It's not real, and it's not fiction. What is it?
Into the tradition of doctors who write about medicine (Perri Klass, Atul Gawande, Jerome Groopman, Abraham Verghese) comes Gabriel Weston, a London surgeon who studied English lit in Scotland before medical school. A friend from Edinburgh University who studied English with Weston convinced her to write this book about what it’s like to be a surgeon – in particular, a female surgeon in training.
Thus this sort-of memoir, broken into 14 essays with titles like “Sex,” “Death” and “Beauty,” in which Weston talks about standing at the operating table for hours at a time, breaking news to families of their loved ones’ demise, wanting to impress senior male colleagues so much that you risk someone else’s life. Fascinating stuff, right?
Well, maybe. The problem isn’t with the writing, which is quite lovely if a little overwrought. It’s with Weston’s introductory “Author’s Note,” in which she writes that the stories she tells in the following pages are “not, in the strictest sense, true.” She goes on to explain that she worried about confidentiality and “dishonouring” fellow doctors. “It was for that reason,” she explains, “that I chose to write my stories according to theme rather than in a more accurate documentary style. … Although my characters owe a certain amount to patients and doctors I have known, none of these characters is real. Equally, the events that I describe are a mixture of things that have happened and things that might have happened. The result is, I hope, entirely authentic, if not entirely true.”
James Frey should have consulted with Weston before he published. This preface is some fancy dancing, that’s for sure. You won’t find anything like it in Atul Gawande’s book Better, for instance, which also profiles patients and politics in operating rooms – he situates the book firmly in nonfiction territory. But Weston’s pussyfooting to spare feelings seems, unfortunately, all too female. She’s afraid to ruffle feathers so she’s writing fiction-lite; puzzling, then, that the book is marketed as nonfiction.
Weston wants to have it both ways, and it doesn’t serve her narrative. For instance, she says none of the characters is real, that they’re merely tools she uses to illustrate the reality of surgical life. Fair enough. Then why must we hear of laboriously wrought details that add nothing to the essence of the story? For instance, in “Beauty,” Weston describes a man’s appearance: “His hair was gray and thin but looked windswept rather than straggly. He was wearing khaki trousers. Not genteel chinos, but made of something thicker and more practical, like canvas. On his top half, he wore a plaid shirt … “
His wife is described even more precisely:
“She had a good bosom, and it had that stiff unified look that made it hard to imagine that it was composed of two soft breasts. She had brown hair that was only just beginning to gray. It reached her shoulders, and some of it was held from her roughened cheek with a clip, which might have looked absurdly girlish but didn’t, because her eyes, which met mine the instant that I walked into the room, had a shiny sort of wisdom in them. It was hard to see what she was wearing, since the folds of this merged into the creased and swathes of that, but it was all dark and soft, in grays and greens and browns, so she looked wholesome and foresty. She had a handbag by her feet that stood up by itself. One of the handles was upright and the other had collapsed to one side. On her lap she had one of those old mauve-and-white Penguins that they now design mugs from; this one was Virgina Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.”
There’s no question that’s well-written, but to what end? None of the characters are real so the minuteness of the details is puzzling. How do they add to the medical story? We know this person didn’t exist, that her handbag didn’t have one handle up and one handle down. So why are so many words expended on clothing and hair clips? It’s baffling. If this were a true account, one could marvel at Weston’s powers of observation, but as it’s faux memoir, we just get a sense that she’s wasting our time.
Alas, that happens quite often in Weston’s book. It’s a shame because her writing is really quite good, particularly when describing small things like an old medical light (“a big black tilting sunflower head … the way this vast head moved was disconcertingly human, a graceful face on a toned neck”) or a manila folder (“Its cover still had the sheen that cardboard has before it goes soft and hairy”). And much of the book makes for compelling reading. But this is the problem with memoir in the days after Frey and Eggers and Burroughs (Augustan, not William S.): The author may have her cake and eat it too, but it’s less delicious for the readers.
Weston now only performs surgery part-time, so maybe she’ll have time to write a proper novel. If so, it’ll undoubtedly be powerful, literary, exquisitely imagined and detailed. Without question, that’ll be a better genre for her.
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014