Friday, August 20, 2010

a multilayered tragedy for everyone involved

I had evidently not learnt well from my last exposure to the works of Robin Cook in the 21st century. In my defence, Critical was published before Intervention, so I could be excused for hoping that Dr. Cook still had some of the magic that adorned his his early books. It was a relief to find out that Critical was in fact a better book. Unfortunately, it still qualified as a poor effort when one considered books like Coma and Brain.

The novel finds Cook showing off his knowledge of medicine and medical procedures while following the rather familiar path of a thriller. To its credit it manages to toss in several different significant characters, who contribute to the crescendo to a climax of coincidences. The final chapter, unfortunately, takes us from the trappings of a cops-and-robbers series for television to a painful exercise in exposition through conversation (not unlike the scrawl at the end of those biopics telling us what happened to most of the principal characters). The epilogue makes things worse with a segue into a budding romance not unlike what one might expect from daytime soaps.

Despite serving well as a bestselling piece of pulp whose pages you could flip through without having to exercise your brain too much, the novel suffers from a poor editorial job. Anyone who lets a writer -- even a mainstream, bestselling one -- get away with using a word like guesstimation is a lazy slob who needs to find another job. Mercifully, the abuse of literally is limited (as if to make up for this, one finds the abuse blooming in Intervention).

One cannot deny the need for Cook to wax eloquent when it comes to the medical aspects of the story, since that is what defines his brand of fiction. One must, however, take issue to just how intelligent the writer assumes the reader to be. Consider the following extract:

Never once did he think about his knees and the effort expended by their various ligaments, which faithfully maintained the integrity of the joints despite the considerable stresses placed on them, and by the menisci, which cushioned the substantial pressure exerted by the distal ends of the femurs, or thighbones, on the tops of the tibias, or shinbones.

Let us choose to ignore the great disservice this long curvy sentence does to the full-stop. Let us also ignore how clumsily the writer has mixed exposition into an otherwise simple sentence. What is most annoying is how Cook pauses to explain what a femur is, he chooses to offer no such guidance for menisci. I know what a femur is, thank you very much. If you wanted to explain every medical term in that sentence, you should have explained menisci as well. I must also note that the generosity on display with this sentence is short-lived. After having realised, presumably, that several pages had been wasted in exposition instead of moving the plot forward, Cook and his editor(s) decided to let the medical jargon remain jargon, thus alienating the reader and allowing him/her to flip the pages even faster.

The reader is not the only one at the receiving end of condescension. Consider the following extract from a conversation between two doctors. Surely one would expect less exposition between two people when talking about matters germane to their occupation:

My guess is that it was a behind-the-scenes lobby competition, with the lobbyists from the AMA pitted against the lobbyists for the AHA, or American Hospital Association, and the FAH, or Federation of American Hospitals. I guess the doctors spent more money than the hospital admin groups.

Did I mention apostrophe abuse? How about inconsistent apostrophe abuse? Consider the following:

Laurie got along famously with all the PA's but particularly with Janice, who appreciated Laurie's recognition of her work. More than any of the MEs, Laurie was constantly coming to her and asking questions and valuing her opinion.

Physician assistants are, for reasons unknown, more special than medical exainers; based on other plural forms seen in the book, they seem to be more important than HMOs. Unfortunately, in the paperback edition, this superiority is asserted only page 396; until that point, the apostrophe was mercifully spared when PAs were mentioned.

Sloppy. Very sloppy.

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