Saturday, April 12, 2008

Time's Arrow: Martin Amis

After the not-so-satisfying experience with Night Train, what prompted me to pick up another book by Martin Amis? Well, a good friend whose judgment I trust recommended it to me. And I was not to be disappointed.

Using a different narrative technique is like using a double-edged sword – you can lose the plot if you get too absorbed in the technique and forget the narrative. Thankfully, Amis retains his focus when he architects a book where the story flows backwards. And in a neat kill of two birds with one stone, it also enables Amis to get rid of one area he seemed weak at, at least on the evidence of Night Train: how to finish a book.

The challenge with reading a book of this nature is to be constantly aware of the chronological flip, especially considering the heaviness of the plot: the life and times of a Nazi war criminal, and a doctor to boot. Thankfully, the linguistic control, precision and tightness of Amis help in countering this challenge quite easily.

Another fear that crept into my mind when I realised the reversal of the clock was this: how gory can descriptions of personal activities get. Here’s Amis’ response.

All life, all sustenance, all meaning (and a good deal of money) issue from a single household appliance: the toilet handle. At the end of the day, before my coffee, in I go. And there it is already: that humiliating warm smell. I lower my pants and make with the magic handle. Suddenly it’s all there, complete with toilet paper, which you use and then deftly wind back on to the roll. Later, you pull up your pants and wait for the pain to go away. The pain, perhaps, of the whole transaction, the whole dependency. No wonder we cry when we do it. Quick glance down at the clear water in the bowl. Then the two cups of decaff before you hit the sack.

The next paragraph is even better.

Eating is unattractive too. First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher, which works okay, I guess, like all my other labour-saving devices, until some fat bastard shows up in his jumpsuit and traumatises them with his tools. So far so good: then you select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Various items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skilful massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon. That bit’s quite therapeutic at least, unless you’re having soup or something, which can be a real sentence. Next you face the laborious business of cooling, of reassembly, of storage, before the return of these foodstuffs to the Superette, where, admittedly, I am promptly and generously reimbursed for my pains.

Notwithstanding the automatic humour that the technique affords, the poignancy of the plot does not get diluted, especially in those pieces in the concentration camp. Rather, the narrative forces you to linger a little more, and absorb the magnitude of what happens there. Therein, I reckon, lies the triumph of Time’s Arrow.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: Dr. Oliver Sacks

What’s the feeling you get reading Dr. Oliver Sacks? It’s not unlike sitting around the fireplace along with ten other kids, listening to stories from our favourite Grandpa Ollie. The only difference is that Grandpa is not telling us mythological stories, but stories from his own life as a neurologist, of the different interesting cases he has been involved in. And what is the essence of these cases?

We have five senses in which we glory and which we recognise and celebrate, senses that constitute the sensible world for us. But there are other senses – secret senses, sixth senses, if you will – equally vital, but unrecognised, and unlauded.

. . .

Yet their absence can be quite conspicuous. If there is defective (or distorted) sensation in our overlooked secret senses, what we then experience is profoundly strange, an almost incommunicable equivalent to being blind or being deaf. If proprioception is completely knocked out, the body becomes, so to speak, blind and deaf to itself – and (as the meaning of the Latin root propius hints) ceases to ‘own’ itself, to feel itself as itself.

And while one is able to imagine what a person without one of the core five senses could possibly feel and experience (Dr. Sacks himself dealt with one such in Seeing Voices where he dealt with the blind), people with a defective / distorted / missing sensation of the secret senses certainly seem to be beyond our regular imagination.

Dr. Sacks uses the same case history approach in The Man . . . as he used in his other books, including that marvel, An Anthropologist on Mars. The book is categorized into four sections – Losses focuses on people who have lost one of their secret senses; Excesses dwells on those who have a significantly overactive secret sense; Transports takes you into the lives of who have an altered views or perceptions, a different inner vision if you will; and The World of the Simple comprises four poignant tales of people who were children in many senses but amazingly adult in others.

Each story in the book is as riveting as the next, as insightful as the previous. Of course, different stories may resonate better with different people, depending on their dominant secret senses, I suppose. My personal favourite is the short piece titled The President’s Speech under Losses. (Just so we get our context right, remember this book was written in early 1985 and the author is based in the US.)

The President, the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal, was giving a speech in the aphasia ward. And the response? Convulsive laughter. The explanation? Over to Dr. Sacks.

He [the aphasiac] cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all to easily . . .

As Nietzsche pithily writes, “One can lie with the mouth, but with the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth.”

Can aphasiacs be used as lie detectors then, I wonder.

And then there are those two stories towards the end of the book – one on the autistic twins who can calculate and remember virtually any number or date without being formally trained to be mathematicians, and the other on an autistic artist who does not see the world as a conceptual or abstract entity, rather as a concrete, particular, discrete agglomeration of things. They may, in a manner of speaking, miss the forest for the trees, but they really see the trees in great detail, more than any of us can even if we try to.

How would you characterise Dr. Sacks’ works, beyond the humdrum “non-fiction” and “science”? The closest I could come to is that his works are “the non-fiction equivalent of science fiction.” And here I refer to the definition of science fiction I used when I reviewed Arthur C. Clarke’s Of Time and Stars.

Take normal life and twist / invert / change one aspect of it, and that’s science fiction for you.