I’ve been putting off this review for weeks, partially because I couldn’t decide if I should review the books together or separately. Eventually I succumbed to the fact that there was no way to completely separate my feelings for each book because of the manner in which I read them, so the review would have to be simultaneous – a review of two books with nothing in common but my emotional instability.
Brain on Fire was recommended to me by a friend while she was reading it; she was at a point in the book where the author discussed the struggle of not having a name to define what ails you, and feeling as though your body has turned on you (issues she knows I have struggled with since day 1 of my own illness). I checked it out of the library the week after her text. A friend here in California leant me Good Omens over a year ago when I mentioned that I really enjoyed the Dresden Files and was looking for new books to read. I had no idea what it was about or that it had such a cult following and, like so many other books I have reviewed on this site, it simply sat on my bookshelf for a year until I dusted it off for this blog. When I received feedback on how funny it was from the wonderful world of Twitter (someday I would really like to dig deeper into the oddness of the book blogging world on Twitter), I thought maybe I could use it as my back-up read in case Brain of Fire got under my skin.
Brain of Fire is a memoir about a young woman in her 20s who was (and is now again) a very successful journalist. One day she started exhibiting what appeared as extreme bipolar or manic depressive symptoms; however, they were shortly after followed by seizures, difficulty in body movement, and the lack of ability to clearly communicate. As she actually has little to no memory of the time frame during the severity of her illness (approximately a month), most of the memoir actually comes from hospital videotapes, medical records, and interviews with family members, friends and healthcare professionals.
Good Omens, on the other hand, is a comedic fictional tale about the apocalypse. An angel and a demon have been living on Earth since its inception, and have become something of friends. Then the antichrist is brought to Earth, and as prophecy tells it, the end of the world will occur on his eleventh birthday, brought about by his will. The angel and demon in the tale (Aziraphale and Crowley, respectively) decide that they have quite come to enjoy Earth, and through adventure and mayhem attempt to thwart the prophecy from becoming so.
I started Brain on Fire first. This is not your typical memoir, and I’m not sure I would package it as such. Much of it is Cahalan describing the medical aspects of her condition, a style of writing that I think may have been necessary because she can, in fact, recall so little to fill up an entire memoir. She writes that she was initially asked by the newspaper that employed her to write an article about what happened to her, and as I read it I kept thinking that this probably would have made a great article but that she was stretching it on turning it into a book. If I hadn’t connected with it on any emotional level, I’m not sure I would have found it gripping or stimulating. The pages, for the most part, are filled with dry medical jargon and descriptions of her outward appearance (rather than inward experience).
Cahalan had something called “autoimmune enchephalitis,” and as of 2007, she was the 217th person worldwide to be accurately diagnosed. I won’t write the complete details of her condition or how the doctors arrived at her diagnosis here as I consider that as much of a spoiler as if we were discussing a fictional book, but I can say this: I have never had a more emotionally difficult time reading. I texted my friend who recommended it when I was about halfway through and said that I was feeling uncomfortable because my main reaction to the book so far had been jealousy – jealousy that she was diagnosed so fast, healed so fast, and seemed to experience no permanent damage. My friend responded that she didn’t find this to be an odd reaction, as she thought when she was reading it how lucky Cahalan was after this happened to her: to be at that particular hospital, with family and friends fighting for her, demanding she be seen by MD after MD, and happening upon one who could correctly diagnose her. It would have been so easy for things to go the other way, but her position of privilege and timing helped her come out on the other side healthy and well adjusted.
It was hard to read such a story and not connect it to my own condition, to my own experience. For a long time, no one was sure what I had because I never actually developed shingles. It took a long time to put the puzzle pieces (like my ZVZ levels, my history of internal chickenpox, and the medications I was taking at the time) together and come to the conclusion that this had to be an extremely rare case of postherpetic neuralgia following shingles without rash. It took me almost two years just to be properly diagnosed, after trying a host of shot-in-the-dark medical treatments (some of which I am sure have made me much worse off).
I was in agonizing pain for so much of that time period. The medical community calls that something “chronic,” and they don’t consider it in need of quick analysis or diagnosis. If I went into a hospital in a moment of desperation they typically discharged me nearly immediately (once my blood pressure came down off the charts – it reaches shockingly high levels when you are in pain), then recommended bouncing from specialist to specialist, offering me methadone and dilaudid (which I kindly declined) but doing nothing to identify why someone who used to work out everyday, was a size 2 vegetarian and avid hiker, could suddenly barely do yoga.
I am not unreasonable; I understand that a brain condition is a very different thing, that if you are losing control of your brain there really is NO time to wait on diagnosis, but I found myself infuriated with the speed in which Cahalan found help and yet wrote her story as if it was an agonizingly long period. And then I felt guilty, because I knew those reactions were not rational or fair, as she had experienced something scary and horrific and had every right to write about it as such. Still, I couldn’t read on. Physically, emotionally – this book was tearing me apart. This was not like relating to a fictional character in Me Before You…this was active anger with a real life person with real life experiences. I set the book down, seriously questioning my ability to finish it at all, and wondering what that said about my emotional state of mind.
Then I picked up Good Omens. WHAT A RELIEF. What I needed! There is a reason this book has become a cult classic, and I’ve no idea how I did not come across it or hear about it sooner. The book itself is littered with British humor that kept me laughing out loud throughout. As one individual commented on my review of B.J. Novak’s compilation of short stories, it really is a difficult undertaking to write a comedy that you can only hope will speak to a wide range of people. Novak pulled it off, and so did Pratchett and Gaiman.
