Book Review: The Doctor is Sick, and Tired

The story behind the story, in this case, is more interesting than the story itself.  Anthony Burgess wrote The Doctor Is Sick after his experience of being told he had only a few years to live.  He had gone to a doctor ailing of chronic headaches and was, somehow, misdiagnosed as having a brain tumor, I believe.  To make matters worse, the doctors went so far as to tell him it’d claim his life in just a few years.  While that must have been terrible for Burgess, it did the world of literature a favor, as he, in a burst of creativity, published four books in a very short time, including his infamous Clockwork Orange.  He had decided to write so many books so that, after he died, his wife could collect royalties.  Then, as it later turned out, he had no life-threatening ailment or disease, and went on to live several more decades.  It’s kind of like the life of Dostoevsky, placed in front of a firing squad only to be granted clemency at the last minute.

The Doctor is Sick is one of the books by Burgess whose conception roots back to his near-death.  It’s about a man visiting a brain surgeon who realizes the hospital’s full of quacks and charlatans and makes his escape.  The rest of the book involves constant movement; it’s a long chase, like North By Northwest or a Hard Day’s Night or Zazie at the Metro.  He meets many off-the-wall characters, including a dog with a highly inappropriate name and a group of alkies who insist he deliver lectures on linguistics to make their drinking hall seem legit.

The book is funny, for a time, but after a while it’s tiresome.  There’s lots of wordplay and mischief, as you’d expect from a Burgess book, but the whole thing’s as rambling as the protagonist’s adventure.  I’d much sooner recommend The End of the World News, The Devil’s Mode, or Earthly Powers.

The misdiagnosis can be called a happy turn of bad luck, as it taught Burgess to write a lot, and write quickly, a technique that would help him later in his career.

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