If you had a child with life-threatening birth defects, how far would you go to make sure she was given a normal life? And what if your child succumbed to these anomalies—how far, then, would you go to make sure she didn’t perish in vain? These questions, and more, are at the center of The Assembler of Parts, Raoul Wientzen’s striking debut about a family’s capacity to cope with the disability and eventual death of their first-born.
The novel follows its precocious seven-year-old protagonist, Jessica, as she narrates her brief biography from the afterlife, and illuminates the positivity and love that emerge alongside her physical imperfections (including a lack of thumbs). Through a series of tapes shown to her by the Assembler—a supreme being and possible stand-in for God—Jessica observes her own strength in life, despite a clock that ticks against her, and grapples with the aftermath of the premature—and preventable—nature of her death.
Though he can now consider “novelist” among his many accomplishments, Wientzen began his professional life not as a man of letters, but as a member of the full-time faculty at Georgetown University Hospital’s Department of Pediatrics, with a specialty in pediatric infectious diseases. Through medical work, Wientzen saw first-hand how debilitating (and sometimes fatal) illnesses affected his young patients, and how families often banded together to cope with their circumstances.
“I found that the families that had adopted a posture in a way of forgiveness, where they accepted this eventually…they were, I think, more thoughtful, more graceful, more generous, more helpful,” he says. “And often turned the negative experience of the loss of a child—or a terrible illness in a child who didn’t always die—into positive things.”
Wientzen’s inspiration for The Assembler of Parts reaches even further back, when, as an undergraduate at Georgetown in the late 1960s, he was required to take courses on philosophy and theology. “I really liked thinking about these sorts of philosophical issues,” Wientzen says. “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there evil or chaos or brokenness…both in the physical and moral world?”
Wientzen cites one class in particular, “The Problem with God,” as providing a foundation for his eventual first novel: “Why would there be evil in the world if there’s such a thing as a benevolent god? The book was an attempt to...put a little light into the answers that might be there.” Evil, in this case, is the sickness that befalls children.
The crucial aspects of The Assembler of Parts were mostly inspired by Wientzen’s own life. Wientzen’s road to becoming a pediatrician, for instance, partly began with his work at a summer camp for children with physical disabilities. “I sort of fell in love with the idea that it’s a wonderful thing to help any child,” he says.
Later, as a doctor, Wientzen met a boy with Hilgar Syndrome (the same disease that afflicts Jessica from birth), and was in awe of the intellectual and emotional power the child possessed, despite his physical limitations: “I became so impressed with what this young man had accomplished in his life. The obstacles that he overcame with such grace and such dignity, that I was just flabbergasted. And that got me thinking, Well, what must his young life have been like?”
Wientzen also borrowed from other experiences, including a stint acting as an expert witness for medical malpractice cases. His background in medical legal work clearly informs the last third of The Assembler of Parts, which shifts the focus from Jessica to her parents, and their unyielding efforts to hold those responsible for their daughter’s death accountable. What results is a crude portrait of Jessica, with lawyers painting her as a medical freak show to win the sympathies of a jury.
“We all assemble the parts of our own world,” Wientzen notes. “Attorneys, especially, assemble their own world when they put a case together. And sometimes they do it in a way that is shoddy craftsmanship, to say the least. And I wanted that to be part of this book.”
Though Wientzen spent years juggling the art of writing with his medical career, attending seminars and working on fiction during bus rides to and from work, it wasn’t until he left Georgetown for a role with the Rostropovich Foundation that he finally found time to assemble his novel. As Medical Director, he helps create vaccination programs for children in former Soviet Union countries; but, Wientzen points out, he also has several hours a day to sit down and focus on the words.
“I have to believe, if given something that you’ve invested a lot of time and effort to become, and there’s enough positive feedback, you’re happy to do it. And I was,” Wientzen says of his years spent as a doctor, rather than a working writer. “I probably could not have had a better road to where I am right now and where I ended up.”
Rebecca Rubenstein is the Interviews Editor at The Rumpus, and can often be found thinking aloud on Twitter.