Reviewed in the United States on October 24, 2019
I try to review every book I read, if only to have part of it fixated in my memory. The other part is writing practice. Reviewing to me is an exercise of concision and organization, helping bring order to my mind and rigor to my prose.
Then why leave Stiff alone for so many months? For it sat on my desk at the mercy of dust. Tell the truth, I even considered giving it no review at all. After going through Roach’s unfortunate bestseller, one thing is sure, I am not giving my body to science. Had such a tasteless assemblage not been given birth, I might have.
It is a sad decision when a major publishing company decides to go ahead with a project like this one. And indeed I was caught, like I will be in the future, I am sure, in this marketing manipulation. But what Mary Roach’s book ends up being is a collage of indecency.
Why such indignation and what is Stiff about? If you watch Law and Order, or read thrillers and mysteries, you will know what a stiff is. It is the name cops give to cadavers.
That’s what got me interested, the title. It implies what happens on the operating table of the medical examiner. As a mystery writer, I don’t know when the next stiff is going to pop up. And please, don’t think I am using the word in a cavalier way. Neither do the creators of the expression and the ones who shake hands with death every day---cops. Stiff seems just more familiar than cadaver.
But someone is cavalier with stiffs and that is Mary Roach. She is cavalier with death, with bodies, with their dismemberment, with cannibalism. The touch of humor she adds naming her little chapters adds cruelty and lack of sensitivity to a topic that needs to be dealt with sensitivity. She acts like that wounded teenager unable to express her hurt and sending sarcasms and witticisms instead.
But Roach is not a teenager. And she’s addressing a serious topic. The other side of life. The extension of life. Death is not the end of life. Even when it comes to the body. Think of it. Bury it. It becomes part of the earth. Other cells build and combine and enrich the soil. Death is just a name. Life, spiritual or material, never ends.
Roach’s book is a book of misery.
Instances. “A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste” is the title where Roach (she’s missing a cock in her name; nothing to do with part of you, gentlemen) describes heads decapitated from cadavers carefully placed on trays by medical students. I am sure Danton and Robespierre, would have appreciated the photo that comes with this. (Good marketing for the guillotine.) And the rest of the body, you may ask? Either thrown out or sliced off. An arm is thrown time and again to test the impact of a fall, a leg sees how the breaks of that new car will work. Ping-pong time! See why I and other reviewers changed their minds about giving their body to science? See how irresponsible this is?
Indeed, a head is a terrible thing to waste. Where was yours, and incidentally, where is your heart, Madame Roach?
This is not the worst part. And please, stop eating your sandwich and grab a tea instead, with lemon preferably to settle your stomach, for what I am going to tell you next deals with cannibalism on live bodies. An ancient Chinese practice that extends actually to Mao’s time, it demands a daughter in law to cut a piece of her own flesh so that her new parents (hubby’s parents) can roast or fry her. Roach goes on over a page about this cuisine, and then moves into people fighting on aborted fetuses in a chapter titled Eat Me.
It’s not the writing about cannibalism that bothers me, or the one about science. I am quite sure that fascinating history and ethnology books must be begging under the dust of library shelves to be grabbed. No, it’s not that. It’s the buffet, the little buffet of death presented here to amuse the reader. Pick here, pick there, put a little of each on your plate. Well, I’ve got an indigestion and I may catch a worm.
I think of the cop who, every day, sees dead people. The accident, the murdered, or the little girl raped by her father and who becomes a stiff.
When I was a student at L’Ecole du Louvre, one of the first things I saw was when I entered the museum was the Egyptian section, a culture where soul and skin are inseparable.
When I returned from Spain one summer after learning to kiss, I saw my best friend, 16, dead. She was a gorgeous stiff, my lovely Christine.
As for Mary Roach’s Stiff, I shall extend its life too. When I am done writing this, I will place it in the recycling bin.