Book Review: Stiff

December 3, 2010

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

By Mary Roach

Published April 21, 2003

W.W. Norton & Company

304 pp.

ISBN 0-393-32482-6

Reviewed December 3, 2010

It’s the great mystery in the universe that we can never know what happens to us after we die. It’s the journey that no one has ever sent a postcard from after taking, the question that has spurred countless philosophers and religions to great discussion, and one that everyone ponders at least once a day. Try as we might to get past it, we can’t avoid the fact that some day we will all find ourselves passing on to something we can never get a hold of, leaving nothing behind but the piece of meat and bone that carried us through our daily grind.

But while the fate of our consciousness after death is one that cannot be measured, the fate of that piece of meat is one that’s easier to quantify – and as Mary Roach shows in “Stiff,” just because a body is dead doesn’t mean its experiences are over. Over the course of history, human corpses have been boiled, mashed, stuck in stews, chopped up, shot to pieces and put to ten thousand other uses across the spectrum of morality. In “Stiff,” Roach unflinchingly explores the myriad and grisly uses these cadavers come to, and in the process weaves a quirky and unique narrative of life after death.

Beginning with a simple curiosity about what happens to human bodies that aren’t simply buried – a “foreign land between the cracks” as the author puts it – “Stiff” follows cadavers through a plethora of final fates. Roach travels to cosmetology schools, decay research facilities and shooting ranges, chronicling how scientists and doctors are using the cadavers to learn and teach things no live subject would ever consent to. She also expands her search to the shocking and bizarre events of the past, going back to experiments to replicate the circumstances of the Crucifixion and just how long a head can survive after it has been severed by a guillotine.

As Roach mentions early on, once a body is donated to science it has no control over where it eventually ends up, and “Stiff” similarly goes in all directions as it explores the various possibilities with a mix of contemporary studies and involved historical research. One chapter that begins in an anatomy lab memorial service for cadavers jumps into a discussion of body snatching in 1700s England, while the next switches between a body left in the sun for three weeks and the origins of arterial embalming. The breadth of the subject means that no stone is left unturned – that is, unless the stone is on a cadaver and being unturned is part of the experiment.

Roach however manages to keep all these disparate links together, chiefly through her entertaining writing style. Thanks to various quips at the historical subjects (the “father of embalming” asked not to be embalmed himself, “though whether this was a function of sanity or insanity was never made clear”) and a legitimate curiosity about those who spend their time around human bodies (“What I do is, I think of them as wax” is one option), it’s hard to ever feel bogged down or lost on her journey. Special praise goes to the transitions between sections and chapters in the way they establish common threads: One chapter ends talking about an organ donor (“H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her”) and the next begins by discussing the idea of souls, which leads to brains as their resting place, which leads to the idea of human head transplants.

If anyone does have trouble going from section to section, it will likely be because of the subject matter rather than the writing – much of “Stiff” is not for those with weak stomachs. The breadth of topics makes it very engrossing, but it regularly teeters to the “gross” part of the equation by turning up experiments like the creation of a two-headed dog (a “lively, puppylike, if not altogether joyous existence” for the new head) and just where human excrement falls into the medicine cabinets of ancient civilizations. “Stiff’s” subject matter tends to be far from polite dinner table conversation, and the odds are good that readers will take a break in between sections such as this decay research observation:

“Arpad walks around to the corpse’s left foot. It is bluish and the skin is transparent. ‘See under the skin? They’re eating the subcutaneous fat. They love fat.’ I see them. They are spaced out, moving slowly. It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath its surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper. You tell yourself these things.”

But despite being confronted with these observations, Roach never backs down from getting close with the cadavers – either whole or in part. While she frequently turns to a dry, Wodehousian black humor there’s also a strong respect for the choice these people made when alive to commit their earthly remains, and observes the bodies with a quiet fascination. She strengthens this commitment by including interviews with several truly devoted experts in the field, ranging from an injury analyst who studies corpses after crashes to a Swedish woman spearheading a movement for human composting. None of her subjects are ghouls who get off on manipulating the dead, but matter-of-fact individuals who happen to work with dead bodies to learn something new.

And that leads to the real strength of “Stiff” – it’s certainly full of fascinating data and presents itself well, but it still carries the appropriate gravitas its subject material deserves. Roach is at all times aware of the fact that her subjects were once alive, and that at the core what’s on the table in front of her is only a few degrees separate from each of us: “We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” In “Stiff,” Roach shows us that maybe we shouldn’t try to forget it, because even after we’re dead – and possibly destined for a biology class – we’re still innately fascinating.

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Book Review: The Imperfectionists

December 1, 2010

The Imperfectionists

By Tom Rachman

Published April 6, 2010

The Dial Press

288 pp.

ISBN 0-385-34366-3

Reviewed December 1, 2010

In my time working for the Daily Cardinal back in college, I probably crossed paths with over a hundred individuals who played some role in making the paper. Some of them remain very close friends of mine, whom I exchange updates with on a regular basis. Others I haven’t seen for years, but I know I could meet up with and fall right back into a familiar groove with or at the very least be offered a couch for an evening. Still others I couldn’t identify by face or name now, but I know if I found myself in conversation with them and we learned that we shared that connection, we’d fill at least five minutes going over old war stories.

A newspaper tends to both attract a wide variety of people, and inspire a mix of emotions in the people who work for it – and that psychic pull is just one of the things that Tom Rachman manages to do so masterfully in “The Imperfectionists.” Centered around an unnamed English language newspaper in Rome, operating in what may well be the twilight of print media, “The Imperfectionists” is a brilliant debut novel that understands the most interesting thing about journalism. It isn’t the circumstances of the business or its efforts to stay relevant in changing times, but the multifaceted and frequently damaged people who make it their trade.

“The Imperfectionists” is split into eleven chapters, each of which focuses on one of the staffers at the unnamed paper. Editor-in-chief Kathleen Solsen struggles to do more with less in the face of the home office’s apathy, while the nitpicky copy editor Herman Cohen lambastes his three-headed copy desk – particularly the wallflower Ruby Zaga – for amateurish edits. The financial officer Abbey Pinnola reluctantly embraces her role as hatchet man, while the business reporter Hardy Benjamin tries to assimilate someone new into life outside her office. Abroad in Cairo and Paris, respective correspondents Winston Cheung and Lloyd Burko are either so far out of their comfort zones it approaches farcical or so mired in their comfort zones they have nothing left to offer.

Readers with journalism backgrounds will certainly find the chapters engagingly familiar – with each character embodying the professions’ archetypes at least in part – but “The Imperfectionists” is by no means restricted to that group. The chapters are focused on each character’s personal dramas, with the newspaper merely lining the cages of their doubts and revelations. Herman eagerly embraces a visit from his oldest friend and tries to get him to write for the paper, only to find that neither of their lives have turned out precisely as they thought – and they come to some surprising realizations about it. Katheen reengages with an old boyfriend in public service, tempted to use him to get inside information on the prime minister’s office – or just get back at her cheating husband. Each vignette is well-fleshed and original, and manages to come to meaningful conclusions all around.

The plotting makes each chapter interesting, but what makes them gripping is how well each character is defined. None of the chapters are in first-person, and Rachman’s voice is apparent in each of them, but you really do feel like you’re hearing a brand new person’s story each time. In some instances, particularly Kathleen’s and Abbey’s, the dialogue continues to flow for pages at a perfectly natural rhythm – these read like conversations real people would have, with small talk skirting around an elephant in the room and reaching conclusions neither party likes. Conversely, chapters on Lloyd and Ruby are more about internal monologues, their insecurities eating away at them as they desperately try to find some validation in work or in life. Ruby’s chapter in particular, mixed with internal asides to herself, has particularly poignant moments:

“To eat or to sleep – the perennial night-shift conundrum. She confronts her dilemma as always, with a tub of Haagen-Dazs on the couch and Tony Bennett on the stereo, volume low. The CD came free with a magazine and has become part of her after-work routine. She has the TV on, too, with the sound off. She watches Ballando con le Stelle without seeing, listens to Tony Bennett without hearing, eats Vanilla Swiss Almond without tasting. Yet the mix is the most splendid she knows.”

Prose like this is reminiscent of some of the finest short stories, and indeed the almost insular feeling of each chapter makes it very feasible to take each one as a single serving without digesting the narrative. As the book progresses, names repeat and the connections become more apparent – the same man ricochets off the paper’s editor-in-chief, copy editor and fervent subscriber in very different ways, a broken friendship indirectly tips over a line of dominoes to start an affair – but for the most part those connections matter because they evoke memories of just how good that character’s chapter was, and poignancy at how damaged they remain.

For as good as these character studies are, there is a central narrative – the origins and future of the paper, the great edifice that churns on oblivious to its staff’s problems, where “what was of the utmost importance yesterday is immaterial today.” The chapters are split up with vignettes on the origins of the paper, the mysterious industrialist Cyrus Ott who abandoned his family in Atlanta to become a publisher and founding editors as damaged as any off the current staff. The reason for the paper’s genesis comes in the last chapter, opened for personal reasons as tragic as any its existing staff has for staying with it – but the revelation is lost on the chapter’s subject, Ott’s grandson, the weak-willed publisher dwelling in an empty mansion with only a basset hound for company. It’s a tragic hammer strike, made even harder by the denouement of the final fifteen pages.

In those last pages, the observation is made that the paper is a “daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species” – and that’s a label that can easily be applied to “The Imperfectionists.” By farming the tightly wound, diverse world of a newsroom, Rachman has created some of the strongest character studies in recent years. It’s heartfelt and complex, all its considerable parts adding up to something greater – much as its staff’s contributions inexplicably bring a paper to life. This is, quite simply, one of the best books of the year.