RAISING THE DEAD by Richard Selzer


A Doctor's Encounter with His Own Mortality
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 The near-fatal illness of surgeon-turned-writer Selzer (Down From Troy, 1992; etc.), told with his usual precision and grit. On March 31, 1992, while working in his study, Selzer felt his knees buckle, watched paramedics bustle him into an ambulance...and awoke 23 days later from a coma triggered, as it transpired, by Legionnaire's Disease. Here, he recounts his illness, in part by fretting over just how to go about recounting it. He begins obliquely, telling how 19th-century French novelist Fanny d'Arbley described her own breast surgery (a harrowing account, with the terrified surgeon working without benefit of anesthesia). Can Selzer, another ``convalescent scrivener,'' follow in her brave footsteps? Yes and no. His descriptions of coma--during which he was not dead to mentation but, rather, ``a gardener digging into the earth who makes a decision to lower himself to the underworld''--shine; so too do his accounts of post-coma disorientation, during which he imagined himself to be a reluctant novice in a medieval monastery, or an explorer escaping from Khartoum. Wonderful cameos of doctors, nurses, and visitors pepper the narrative, which is told in the third person, a sign of the ``independence'' of the illness. But what to make of the text's pivotal event, when on April 23rd at 1:38 p.m., Selzer is declared dead for ten minutes? At times, the author seems to take this as a genuine death (although it tells him nothing of the afterlife); at others, he talks of it as a literary conceit thrown in for effect (``a writer will go to any lengths to captivate and entertain his readers....So it is decided that, after 23 days in the intensive care unit, I died''). Such ambiguity--in which, one suspects, Fanny d'Arbley would never have indulged--deflects the otherwise razor- sharp cut of Selzer's tale. For the most part: an unsentimental, often funny account of life on the verge of death.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-670-85414-X
Page count: 118pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1993


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