Bowel Story

Patient
By Ben Watt
Grove Press
178 pages; $21

One of the charms of Patient, an autobiography by pop star Ben Watt (of the English dance-rock duo Everything But the Girl) is that it isn't really a pop-star autobiography. Pamela Des Barres is conspicuously absent, along with shopworn celebrity decadence in general, and the subject matter has little to do with music. As a self-biographer (if not as a person lucky to be alive), Watt was fortunate enough to have something a little more compelling to drudge up: his own rotten insides.

In 1992, Watt started experiencing mysterious pains and fatigue. The problem was eventually diagnosed as Churg-Strauss Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder, but not before the death and surgical removal of most of his small intestine: "Prof. Wastell had cut me open as planned, but had seen something so bad at first he'd simply stapled me back together again and sent me up to ITU (Intensive Care) to pause for thought. My small bowel had virtually rotted away inside me, and probably had been doing so for several days." Far more interesting than choking on your own vomit or trashing hotel rooms, you have to admit. What's more, the book is actually pretty well-written -- a terse prose account of sickness and treatment, delivered with dry wit and utterly without glamour.

Watt wisely downplays his pop career; the words "Everything But the Girl" don't appear in the text, and he only mentions Tracey Thorn, his partner in the band, because she's also his partner in life. Good thing, too -- I have little use for the music of EBTG, drum & bass mania notwithstanding. Watt wisely focuses on the fascinating, gruesome, and morbid aspects of his medical ordeal -- generally, detailing the reduction of his humanity to dumb, helpless meat. In other words, subject matter far heftier than the vagaries of composing dance pop.

But never mind Patient's artful qualities -- if it's nausea you want, the book's got a finger down your throat. Beach-trash readers will certainly find some crass titillation here, as the various fluids that erupt from Watt's body during treatment and recovery are described with meticulous care: "When my bowel did finally start to move I felt like a child learning potty-training all over again. The commode would be wheeled in and I'd sit on it, passing what looked more like seagull shit than anything I could recognize." And there's no skimping on the vomit: "The velocity with which the green bile erupted was astonishing, like a geyser. It was fascinating. Like cartoon spewing." Yep, it sure is gross -- but it's more evocative than sensationalist. Fortunately, more probing concerns, such as the invasive and degrading nature of hospitalization -- however beneficent -- will be lost on no one. "I have been dreading this moment. The drain is to be pulled half out. Through the skin and flesh. I can feel them fiddling with the stitch that holds it in place. I can hear scissors. ... The plastic pipe is withdrawn. How far? An inch? A foot? And in that moment I am reeling with anxiety. I stop my mouth with the back of my own hand. I feel my teeth pressing through the skin. In my mind I see the pipe pulling free of the wound, like a shoe pulls away from fresh bubble gum. I feel the pipe moving through my flesh like a pencil through tight polystyrene. I hear the blood flooding to the site. I smell putrefaction. Illness." Watt's fellow patients are also less souls than pot roast. They are grossly fat; they are jaundiced; they puke, in great monsoon torrents; they die. "A young black girl was put straight into the other [isolation unit] when she arrived. All her skin was coming off, like the pith of an orange. I saw blisters and ulcers all across her face. She's had a bad reaction to a drug."

And yet for all the intimacy with the body (and its fluids) that his illness seems to inspire, Watt cannily avoids presenting it as familiar -- and, even more cannily, he doesn't martyr himself. Confronted with the culprit during a medical lecture and slide show -- namely, the rotten, excised section of his own bowel -- Watt feels only curious and distant. "It appeared suddenly, without warning, as images thrown large on the screen in front of me. All I could think of was how it resembled grilled Cumberland sausage. I was fascinated but not involved. I was just part of the audience. It didn't seem to have anything to do with me." It is as if the turncoat organ were not a former part of Watt's body, but an emissary of his weird disease -- something that never belonged inside him in the first place.

Presented in similarly frank fashion (and fresh in the annals of "symp lit") is Watt's realization of his power as a sick person -- the ease with which he can manipulate visiting friends and family. "If I smiled weakly I'd feel I had inadvertently created a moment of unbearable poignancy. And curiously, because of this, I felt a huge amount of power over them. ... Their hearts were open books, their eyes wells of sympathy. I surprised myself at the time I contemplated such duplicity -- not so cruel as to ever really put it into practice, but cruel enough to consider it." These inverted takes on sickness and self are the most interesting parts of the book.

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