If there's a recurring theme lately in films, as I suggested yesterday, then there also appears to be another different one in novels I've been reading. Or if not a theme, a particular kind of leading man who keeps popping up - well, perhaps "keeps popping up" is a bit of an exaggeration, (what me, exaggerate?). What I'm really saying then is that I've been reading two novels lately and in both the central figures have been medical professionals.
Okay, that is hardly a movement, but it struck me as a little odd. (Mumbles, feels slightly idiotic, but gosh, I've started now so I'd better plough on).
The first novel is a pretty vile, yet strangely gripping piece of work by the Dutch author Herman Koch. It is called Summer House With Swimming Pool and it is told in the first person by a really nasty doctor. To begin with it is unputdownable and at some points really funny. Towards the end I became so weary of the narrator's company that I slightly lost the thread of the thing and I don't think I really understand what actually happened. Never mind - along the way I was intrigued by the narrator's claim about the Netherlands and home birth:
'We're as rich as Saudi Arabia, as Kuwait, as Qatar ... but ...we, we general practitioners, convince ... that home-birthing is safe ... the risk of babies dying, of babies suffering brain damage ... is simply factored into the equation ... once in a great while an article appears ... [that shows] infant mortality in the Netherlands is the highest in all of Europe and indeed the Western world. But no one has ever acted on these figures.'
Is this true fact - in which case, shouldn't something be done? - or is it just supposed to demonstrate the jaded nature of the character who is writing?
Certainly, much as I love the theatre, I have had some bad nights there and thus couldn't help identifying with the same narrator's hilarious comments on being in an audience:
"Something happens to time during a play. Something I've never quite been able to put my finger on. It doesn't stand still, time, no: it coagulates."
Most particularly I recognise truth in what he says about the way that Shakespeare is often battered by arrogant directors:
"It was the first time I'd been invited to a Shakespeare production. I'd already seen about ten of his plays. A version of The Taming of the Shrew in which all the male roles were played by women; the Merchant of Venice with the actors in nappies and the actresses wearing rubbish bags for dresses and shopping bags on their heads; Hamlet with an all-Down's-Syndrome cast, wind machines and a (dead) goose that was decapitated on stage, King Lear with Zimbabwean orphans and ex-junkies; Romeo and Juliet in the never-completed tunnel of a subway line, with concentration camp photos projected on the walls, down which sewage trickled; Macbeth in which all the female roles were played by naked men - the only clothing they wore was a thong between their buttocks, with handcuffs and weights hanging form their nipples, performing against a soundtrack consisting of artillery barrages, Radiohead songs and poems by Radovan Karadzic. Besides the fact that you didn't dare to look at how the handcuffs and weights were attached to (or through) the nipples, the problem once again was a matter of how slowly the time passed. I can remember delays at airports that must have lasted half a day, easily, but which were over ten times as quickly as any of those plays."
Finally, the book reinforces my worst fears of doctors, when the narrator explains, on behalf of all his coleagues that:
'that's how we look at people ... as the temporary inhabitants of a body that, without periodic maintenance, could simply break down."
Of course not all doctors are cynical enough to say things like this:
"I knew from experience that...the sooner you laugh during a conversation with a woman, the better. They're not used to it, women, to making people laugh. They think they're not funny. They're right, usually."
Meanwhile, Joshua Ferris's new novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has as its main character a dentist. Perhaps reflecting the fact that dentists are somehow not as intriguing and shamanlike as doctors (at least not in my psychological universe) the book is not actually as grippingly horridly interesting as Koch's, although it may actually be the better of the two in the long run. Certainly there is a conversation in it between the main character and his practice manager that contains the best circular argument I've ever come across and one I wholeheartedly endorse:
"Why be superstitious at all is what I'm asking"
"Because it's bad luck not to be superstitious"