The authors manage to ask deep sociological questions with an air of satire and sarcasm that makes the questions feel more relatable – perhaps even more answerable. Religion, ethics, human nature, and free will are all conceptually called into question under the same hilarious umbrella, as if Pratchett and Gaiman found the combination natural. Just after the antichrist is born (in the book, that is), the angel and demon engage in an argument over whether it is genetics or nurture that will impact his decision to instigate the apocalypse, and both throw all of their effort into affecting the child through nurture (just in case). As it turns out, they were trying to influence the wrong child all along, and the bulk of the plot then involves attempting to find the correct boy and stop him in time.
Through adventures and long dialogue in the book, religion serves as the central point for all of the larger themes. The question is raised as to whether there could be any inevitability of Heaven winning the final war (because if that were so, what is the necessity of the war in the first place). There is the concept of prophecy, wrapped up with the book of Revelations, and what happens when one is convinced that they are destined – do they act according to it? Is that the wrong move? Would everything be different if they stepped out of line, or would they just be stepping into the prophecy itself? There is the question of whether God’s will can truly affect all things, if He has a master plan and, if so, are an angel and a demon running around trying to stop an apocalypse part of that plan?
Aside from the grander thematic elements mentioned above, ones that examine social construction in the funniest of fashions, the book is packed with small, short-lived moments that had me laughing out loud. For example, a group of bikers falls in line with the four horsemen of the apocalypse (because the horsemen of the apocalypse are also, as it turns out, actually bikers named Death, Famine, War and Pollution.) So the group of mortal bikers decide they need cool apocalyptic nicknames as well – nicknames that point out modern atrocities. After much, much conversation they eventually name themselves “Grievous Bodily Harm, Cruelty to Animals, Things Not Working Properly Even After You’ve Given Them A Good Thumping But Secretly No Alcohol Lager, and Really Cool People.”
There are also hilarious footnotes throughout the book that are as much a part of the story as the plot itself. As a small example, on one page mention is made of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. In the foonotes they write, “This is actually not true. The road to hell is paved with frozen door-to-door salesman. On weekends many of the younger demons go ice skating down it.”
The writing in the book never feels forced or pushing for that laugh; it reads effortlessly. I wouldn’t cut out a single piece, and I think it ended just as it should. Pratchett and Gaiman employed great timing and knew when to stop. (What’s more, I’m glad the authors haven’t issued a sequel, though I know it was discussed at some point. I think even that would have been too much.)
I’m not sure I would have really read Good Omens, or given it the proper attention it deserved, had I not been reading it at the same time as Brain on Fire. And perhaps that was part destiny in itself, because it is an excellent book – one that I highly recommend and that will probably go into my “I will read this more than once in my lifetime” pile.
Once it had given me the pep that I needed, I finally felt ready to return to Brain on Fire. I’d like to tell you that I came out of it better than I did when I went in, but I don’t think that was ever a possibility. There was too much parallel to my own world. Instead, Good Omens had just put me in a happy enough place to handle the blow that Brain on Fire would inevitably deal me.
For example, Cahalan has a boyfriend who had been with her four months prior to her symptoms and didn’t run afraid, a point she makes often in the book. The first time I was hospitalized for my condition, my boyfriend, who I was preparing to move to California with, came to see me everyday – and later told me that was the moment he stopped loving me. For me, despite the fact that my body was uncontrollably taking hold of my life, he did not (no, many do not) find it understandable for me to be angry, or lash out, or not be able to control fits of hysteria that made (make) me feel as if I were going mad. Not to mention, with all of these medications I sometimes feel like I might as well be crazy. I am so unapologetically intelligent, but on these medications I’m not. You know that feeling when you have something on the tip of your tongue, you can feel it, but you can’t quite grasp it? I feel this way about basic words and concepts that I know at least 20 times per day. For Cahalan, it made sense to not be able to exhibit emotions correctly or to be angry and irrational, to not be able to say the right things, because the problem was in her head, and no one questioned whether “she was still in there,” as she put it. It feels frustrating to not have that same understanding when it is your body (rather than only your mind) that has turned on you. (For the record, I did NOT move to California with that jerk.)
The guilt bubbled up again toward the end of the memoir, where Cahalan has a section devoted to those who angrily contacted her after reading her initial article. Angry that she got diagnosed when they didn’t, angry that she recovered fully when others never will. And that’s not her fault – certainly not something she should be harassed for. Yet I also know I fit in that class of people wanting to send her hate mail for surviving. Because knowing – seeing it in writing – that with a rare brain condition she has been so much healthier, so much more successful than me, so not feeling like the last years of her 20s are slipping by her without much she can do to catch them…it wasn’t something I could bare well. Don’t get me wrong. I have some good days, some great weeks, but Brain on Fire brought to the surface memory after memory of all of the bad ones at once (something I imagine happened to those angrily phoning her as well). And without Good Omens getting me through, I’m not sure I would have finished it at all.
Most frustrating of all, Brain on Fire simply was not a good enough book to justify my experience of purely negative self-reflection. Cahalan is an excellent writer, there’s absolutely no question. But her chapter structure, about 3-5 pages, was the first sign to me that she wasn’t ready for this to be a full-fledged book. She doesn’t have the memory capacity for the time period, and while the questions she raises (What about all those who have been undiagnosed? What if this hadn’t been caught? How does the medical community still know so little?) are valid and interesting, the way in which she raises them isn’t. Cahalan has a riveting life story that she laid out in an academic way, and for the first time ever I am going to say – I think you should probably skip it and watch the movie that’s going to come out, because the story is worth it, but as a book, it isn’t.
I did take 2 positives away from Brain on Fire. 1. It reminded me the purpose of this blog project, for escape and cathartic experiences through books, and I will avoid going down a road like this again. 2. There’s a reason to fight. I’m going to keep reading, keep writing…and keep fighting for my life. I haven’t actually lost it yet, and tomorrow could be one of the good days.