Andrea Barrett, The Air We Breathe (Norton, 2007)*

On first glance, this novel could be the American Magic Mountain: it’s set in a TB sanatorium in the Adirondacks (“Tamarack Lake,” a fictionalized Saranac Lake) during the leadup to the Great War. But Barrett’s themes and preoccupations are quite different than Mann’s. The Air We Breathe is about collective responsibility, or, more specifically, the failures of collective responsibility.

Leo Marburg, trained as a chemist back in Odessa, has been working menial jobs when he’s diagnosed with consumption and sent up from the city to Tamarack Lake. He joins a group of mostly immigrants at the public sanatorium. A wealthy industrialist, taking the cure in a private cottage, sets up a discussion group at the sanatorium to help enlighten the patients, driven there by the disaffected daughter of the owner of the private cottage. The group grows and the patients and staff become entwined with each others’ lives, leading to a tragedy paralleling the concurrently spiralling tragedy of the War.

The Air We Breathe gives a good sense of the boringness and sense of being out of time of the invalid experience, and the feel of the late 19thC sanatorium building. The way the disease feels, the worry about the new hollow spots in the lungs, these things were harder to approach. The novel does a good job of depicting the collective experience of medical institutionalization, but not of individual experiences of illness.

The novel is told in first person plural, “we,” the voice of all the patients (except Leo and a few others), in a choice explained only as the very end of the novel. By taking voice together, the narrators can, if not expiate, explain their guilt. The discussion in the weekly group of collective societies and utopian communities highlights the characters’ preoccupation with how people can or can not take care of each other: one patient finds Oneida, New Harmony, etc, interesting not for the failures of these communities, but for the deathless idealistic impulse to try again. The patients discover all the small and large places where they failed.
I understand the motivations behind the narrative “we,” but I found it distancing, getting in the way of my engagement with the characters. The endless foreshadowing gave the novel a sense of inevitability, which is exactly what I think one should avoid in doing history work, and particularly in historical fiction where everyone knows what’s going to happen (the US will join the war! there will be anti-immigrant hysteria!). Additionally, not having read any of Barrett’s other books, the family tree at the end gave away a plot point for me.

Overall, an interesting meditation on blame and the collective.

*I received an ARC of this book as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. Crossposted at LT.