Bowel Story

Patient is well-written enough that I immediately suspected, however unfairly, that Watt had help. Regarding ultrasound, Watt writes: "On the monitor screen, a million tiny stars appeared in the darkness. As the sensor moved, they changed shape and form and my organs showed up like constellations in the night sky." Yes, that's very nice -- not James Joyce or anything, but certainly interesting -- but I doubt Watt was musing about astronomy at the time that the medical technicians were looking into the black space where his guts used to be. Don't get me wrong. Pop-music writers are usually not dumb, and the good ones are quite smart. They're just not necessarily renowned for being eloquent outside of their verse-chorus-verse format and crying-trying-dying rhymes.

But the book is not without its own ailments, and these, ironically, stay the suspicion that Watt had a ghostly hand holding his quill for him. A primary structural problem of Patient disarms the suspicion: There is an incredible overreliance on italicized sections, this unquestionably the quirky device of the author. Italics are a wonderful tool, and can be used to great end. But Patient is filled with those sorts of passages commonly produced by aspiring MacArthur Genius Grants in fiction workshops, where past tense switches to present and suddenly everything's itals, itals, itals -- all in order to convey, you know, immediacy. This would be tolerable if the device was used consistently -- like, say, solely for flashbacks to those fraught and telling moments from childhood. (Ahem.) Instead, Watt's italicized sections make him seem both unstuck in time and crushed out on his comp book. "A Greek Island. I am thirteen. There is a donkey by the road ... the donkey is urinating. His cock hangs flaccid like a small elephant's trunk, gently swaying back and forth in the silent heat. A thick, loose, endless stream washes into the dust. ... I want to be that donkey." "The Scrabble board is on the invalid-table in front of me. ... Tracey began with 'ACQUIRE.' I could only manage 'RAT' in response. She is now forty-five points ahead. I have no energy to think. My mind feels like it is running on a run-down battery ... 'S ... N ... I ... U ...' Wait a minute. SEQUINS!" "I am five. ... My poster for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is full of flames ... it comes towards me, unfurling and rolling like a wave. ... My room is filled with shadows and light."

Patient is a book that wouldn't have been published or seen its share of success had Watt not been a fairly renowned pop musician. Honestly: Would the intestines that festered have been written (or even read) about if the person who survived the experience was a claims adjuster from Akron? But however clumsy his dabbling in special effects, Watt's story remains a riveting one -- delivering both potboiler-level gross-out and an artful exposition on one human's loss of humanity. Would that all pop musicians had something as interesting to talk about. Would that some of them at least contracted a terminal illness.

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