Drop Dead, A Novel

“You should write a novel.” Anytime something goes mildly wrong or right for me, friends and family trip over themselves to advise me to write a novel.

This weekend the toilet upstairs flooded my bathroom, ruining a couple of walls. “Write a novel.”

Friday I sat on a bus next to a lunatic who lectured me on the Khmer Rouge and Warren G. Harding. “Write a novel.”

When I first got into grad school, my disappointed mom answered “Oh, I’d always hoped you’d become a novelist.”

When I temporarily left grad school, multiple friends congratulated me. “Now you can write a novel.”

I date a weirdo or break up with one, it’s always shrugged off by people I know as the subject of a novel.

Since my view of literature is fairly unreconstructed, I always feel a little insulted by these suggestions– as if people are calling me a liar. My interest in writing a novel is non-existent. I don’t have the necessary capacity for make believe to get away with one, and thinking about how to structure them gives me a headache. It’s not as if I dislike writing, per se. I’ve been published several times under my real name and occasionally under an alias for pieces of journalism, including a vituperative masterpiece about Moises Kaufman. Several of my author interviews have seen print. I am also not opposed to creativity. For example, when I write academically, my interpretations tend to intentionally pervert Great Authors beyond recognition, though the readings always remain firmly rooted in fact — unlike some critics I know who make novelists seem as fact-oriented as mathematicians.

But a novel? Yuck.

What I really don’t get is why one would write a novel while suffering from full body paralysis. On Friday, while my bathroom was being flooded, friends talked me into going out to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, adapted from the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

This movie was a fucking a torment.

Bauby was ‘a major cultural figure’ in France. He edited Elle magazine until, one day, a stroke hit him. The ensuing damage to his brain stem gave him “locked in” syndrome, leaving him with only one functional body part — his left eyelid. The first half hour is shown from the perspective of his left eye. We watch as his right eye is sewn shut and the screen goes blurry and anamorphic. It was one of the most claustrophobic experiences imaginable. At certain points, I began to hyperventilate, desperately wanting to leave the theater. Peer pressure forced me to remain in my seat. There were expressions of sheer horror on the faces of everyone around me.

For two hours we twisted in our seats as people repeated the alphabet to Bauby. Bauby would blink whenever someone announced a letter he wanted. Viewers were treated to ‘profound’ internal narration lifted from the completed novel about how we must all ‘try to be human.’ Thanks, I’ll give it a try. Eventually the film switched to an external perspective, granting us some mild relief. Occasionally, our entire bodies would return as Bauby escaped into memory or fantasy. Of course all of his nurses were played by extremely hot actresses. One of them looked a lot like Padma Lakshmi; the narration makes it clear that even though Bauby’s penis doesn’t work, locked-in syndrome+hot nurses is a special hell for someone who historically dreamed only of pussy.

Conference Call

This was the bleakest story I’ve ever encountered. Julian Schnabel is a breathtaking film-maker, except in this case he chose to use his talents to smother paying viewers. Three scenes made this thing somewhat worthwhile. The first was a flashback to a trip Bauby and an ex took to Lourdes before the stroke. Apparently, Lourdes is more commercially crass than Disneyland. I had no idea! In any case, the scene stokes whatever anti-Catholic prejudices you may harbor. The second was an imaginary sequence where he and his physical therapist gorge on oysters and make out at Café de Flore. I was with a kosher friend who had chosen the movie, so this scene was an opportunity to feel him squirming next to me as they downed plate after plate of seafood and played tonsil tennis. Finally, amid all the attempts to express “profundities,” one reverie stood out; the image of a melting glacier as Bauby discusses life as inherently a series of near-misses. This moment successfully moved me as the point was simple and true. Unfortunately, Schnabel ruined it later on by showing the glacier melt in reverse while playing some truly terrible rock song.

Upon its release, the memoir sold ten thousand copies in the two days before Baubier died. The French love “true-stories.” I find them emotionally manipulative. If you hate the story, then you must hate the poor trauma victim who wrote it. Not really. Elle is laughable, but I have nothing personal against their editors. I do have something against true-stories that use U2 songs in their soundtrack.

Consider this post my living will. If I ever become a vegetable, or even a near-vegetable, I want to die. No profound novels or memoirs will escape my eyelid. The only thing you’ll get is a stream of non-stop, curse-filled, bitching; no pedagogy about how a flooded bathroom or a stroke made me into a more complete human.

I recommend you see this movie with your worst enemy.

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