Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
W. W. Norton
US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 04-21-2003
303 Pages; $23.95
Date Reviewed: 08-04-03
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003
Non-fiction has to be more than an excavation of fascinating facts. In 'Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers', Mary Roach brings powerful and funny prose to her excavation of the facts about life after death. What Roach finds out about the uses for human cadavers is surely interesting enough. But it's the way she brings those facts to the readers that make this one of the best reading experiences this year. Roach's ability to synthesize a hysterical sense of humor and a controlled, respectful tone towards her subject is consistently amazing. There are very few pages that will pass without laughter. But Roach isn't making jokes at the dead's expense. She's reveling in the absurdity of our attitudes towards the death itself. It's this that allows her to be both funny and appropriately solemn at the same time. Her writing skill is every bit as amazing as the facts she unearths about the lives of the dead.
In 'Stiff', Roach profiles an array of possible post-mortem careers, including surgical practice, anatomical studies, impact studies, religious studies, and even less savory choices such as cannibalism. Readers should prepare to experience a bit of horror with their humor. Roach is not shy about asking questions that make the professionals she interviews uncomfortable, and they are bound to have the same effect on the reader. But even when she's asking hard questions, Roach's prose maintains a delicately funny sensibility.
"Upstairs is a working mortuary, and above it are the classrooms and offices of the college, one of the nation's oldest and best-respected*. In exchange for a price break in the cost of embalming and other mortuary services, customers agree to let students practice on their loved ones. Like getting a $5 haircut at the Vidal Sassoon Academy, sort of, sort of not.
"I had called at the college to get answers to questions about embalming: How long does it preserve corpses, and in what form? Is it possible never to decompose? How does it work? They agreed to answer my questions, and then they asked me one. Did I want to come down and see how it's done? I did, sort of, sort of not.
*And, alas, one of the most expensive and least well-attended. In May, 2002, a year after I visited, it closed its doors."
Roach uses footnotes often and well. They're an integral and not-overdone part of her prose style.
Also important to the success of this book is Roach herself. She puts herself squarely in the middle of the action, and makes gentle fun of her reactions. It's all a part of her strategy to disarm the readers' natural repugnance for the subject of death. Roach is very much alive, those she talks to are very much alive, and this life infuses her book about death. As it should be, this work is a pocketful of contradictions.
While Roach's work is informative and filled with facts, it's not exhaustive or exhausting. She's learned the power of brevity and uses it relentlessly. No joke goes on too long and no distressing details are over-described. At 303 pages, the book is funny, punchy and very readable. She does notably leave out any tales of corpsicles, those frozen folk who hope to be resurrected in a better world. It seems a bit of a shame, because there are so many opportunities for her to exercise her ample wit. On the other hand, the book itself feels utterly complete as it is.
'Stiff' is very possibly one of the best-written non-fiction works I have read in quite some time. Roach's control of her prose, her ability to balance on the knife-edge between compassion and humor are consistently astonishing. The style of her prose, the combination of delicious darkness with pithy thought, is reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk's fiction. This is dark stuff, and those who do not want to read descriptions of dead bodies or death are advised to read the book before buying it. But such is the strength of 'Stiff' that only the most squeamish will be sent away. Roach is a powerfully talented writer, and her prose will win over almost anybody who manages to pick up this book. Come December, 'Stiff' is going to be stiff competition in any year's best evaluation.