You Should Read This: Doctor Rat by William Kotzwinkle

Cover of Doctor Rat by William Kotzwinkle

The newer books have a different cover, but this has always been my favorite version.

Doctor Rat is a cunningly well constructed, heartwrenching, horrible wonderful book told from the point of view of an insane rat, thereby reinforcing my theory that odd povs may add to, rather than detract from, good fiction. Be aware: this is a novel about animal experimentation and it pulls no punches.

Doctor Rat witnesses the experiments being carried out on his fellow animals, wandering through a laboratory and speaking to us in a way that makes it clear whose side he’s on while showing how brutal the details of this book can be:

I should now like to sing “Three Blind Rats.” It’s part of the experimental program of music that’s being channeled toward certain rats, to make them more docile and sweet. Several of them are indeed beginning to nuzzle up to each other, one of them even executing a light-fantastic tripping of his tail, in time to the beat.

In the cage beside him, we actually have three blind rats. In fact, we have twenty-three blind rats, part of a magnificent new experiment initiated by a very ambitious student, who I’m featuring in this month’s Newsletter. He’s a sensitive chap and it was his exquisite sensitivity that caused him to dream up the item that’s become the latest rage here at the lab: the fabulous removal of eggs from a female rat’s body and the grafting of them to different parts of the male rat’s body — to the tail, to the ear, to the stomach. And for the past twenty-three days he’s been grafting them to their eyeballs! So now it’s time we all sang that promising young scientist a song.

Doctor Rat is not all horrifying detail though. There’s a lot of sweetness to it, including a moment where a human orchestra plays music in order to warn whales of approaching whalers that makes me cry, every time, while read silently or aloud. The amount of emotion it manages to stir in me is visceral. I wish I knew how Kotzwinkle accomplished it.

Which brings me to another reason by I think this is a good book for writers to read: this is a book that manages to be harrowing and uplifting all at once. It’s the sort of book that a writer confronting a real evil produces, a look that is cynical and despairing and yet tinged with a dark humor that lets you know there may be a glint of light somewhere. This is the sort of book you should read through once in order to experience it for the first time; then go back and see how the writer accomplished that experience. Doctor Rat looks at difficult, political things in a way only the greats manage.

Kotzwinkle is still around and is a prolific of both adult and children’s books. The child in me is compelled to note that the latter includes the “Walter the Farting Dog” series.


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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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