Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Spaceman Blues"

Brian Francis Slattery is an editor, writer, and occasional musician living in New Haven, Connecticut.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his debut novel Spaceman Blues, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Spaceman Blues lands at the beginning of an autopsy of a strange corpse:

Its plaid shirt sliced off it, it lies bulbous and huge in the pathologist's lab. The pathologist has one knee on the table, hands inside the mass, peering at it through thick lenses and murmuring to herself. Inspectors Salmon and Trout stand behind her, Salmon playing with his upper lip, Trout eating sour-cream-and-onion potato chips from a noisy bag. He peeks at the notes the pathologist has written on the examination form, flecked with fluids, but the characters are illegible to him.

The pathologist pulls out her hands, snaps the liquid off her fingertips. "Well, gentlemen," she says, "I've got bad news: I've never examined a body as inconclusive as this one is."

"Is there a chance that it's Manuel?"

"Inspector, I can't even tell what gender it is. Really. Genitalia, secondary sex characteristics, internal organs, bone structure, all completely ambiguous. We can do a karyotype, but that'll take some time. The decomposition doesn't help much, of course, but I've examined cadavers far more decomposed than this and have been able to sex them right away. But that's just the beginning. If you look here...In an everyday corpse like yours or mine, the liver occupies most of this area here. It's a large organ, much larger than people give it credit for. But what do you see here, gentlemen?"

Salmon isn't looking. Trout leans over the table, licking his fingers. "I don't know..."

"There's no reason you should. Now let me tell you something exciting. I'm not sure what it is either..."

On display here is my inability to be serious for very long. Books are supposed to be fun, right? But Spaceman Blues is, after all, about mortality, about temporariness, and about people who deal with both as part of their everyday lives.

When my wife (then my girlfriend) was in medical school, she let me visit the gross anatomy lab three times: once at the beginning of dissection, once halfway through, and once very close to the end. The first two visits were fascinating. Muscle tissue, it must be said, looked a lot like pork, sometimes like chicken. I never imagined the liver to be so large, the lungs to be so small. In a way that would have been impossible otherwise, I understood the body as an intricate and supple machine; we ourselves are far more complex and adaptable than anything we could build, and whether we believe it's because of evolution or divine intervention, there's humility in that.

During my last visit to the lab, the head was uncovered. It had been quartered so that the top half of the head was gone and the brain removed; the skin on the right side of the face had been lifted away, so that the students could learn about the musculature beneath it, the workings of the eye. But the lower-left quarter of the face, from just above the eyebrow to the chin, was intact, intact and not expressionless, though the expression was inscrutable. Looking at that human face, so alien and so familiar at once, a lesson was imparted to me, a message was sent. To this day I can't say what it was, but I can't deny the awe it inspired either.
Read an excerpt from Spaceman Blues and learn more about book and author at Brian Francis Slattery's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue