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Paging Doctor Benway: Toby Litt?s Brain is Overheating on Allegory

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Toby Litt
Hamish Hamilton

Reviewed by Steve Finbow

Being a frustrated medievalist, I prefer to read Toby Litt?s new novel, Hospital, as a contemporary version of Piers Plowman, William Langland?s 14th century visionary allegorical satire on the social and religious state of England. Hospital is busy with characters and throbbing with ideas. Toby Litt?s gone for it and, regardless of whether he succeeds or not, one has to applaud him for the effort. To take one of the ur-texts of English literature and combine it with Judaeo-Christian myths, as well as James Herbert?s The Fog and J.G. Ballard?s High Rise, is already ambitious enough; but to then add elements of ER, Coma, Mark Z. Danielewski?s House of Leaves, Rosemary?s Baby, Angel Heart, Monty Pytho, and the Norse myths of Yggdrasil, Ragnar?k, L?f and L?fthrasir, is to take it to the point of monomaniacal madness ? and that?s a compliment.

I cannot think of many British novelists who would tackle such wide-ranging themes and do so with humor and intelligence. Nor can I think of another British novelist who uses narrative drive and page-turning storytelling skill in an experimental narrative. Maybe David Mitchell. Litt?s narrative is cinematic in its use of cliff-hangers, cut-offs, and teases. By eschewing the now traditional use of analepsis or prolepsis, the book has the effect of barely allowing the reader time to think and reflect.

?Blood always made him feel particularly virile ? and the blood-Viagra combination couldn?t be beaten. Tonight, however, he felt particularly splendid. ??Your time has come,? he said to the Virgin.?

??We?ll talk about it later,? he whispered, his voice gruff with emotion. However, when she drew back from him, she saw only his inscrutable eggshell-blue eyes and his infuriatingly kissable mouth. ?I ?? he began to say, but his sentence, whatever it was going to be, was interrupted by a shrill scream.?

This is parody in the service of satire, popular entertainment in the thrall of mythology. As for the plot ? well, here goes. A man collapses while jogging and is Medevac?d away. Riding along in the helicopter is a boy, unseen by paramedics, doctors, and nurses. Is he a constituent of the man?s unconscious? Is he flesh and blood? The man, having slipped into a coma, spends the entire novel in the limbo-land of ICU while the boy attempts to escape Hospital. We know that the boy is in flight from home, fleeing from maternal castigation. Is his journey a circular one? Is he forever bound to return to the mother? Is Hospital/Hospital a self-contained womb entombing a self-consuming ouroboros plot? Is Hospital/Hospital a 21st century version of Hansel and Gretel?s dark woods and house made of bread?

When we speak of Hospital, bear in mind, it isn?t ?a? Hospital or ?the? Hospital ? just ?Hospital?. Hospital is ontological. It is a place that may embody both heaven and hell, peopled with a multitude of characters who may or may not be allegorical. In place of Gluttony, Conscience, Intelligence, and Avarice ? characters Piers Plowman encounters in his dream vision ? Litt?s characters? names point to allegorical simplicity overcome by complex and humorous wordplay. Hospital?s staff includes Sister Agnes Day, a glass-eyed A&E receptionist (does she really bring peace and eternal rest to the patients?); Kitty Somerled, retired midwife, Hospital patient, and admixture of Hollywood and Norse history; Carl-Henry Bien-Aim?, the beloved Haitian porter; and Dexter von Sinistre, head pathologist, who, in great medieval tradition, we are led to believe is torn between the good and right of Hippocrates and the lure of the left-handed, evil path. I?m sure Litt had great fun creating these characters. They remind me of Thomas Pynchon out of Ian Fleming ? Benny Profane, Oedipa Maas, Jessica Swanlake, and Pirate Prentice please meet Sir Hugo Drax, Auric Goldfinger, Tiffany Case, and Rosa Kl?bb. And this is not a trite comparison: in his plot and characterisations, Litt manages to create a hybrid fiction, fusing the postmodern meta-narrative and hysterical realism of Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith with the anticipation, dream, frustration, nightmare, and miraculous escape stages of classic storytelling used by Charles Dickens, Stephen King, and Steven Spielberg. The reader here finds love accompanied by loss, sex smooching with violence, voodoo practitioners hobnobbing with Satanists, and reanimated cadavers chasing fetishistic nurses. It is as if Michel Foucault had re-written Betty Neels?s hospital dramas.

Litt?s disregard (I won?t preface that with the adjective ?careless?) for the narrative well-being of his characters ? introducing them to further the plot?s dynamics, and then leaving them unattended, as it were, on a fictional gurney in some dark, long-forgotten corridor ? invites satirical comment on the state of the British National Health Service, yet owes more to the walk-on, walk-off inhabitants of a Henry Fielding or a Charles Dickens novel. Hospital can seem rather overcrowded at times, cartoon-like in its frenzied activity and seemingly anarchic story-boarding; nonetheless, Litt?s plotting is intricate, tight as a latex glove; his stories administered not only as plot-drivers but as indicators, guiding the reader along a dreamlike quest. Hospital, like Langland?s Piers Plowman, chronicles and questions the whole paradoxical discourse of desire and disease: the baseness as well as the beauty, the truth as well as the fantasy.

Hospital invites the reader to examine humanity?s need for a contemplative reality ? is the novel being played out in the mind of the comatose patient? Hospital confronts life and death not through explication but rather in the use of ribald and farcical action. Approaching vast subjects as Litt does here, and using comedy and farce as a means to do so, may be Quixotic in its impracticality ? some might argue rashness ? yet like the Don himself, Hospital is also fantastical, romantic, and visionary. It?s certainly a strange creature: a ?social novel of ideas? written in perpetual motion, peopled with caricatures that become more real each time we look at ourselves in the mirror.

Like all hospitals, there is grime lurking beneath the hygienic sheen. At times, we find a smirking adolescence undercutting the novel?s high-seriousness.

?I try to keep TIM in order ? that?s what I call him, TIM, The Inner Man. First rough him up with roughage, then curry favor with a vindaloo. You see, TIM?s a hard bastard. Stubborn as you like. I?d be tempted to say TIM?s SAS quality, but they?re noted for being in and out before you?ve noticed. No, he?s more of a covert agent ? years embedded behind enemy lines.?

I?m not sure if this isn?t a means by which a writer provides general relief in a narrative, which, at any given moment, is fit to bursting from a profusion of ideas. What Litt doesn?t do, thank god, is anaesthetize the reader with theory: the concepts are sewn neatly into the story, and the jokes ? some funny, some prurient, some labored ? provide much-needed laughing gas in a novel dealing with human frailty, loss, and striving. Less-assured hands would have botched such a delicate operation.

Litt is a brave writer. In the past, we have seen him do page-turning readability with Beatniks and Corpsing; looked on aghast at his foolhardiness with Finding Myself; witnessed his more experimental side in the short-story collections Adventures in Capitalism, Exhibitionism and particularly ?The Hare? ? a short fiction included in Granta 81: Best of Young British Novelists 2003; and gasped as his courage increased in the novels deadkidsongs and Ghost Story. But it is with Hospital that the elements of imagination and venture come together. It is as if Litt has stitched together a novel out of the undead texts of his literary predecessors and peers ? J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Bret Easton Ellis, but, most importantly, he has sheathed it with the pink and shiny skin of his own bravado. Bravo.

In addition to contributing Seppuku My Heart ? which concerns his reflections on life in the Far East, particularly Japan ? to the ever-increasing traffic of the Infobahn, Steve Finbow spends his time writing short stories, one of which, ?Mr Nakamoto Takes a Vacation,? can be found in Willesden Herald ? New Short Stories 1, due in April.


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