Drunk on truth to stupid baby power.

Read This Now: The Assembler of Parts



by Yvonne Surette

This fall, as my daughter and I were strolling on a Berkeley street, I asked her what she thought of the belief that sometimes comforts me–- that we live on in the afterlife, and that we connect to our loved ones throughout eternity, learning from them, our souls growing together, and that sometimes the early loss of one of them is for a reason–- for someone to learn something or gain something. What that could be I could not say. Love, maybe? Tolerance? Strength?

“That’s total bullshit, Mom,” she replied.

Pretty much everything my daughter says touches me deeply. This did too, once I finished laughing at her forthrightness. She’s still bruised, and maybe always will be, by the too-early death of her cousin last year, and is, rightly enough, bitter about what seems so random in the universe: life and death, pointless suffering. But I hope she’s wrong.

Purely by coincidence (or was it?), I was at the time searching in the Northern Virginia area for a published writer to come and speak to my high school creative writing class. I know the kids in there, good writers for the most part, are curious about the writing life: Can you make a living? How do you get published? What do writers do with discouragement, with rejection?   I tell them as much as I know, but to them, I’m only the teacher. I needed a real writer, so I approached the Northern Virginia Writer’s Association, and was not only rewarded with a serious writer, Raoul Wientzen, I was also introduced to a writer whose novel, The Assembler of Parts, raises the same questions I had been considering: questions about the afterlife, our purpose on earth, and why there is so much suffering amidst so much joy and beauty. Carl Jung would call this “synchronicity,” the way–when you are thinking about something–the universe will just drop an answer in your lap, or open the door to one.

Wientzen, an Arlington, Virginia resident, is first and foremost, a pediatrician. He has been one for thirty years, and he taught at Georgetown University Hospital. This background clearly shows in The Assembler of Parts, his debut novel, which came out in 2013. Some reviewers have compared the novel to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but that’s a silly comparison. Yes, both novels are told from the point of view of a dead child, who narrates from heaven, but the similarity ends there. In Wientzen’s novel, the dead child literally meets her Maker, who shows her her life’s history, and she in turn reveals to the reader the truth of her life and of all our lives. The book is really more like Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven, a neurosurgeon’s non-fiction account of his near-death experiences.

The Washington Independent Review of Books says, “Wientzen is a seasoned pediatrician, and it shows. In addition to being a portrait of a family suffering exquisite loss, this is also an insightful, illuminating look at the lives of doctors, the decisions that they must make and the occasional lapses that can cost lives.” But for me the main point is that Wientzen is also exploring the meaning of suffering and loss.

He has seen a lot of it, that’s obvious. He’s the medical director of The Rostropovich- Vishnevskaya Foundation, an organization devoted to relieving the suffering of children worldwide. When Dr. Wientzen came to speak to my class, he brought a video clip of a recent trip to a refugee camp in Syria. I had shared with him how bored I had been growing with the dystopian themes in Young Adult literature. “Here’s dystopia for you!” he told my students, as they watched the clip’s scenes that looked like a ruined moonscape. Here indeed, is life after an apocalypse, right here on earth, right now.

But he didn’t just speak of his organization that day in my class. He took my students very seriously, indeed, and they really appreciated that. I had emailed him some of their questions, and he had prepared carefully his answers. He spoke of the long process of finding an agent and getting published. One of the kids wanted to know how to deal with rejection. He said, “We get rejected every day, all the time. When your teacher doesn’t like something you’ve written, when you’re a medical student reprimanded by a resident in a teaching hospital. We just go on.”

Go on. Keep going, he told my students: Hang on to the hope of becoming published, always. He said join a writer’s group, get their opinions, share yours. Keep at it. Always keep at it. He explained his daily writing routine (Clear the decks. Rid your mind of the daily clutter. Listen to music. Read a poem. Make sure you have a niche to work in. Work at the same time every day). Several of my students were absolutely rapt; I could see it in their faces.

It was a red-letter day for me, to have Raoul Wientzen in my school. A reporter from our newspaper covered his talk, and luckily for us, it was one of the days when the Culinary Arts students sell lunch to the faculty, and I was able to treat him to some really excellent food. It felt like the least I could do once I saw how seriously he took the kids, how he cared about them as young writers. They don’t get enough of that.

And I don’t get enough of books like The Assembler of Parts, novels which address the conversation I had with my daughter: What if the consciousness lives on? What if we stay connected always despite our earthly, bodily deaths? What is it exactly that makes us human? Why do we suffer?

As I write this, it’s Christmas Day, and I’m listening to the Beatles marathon the local oldies station gives its listeners every year. “Instant Karma” has just played. What if it’s true, what John Lennon says in that song, that we all shine on? Like the moon and the stars and the sun? Raoul Wientzen, a wise man who has seen far more suffering and death than I over the years, says we do, and he’s put his beliefs into a truly lyrical novel.

Yvonne Surette is the mother of Nate Waggoner, one of the begetters of The Tusk, and Hope Waggoner, a sometime contributor. She lives and teaches in Northern Virginia, and is putting the finishing touches on a novel.


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