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.

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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