Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

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My review of Henry Marsh’s absorbing memoir appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine (chopped to bits by the subs, as usual). Here’s an excerpt, with the cuts restored:

Early in his career, Marsh pioneered the “awake craniotomy,” a procedure for removing tumours in which the patient is kept conscious as the surgeon tests the brain matter, separating cancerous growth from healthy brain. His description of this procedure is riveting: “All you can see, as you look into the patient’s brain with the microscope, is the brain’s white matter, which is like a smooth, thick jelly. It is usually – but not always – slightly darker than normal because of the presence of tumour within it.” Meanwhile, Marsh asks the patient: “Do you want to see your brain?” If they say yes, he tells them: “You are now one of the few people in the history of the human race who have seen their own brain!”

During his four decades as a neurosurgeon, Marsh has seen and done things that vanishingly few human beings will ever see or do. He has opened up the sealed space of the skull and probed living tissue with his “ultrasonic aspirator” – a “sucker with an ultrasonic tip that emulsifies what you are operating on.” His perspective on certain large philosophical questions is therefore unique. He is a convinced materialist, scoffing at mystical (or dualist) notions of the self: “I”, he writes, “am a transient electrochemical dance, made of myriad bits of information […] When my brain dies, “I” will die.” 


Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor

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My review of Nuala O’Connor’s new short story collection appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

These are stories in which trauma obtrudes, often awkwardly, into the textures of quotidian life. Several pieces end with the sudden wrenching intrusion of a painful memory, as when, in “Consolata,” the narrator remembers witnessing her father having sex with a nun, Sister Consolata, in the orchard behind their house. The effect is sometimes powerful, sometimes jarring. In one of the better stories, the McGahernesque “Tinnycross,” there is no clinching revelation: Oliver returns to his family farm to ask his bitter, resentful brother, Bernard, for financial assistance; Bernard’s new wife, Fidelma, offers the promise of a reconciliation between the two brothers. It’s a lovely, carefully balanced piece of work, with some wonderful bits of prose: “a stand of rape burned its yellow among the green and brown,” “The familiarity of everything was both balm and thorn to him.”

If “Tinnycross” stands out, it is because it obeys one of the cardinal rules of short story writing, which is that nothing happening is generally better than something happening […] Most short story collections – even the best – offer an uneven reading experience. In Joyride to Jupiter, the good stories outnumber the less good – and the good stories are very good indeed.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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My review of Arundhati Roy’s first novel in twenty years appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

The novel’s first long section hinges on the life-story of a trans woman named Anjum, born Aftab, a Muslim in Delhi. Fleeing her family, Anjum moves into the Khwabgah, a refuge for trans people, in which “Holy Souls trapped in the wrong bodies were liberated.” Here is how Anjum’s mother reacts when she discovers, “nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part”: “Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash,” “Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created while her bowels convulsed and a thin stream of shit ran down her legs.”  This manages to be unpleasantly coy (“boy-parts,” “girl-part”), grammatically irregular (“undoubtedly girl-part”), and psychologically unconvincing (would Anjum’s mother really shit herself in horror?), all at the same time.  

When Roy moves away from Anjum, offering sidebar portraits of dozens of other characters, her prose deteriorates even further. Anjum’s father, a businessman, is frequently interviewed by Western visitors, for whose benefit he quotes Urdu poetry: “What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Urdu, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.” This is a terrible sentence. To begin at the very beginning: “a perfidious samosa?”  Really?

Laurent Binet & Hanif Kureishi

Two recent reviews of mine appeared in the Sunday Business Post magazine – the first of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language (Harvill Secker) and the second of Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing (Faber). Excerpts below…

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The 7th Function of Language begins with a real-life event: the death of renowned semiotician and literary critic Roland Barthes. On the 26th of March, 1980, Barthes was struck by a laundry van while walking across the Rue des Ecoles in Paris. He had just attended a “cultural lunch” hosted by the Socialist presidential candidate Francois Mitterand. One month later, at Salpetriere Hospital, Barthes died of his injuries.

In Binet’s version, Barthes was carrying a document composed by the Russian literary theorist Roman Jakobson. This document reveals a hitherto unknown form of speech (the “7th function” of the title) that might be a key to political power. As Barthes lies dying, the hapless Superintendent Bayard is assigned to investigate his accident. Bayard finds himself trawling the higher echelons of French intellectual life, uncovering in the process a conspiracy involving then-President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, up-and-comer Francois Mitterand, the Bulgarian secret service, and a rogue’s gallery of real-world French intellectuals.

The central joke in The 7th Function of Language is that everyone appears under his or her real name – meaning that a high degree of familiarity with the last three decades of French intellectual life is required, if you want to get the most out of Binet’s gags. Popping up in The 7th Function are, in no particular order, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Phillippe Sollers, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Umberto Eco, Bernard-Henri Levy, Louis Althusser, Michelangelo Antonioni, Paul De Man, Helene Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Claude Levi-Strauss, Camille Paglia, Roman Jakobson, Gayatri Spivak, Noam Chomsky, and John Searle. Binet’s satire is not subtle. At one point, Derrida is eaten alive by a pack of dogs unleashed by Searle. In real life, they had a philosophical disagreement about how language works. If this is the sort of thing that sends you into gales of laughter, then The 7th Function of Language is just the book for you.

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The title of Hanif Kureishi’s new novella is a dirty joke out of Hamlet. “That’s a fair thought,” the Black Prince quips, “to lie between maids’ legs.” “What is, my lord?” asks Ophelia. “Nothing,” Hamlet replies. “Nothing,” therefore, means the female genitalia – a subject of obsessive interest to Waldo, Kureishi’s aging and impotent narrator. But “the nothing” is also, of course, the void that awaits us after death. Waldo is terminally ill: he suffers from “diabetes, prostate cancer, an ulcer, early MS, constipation, diarrhoea and only one good hip.” In The Nothing‘s 167 lean pages, then, Kureishi addresses himself to a classic, if now debatably relevant, theme: the failing powers of male flesh.

The opening sentence lets us know what we’re in for. “One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again.” As Waldo repines in his sickbed, he overhears his wife, Zenab, copulating with his friend, Eddie, in the room next door. Zenab is twenty years younger than Waldo. His thoughts about her never stray very far from the sexual: “Her ass is still firm. When I could rim her little hole, or halo, as I call it, and push inside, she’d almost slice the tip of my tongue off.” Quite. Eddie is a former public schoolboy, a rogue, and a chancer: “one of those Soho characters you see at screenings, festival openings, parties and dinners.” At his zenith, Waldo was an internationally famous filmmaker. Now he wheels himself about his decaying mansion flat in London, spying on his wife and her lover, embracing his “descent into voluptuous masochism,” and plotting his revenge.