Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review: The Doctor is Sick by Anthony Burgess

The Doctor is Sick 
By: Anthony Burgess

Published: 1960

Synopsis (Goodreads): Dr. Edwin Spindrift has been sent home from Burma with a brain tumor. Closer to words than to people, his sense of reality is further altered by his condition. When he escapes from the hospital the night before his surgery, things and people he hardly knew existed swoop down on him as he careens through an adventurous night in London

I often list Anthony Burgess as a favourite author of mine, even though before I finished The Doctor is Sick I'd only read one of the many books he'd had published. I'm not ashamed at or embarrased by that, but since he credits A Clockwork Orange as one of his worst books, I thought I really had to give some others a go. I'll admit that I was a little hesitant in reading this book, not because I doubted the quality of the story and writing, but because I enjoyed A Clockwork Orange so much, I was worried everything else by Burgess would pale in comparison.

At first I thought I may be right, I had a tough time getting into this book although I could appreciate Burgess's dry sense of humour and unique use of words. It wasn't until about page 50 (of a 240 page book) that I really began to get into the rhythm of it and from them on I devoured it as quickly as I could. The plot of the story is really pretty simple. Dr Edwin Spindrift is a linguistics professor at a university in Burma and is thoroughly wrapped up in his work. His wife has multiple affairs (due to an agreement met between the two of them since he's having problems revving his engine so to speak) and leads quite a separate life from her studious husband. After collapsing in a lecture Edwin is shipped back to England where multiple tests are done that suggest a brain tumour. Nervous of people meddling with his grey matter, and distressed that his wife hasn't visited in days (she merely sends in people she meets in pubs to be his visitors) Edwin sneaks out of the hospital desperate to find his wife. What eventuates is a disasterous and absurd hunt through London with a handful of coins and the help of a series of increasingly odd characters.

Though this book is a work of fiction, it takes several cues from Burgess's own life. Around the time he chose to write this book, Burgess had suffered a bit of a meltdown and ended his military career, returning to England from Malaya. Like Edwin, Burgess collapsed while teaching and was diagnosed with (unlike Edwin) an inoperable brain tumour. For this reason the descriptions of all of the invasive and painful medical tests and machines are incredibly realistic and detailed from a very personal perspective. Also like Edwin, Burgess was interested in Philology, the study of linguistics, especially historical and comparative linguistics. (thanks!) This twin love between the fictional character and the real man results in a book where language is used in quite a unique and interesting and personal way.

Each of the characters have marvellously varied accents, from the Stone twins with their combination of Yiddish and cockney, to 'Ippo with his lower class London twang, to the German, Italian, Greek and Northern characters who grace the story with their presence, if only for a short time. Like in Trainspotting and A Clockwork Orange this phonetic use of accent and dialect adds a great deal to the character without having to actually describe them, we get an idea of their class, birthplace, age (through the slang) and their emotions. It's an incredibly vivid way of describing them, and very effective. The characters are all absurd, unique and absolutely mad (so many of them felt like they'd be right at home in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland) but it is the use of their accent which really endeared many of them to me.

Another interesting use of language in this book is the actual description of the origin and etymology of words and phrases in the book. The book isn't in the first person, but it does use an omipresent narrator who can get inside Edwin's mind and we can see the marvellous way he absorbs and deciphers conversation with people. It's almost mechanical, and provides much of the answer to why Edwin seems to have so much trouble connecting to other people. Every now and then he'll notice something, say a little chalk board outside a cafe he's passing and he'll think "Chalk, chalk, calx," sometimes expanding on the thought and origins of the current word of interest, and at other times simply leaving it at that. But what is interesting (and important to the novel) is how he concentrates on and invests in the history/origin/meaning of the word and seems to completely ignore or pay little attention to the original word and what it stands for.

A little internal monologue that really sparked my interest and further established this problem was when Edwin was ruminating his relationship with his wife and delivered this little gem;
"Love, for instance. Interesting, that collocation of sounds: the clear allophone of the voiced divided phoneme gliding to that newest of all English vowels which Shakespeare, for instance, did not know, ending with the soft bite of the voiced labiodental. And its origin? Edwin saw the word tumble back to Anglo-Saxon and beyond, and its cognate Teutonic forms tumbling back too, so that all forms ultimately melted in the prehistoric primitive Germanic mother. Fascinating. But there was something about the word that should be even more fascinating, to the man if not to the philiologist: its real significance when used in such a locution as 'Edwin loves Sheila'. And Edwin realised that he didn't find it fascinating." 

It took awhile to get into but this book really delivered and met the high standards set by A Clockwork Orange. The star of the story is the language and comedic absurdity that Burgess uses to tell his story, both of which make up for the fact that the story itself is perhaps a little lacking. I'm not sure this book is for everyone, but if you enjoy the construction and etymology of language, British comic surrealism/absurdity, and Burgess's unique writing style then I'd recommend giving this book a look over. It certainly succeeded in eliminating my hesitation over reading any of Burgess's books, now I can't wait to get my hands on another of his books.

My rating: 4/5


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