Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Emperor Of All Maladies - Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee has the coolest name of any writer I've read in a long time and his book has received near universal praise, it got starred reviews in the trades, it was a New York Times book of the year, an Amazon book of the year, a nominee for many of the major non fiction literary prizes...You can see where this is going can't you? ... Yeah, I didn't like it.
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Physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee calls his work a "biography" of cancer rather than a history of its discovery and treatment and for me this is the problem. He mixes memoir with science and history and anecdote. The "biography" description is the giveaway that this book is pretty disjointed and a bit of a mess. Mukherjee makes you jump back and forth between pages to understand the chronology of the narrative and its so stuffed with info that you quickly get lost. I think the book is supposed to be organised thematically by type of cancer (although I'm not sure) so there is a lot of repetition of information and you're never clear where you are in the story. (It's also not only a very American account of the history of cancer treatment but a strangely Boston-centric one with what seems like more pages devoted to the history of the Jimmy Fund than to the entire pre twentieth century history of cancer. Boston featured so heavily in the history sections it made me wonder if Mukherjee hasn't been a bit brainwashed by his tenure at Mass General.)
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Mukherjee is clearly a great oncologist and a wonderful physician but at the end of The Emperor Of All Maladies, I hadn't got much of anything out of his book. Beginning every chapter with a quotation is always a bad sign I think and maybe I'm a bit thick but Mukherjee's chronological time jumping and his blizzard of information left me thoroughly baffled. Mukherjee references Susan Sontag on several occasions and it's unfortunate, Susan Sontag's Illness As Metaphor is a genuine classic and a book I can return to again and again, but this...
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Still, maybe I'm being too critical, the dude's heart is in the right place and lots of people smarter than me loved Emperor and anyway these are the times we are living in: The Huffington Post has become a paper of record, Malcolm Gladwell is hailed as some kind of genius and Roger Ebert gives Avatar a four star review. In 2011 no doubt Jonathan Franzen's overpraised novel Freedom and Mukherjee's overpraised Emperor of All Maladies will win many of the literary prizes and if that makes people happy then that's fine with me; there's no point complaining that Mukherjee is no Susan Sontag - her like we will not see again.