Plot and Suspense in The Brand New Catastrophe

It’s a debut memoir by Mike Scalise (full disclosure: a friend who is right now as I type this on a plane to San Francisco to come read at USF as part of our Emerging Writers’ Festival) that tells the story of his illness and diagnosis. Illness: brain tumor on his pituitary gland. Diagnosis: acromegaly. (Andr? the Giant had it, most famously.) Then the tumor ruptures, destroying his pituitary gland’s hormone-producing functions (illness). Diagnosis: hypopituitarism. None of this is a spoiler alert, because all of this happens and is explained in the book’s prologue, before Chapter 1 even begins.

How, I thought, was Mike going to make the rest of this interesting?

It’s an immediate and smart signal that this book isn’t a usual illness memoir, where symptoms either are mysteries, or they form the texture of the character’s central struggle until diagnosis and treatment enter in as a kind of climax/revelation.[1] Mike’s character isn’t in serious danger during the book. I mean, the ruptured tumor could’ve killed him, he nearly drowns in the bottom of a pool, and he passes out during a wedding. But the dramatic tension is more complicated (and thus interesting) than “Will he survive?” It’s: To what extent should he identify as an acromegalic? As a man with hypopituitarism? Or: How can he sustain the life he wants to when his body can’t physically generate the hormones he needs to do so?[2]

Also, to what extent is his illness realer or stranger or more serious or worrisome than his mother’s, who over the course of the memoir has maybe three different heart surgeries? What I loved the most about BNC is how it (or Mike, or Mike’s character) wants to both identify as A Sick Person and be critical about that idea, and the self-absorption of it. Two-thirds of the way into the book comes a chapter titled “Game”, where Mike pauses in the developing action to talk about the times he would see other people in New York with enlarged hands or jawlines, sunken temples. The signs of a fellow acromegalic? Shouldn’t he, his wife would ask, say something to them? What if they didn’t know they had a brain tumor?

“What do I say?” … [W]hat if by strange chance they had been diagnosed already, I told her, and here I was, some guy, approaching them in public, around people with eyes, not just telling them what they’ve already known and have been taking pills or getting shots to combat, but worse: confirming for that person … that, above all, they looked diagnosable. I understood too much about that complicated fear to confirm it for anyone else.

That’s what I told Loren, and it sounded noble, chip-shouldered, and respectful leaving my lips. I thought so when I said it, like I’d won something. The Insight Awards. But what I didn’t say, probably because I couldn’t say it to myself yet, was, plus: If I told all those people, I wouldn’t get to have the condition all to myself.

It’s maybe the scariest or most anxious moment in the book. The triumph at the end of the memoir is Mike’s vanquishing not just illness’s effects on his body but also, if you will, on his spirit. This makes it a much more difficult story to tell, because such a narrative’s landscape is chiefly internal, where all good memoirs’ landscapes lie.

Also: it’s funny. And: it’s set much of the time in Pittsburgh, where we could use more books set, please.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Am I straw-manning here? I’m thinking of Lauren Slater’s Lying, and a number of addiction memoirs (e.g., Dry, Lit), which are illness memoirs of a sort, since they tend to subscribe to the idea of addiction as a treatable disease.
  2. If, when you read the word hormones, you think chiefly about changes in teen bodies, then Brand New Catastrophe is the book for you. There’s some real drama and excitement in the endocrine system that Mike captures just enough of to interest a nerd like me without bogging the book down in too much non-narrative data.

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