the funny side of small indignities. “Then there was a pause, just a blink or two of stillness, and I was glad I hadn’t been peeing when the train crashed because I wouldn’t want to be found like that, my panties around my knees. I mean, the things you think of in a crisis don’t make sense, they seem so silly afterward …”

The freight in the novel is carried in extended conversations—Ben with the confident, chatty would-be organ donor, Arthur, and his exuberant wife, Iris; Renata with terrified, clinging Stella. Ben and Renata, as their marriage frays, become unusually involved with their clients, in both cases pulled out of the safety of their offices into the lives, even the homes, of their clients. These putatively professional relationships become the catalysts for unleashing the deep unhappiness of Ben and Renata, as if they were the ones being treated or analyzed; their conversations with one another become stilted, arid, their intentions cross-wired: “Both of them understood that he would spend the night on the couch, which seemed like a suitable arrangement … He didn’t want her lying stiff and snivelling beside him, soaking the mattress with her difficult emotions.”

Although most of the novel’s focus is on the four central characters and their journeys (trains figure largely), the themes of altruism, motives and secrets are also explored in 73-year-old Molly’s complex relationship with Saul, the lodger who was once her lover, and strategies for alleviating loneliness: “Many nights she woke dreamless and lonely through and through. She felt a hole under her ribs and something leaking out.”

Benevolence (Holz’s fifth novel) is plainly, cleanly written; it reminds me of Carol Shields’s Unless, Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault, Bonnie Burnard’s Suddenly, Joan Barfoot’s Exit Lines, all novels without virtuoso flourish, intent upon exploring aspects of modern life, love, aging, that otherwise might not be noticed. In public discussions of organ transplants and TV hospital dramas about the same, the issue of the motives of a volunteer donor (and the fact that a psychiatrist would be required to probe these motives and the conundrum of altruism as something quite separate from the urgency associated with the imperative of a dying patient, more of a puzzle to be picked apart by a disbelieving medical professional) is not typically part of the narrative. Holz is not especially interested in the patient who needs a kidney, more in the dilemma of a psychiatrist who must approve a donor, and how he cannot set aside the filter of his own problems in passing judgement. In researching her book, Holz asked a friend to raise the issue of altruism in the chat room of a website for psychiatrists; not one of the large number of psychiatrists who joined the discussion admitted to a belief in altruism.

What is striking is the even-handedness with which Holz treats her characters, and her steadfast refusal to find fault with them or to nudge the reader toward sympathy with one or another of these flawed, complicated and often not especially likeable individuals. There are no heroes; nor, in the end, are there heroics. There are blunders, some of which result in death; there are lies and erroneous assumptions, bad choices and misunderstandings. There are only rare flashes of beauty and illumination, and when they happen they are very small, subtle, and unexpected, in a field of garlic … “A few minutes later, a feeling passed through him: a wave of something resonant—electromagnetic?—or, more poetically, a flapping of wings under his skin … He was suddenly alert, alive, to unknown -sensations.”

This is what Holz seems to be demanding of her readers, a willingness to suspend disbelief, if only for a moment, to go on a somewhat unconventional journey with her characters, just to see if, in that process, we are pulled toward an altered understanding of the mundane and predictable.