Wednesday, August 30, 2006

good stuff

Monday night, after eating tilapia and watching Weeds at Nicole’s, I wasn’t feeling well. But the tilapia with mango salsa was great, and no actual weed was consumed, so I’m left to attribute my sudden illness to Andrea “that author who dances” Seigel’s To Feel Stuff, which I finished reading later that night.

This is a compliment. To Feel Stuff is about a Brown University sophomore named Elodie Harrington who’s afflicted with ailment after mysterious ailment, to the point where she takes up residence in the school infirmary. There she meets Chess Hunter, a student who’s had his kneecaps bashed in as part of an apparent spree of gang attacks. Until now, Chess has been something of a golden boy, an overachiever from an affluent and attentive family. At the second the crowbar hits his legs, he realizes for the first time that the good life is not inherently his for the having.

Plunged into a new world fraught with doubt, he turns to Elodie as a guide. She is—by nature and by circumstance—used to dealing with what life hands her. She doesn’t exactly make lemonade—she’s not the Pollyanna type—but she diligently carries the lemon around with her and studies its intricate, bumpy peel, if we’re going to extend that metaphor.

Meanwhile, an inquisitive doctor named Mark Kirschling devotes himself to Elodie’s case. I won’t give away his findings, but what begins as an article for the New England Journal of Medicine ends up in the Journal of Parapsychology. And she’s not just a hypochondriac.

The book alternates between Dr. Kirschling’s article and letters between Elodie and Chess, but each section, while faithful to its narrator, bears the signature voice that Seigel debuted in Like the Red Panda: plainspoken, offbeat, contemporary, and simultaneously jaded and wide-eyed.

Although To Feel Stuff is very different from Panda in structure and subject matter—Seigel makes the leap from Promising to Great in my book—it has at least one similar theme: Elodie looks to Chess as someone who might reside with her in her strange and often depressing world, only to discover that his fluidity between worlds is a barrier to their relationship. The same thing happens with Panda’s Stella and Ainsley. But whereas Stella never finds a way out of this dilemma, Elodie realizes—in a clever if hurried climax—that her sickness is inherently linked with her talent and, quite literally, her future. (Is this just me saying, “Andrea, are you happier these days?” If so, sorry about that.)

My only criticism of the book is that, while Dr. Kirschling’s documentation reminds us of Elodie’s illnesses, it’s hard, as a reader, to…well…feel them. Someone (I knew who during my CalArts days) wrote about how language always fails physical pain, and that failure is part of the pain of pain. I don’t expect Seigel to conquer this linguistic conundrum, but it would have helped if Elodie was a little moodier.

Still, with this book Seigel became one of a small handful of authors (Michael Cunningham, Susan Orlean and J.D. Salinger are others) who sort of take over my brain while I’m reading their work and make me feel like the world is suddenly transparent and describable. With a book about empathy and its too-real limits, she’s created the ultimate empathetic experience.

Oh, and its a ghost story. I love ghost stories.

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