Issue 120 of Granta is entitled "Medicine", although in fact the essays, stories, poems, and photographs in this collection often have more to do with the ways the body or mind can fail rather than the treatment offered. I found almost every single piece in here enjoyable, compelling, and fascinating.
In non-fiction M. J. Hyland writes about her diagnosis and gradual acceptance of MS, a disease she kept hidden from her friends and colleagues for quite some time. Bosnian author Semezdin Mehmedinovic describes his heart attack, and, from the other side, doctor Terrence Holt contributes an essay about 'the perfect code'. This piece has all the excitement of an episode of ER and contains some poignant reflections on modern life-saving medicine. Ike Anya offers a snapshot of life in an impoverished clinic in Northern Nigeria, whilst Linda H. Davis movingly and lovingly describes life with her autistic son, and her fears for the future following her own cancer diagnosis.
In fiction I particularly enjoyed Susan Rivecca's 'Philanthropy', a story about a women's clinic that grabs you with its power and honesty, 'Night' by Alice Munro, and an extract from Rose Tremain's Merivel: A Man of His Time which describes a seventeenth-century operation for breast cancer. Chris Adrian, a doctor himself, gives us a story in the form of a medical lecturer's monologue, which is both blackly funny and increasingly disturbing. 'The Former Mayor's Ancient Daughter' by the Israeli writer Rachel Shihor is a lovely half-page vignette which begins "With us in the nursing home lives the ancient daughter of the former mayor, and every week her old manicurist comes to see her, like an emissary from her previous life." Finally, 'The Third Dumpster' by Gish Jen is an ironic story about two brothers trying to renovate a house into which their elderly Chinese parents can move.
This issue contains poems by Ben Lerner, Angela Carter, Kay Ryan, and James Lasdun, with the latter two being particularly good. Finally the collection includes several beautifully-reproduced vintage photographs from the collection of Brad Feuerhelm, covering a range of subjects from illness, death, and deformity, to photographs of muscle men, sunbathers, and nurses. These photographs are introduced by A. L. Kennedy.
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In this quarter's Granta there is a stunning article by M J Hyland about being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which is incurable and often progressive. She Googles `Dignitas', plastic bags and `Exit'. She describes the medical necessities with both dignity and a kind of ironic calm. This is M J Hyland coming out as an MS sufferer. She doesn't look disabled, yet, and she and her boyfriend have taught the computer's voice recognition to swear, and cancelled her pact with dying. It is hard just to leave it there, but anyone, especially her readers, will wish her well,
A marvellous excerpt by Rose Tremain - is it from Restoration?, covers a surgeon's removal of a cancerous growth. In those days it was a massive gamble with life - the subject is only partly anaesthetised, though she is out for a good part of the operation. It was done in her own home - an unnerving thought, but the prognosis is hopeful. There is also a beautiful story from Alice Munro - so calmly understated and slight, yet full of portent and understanding.
Brad Feuerhelm's 'found' collection of photographs is endlessly fascinating, showing marked bodies, x-rays, a shrunken head, elastic-limbed girls, a small boy with hair on his face and forehead, and skeletons posed around a man in bed. This is followed by Terence Holt's The Perfect Code which tells of an emergency response team and a patient called John Mongay who is brought in with a broken neck, Holt has a vague memory from medical school aligned to the first and second breaks in his vertebrae, the term `hangman's fracture' comes to mind. What's more there is an ectopy - a displaced heart-beat. The patient was given something called a halo, which supported his broken neck and he was later able to describe tripping up on the pavement and falling. But later that night the code came through again and the patient's heart was shocked several times. "This, I thought as we left the room... this is what a code should be. A clean thing. A beautiful thing. The patient hadn't died."
Of the other stories contained in number 120, I thought Randy and Mummy At The Drawbridge by Linda H Davis, was both tragic and instructive, being a story about Autism, gentle, regretful, resigned, and this one and People Don't Get Depressed in Nigeria, by Ike Anya are the best stories of this issue. Trying to provide a psychiatric service in Nigeria is difficult in the extreme. Even if you can get the pills you need to treat her, your patient may not be able to pay for them. In this case they are somehow obtained. The next patient may not be so lucky.
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