An Unexpected Twist, by Andy Borowitz. Kindle Single, $0.99 (free borrowing with Amazon Prime).
Reviewed by Seth Mnookin
Last week, The New Yorker found itself in the news as the result of a newly acquired blog. I know what you’re thinking -- “Enough already with Jonah Lehrer!” -- but this had nothing to do with journalistic ethics or onanism or anything else that might get the folks at Poynter all hot and bothered; this had to do with a blog that is proudly, deliberately “composed entirely of lies,” a blog whose author assured his readers that he will strive to be “as inaccurate as always, and if I ever write something that turns out to be true you have my deepest apology and my promise that it won’t happen again.”
I’m talking, of course, about The Borowitz Report, which Andy Borowitz started 11 years ago as an outlet for his daily, 250-word send-ups of the news. (This morning’s entry: "N.R.A. Proposes Sweeping Ban on Movies.") In that time, Borowitz has become one of the most lauded satirists in the country -- think of him as a literary Jon Stewart. His name graces the cover of one of the most successful Library of American volumes ever (The 50 Funniest American Writers* (*According to Andy Borowitz)). He was voted by Time magazine readers as having the #1 Twitter feed in the world. He even hosted the National Book Awards -- twice.
He also got married (in early 2008) and had a daughter (in late 2009). It’s what happened in between those two events that supplies the content for An Unexpected Twist, which Amazon recently named the best Kindle Single of the first half of the year. Borowitz's essay begins with him bloated, severely constipated, and turning down his wife’s suggestion of a midday quickie, which, he acknowledges, “should be a sign that something is terribly wrong.”
What follows brings a whole new meaning to having a run of shit luck. After an operation to untwist his colon -- “by hand, the artisanal way” -- Borowitz undergoes another procedure to remove approximately two feet of his large intestine. No sooner had he returned home than he begins vomiting uncontrollably, “like I've just seen a Matthew McConaughey movie or something.” With the exception of a brief respite provided by a couple of enemas, hand-administered by Borowitz’s saintly wife, things only get worse; by the time he gets back to the ER the next day, his resting heart rate is 120, his blood pressure is crashing, and his stomach has filed with bile. As it turned out, Borowitz’s colon had, during the previous operation, “sprung a leak," which means that “at this point 'Shit' is both a justifiable response and an accurate diagnosis.” His chance of surviving the emergency surgery that will attempt to fix this is approximately 50 percent.
Borowitz does survive, obviously, although his recounting of his medical misadventures aren’t quite finished; there’s still the obligatory section about his ileostomy bag. (For some reason, I found it oddly comforting that not even the person whom CBS News Sunday Morning called “one of the funniest people in America” can do a lot with a plastic bag of feces strapped to the side his body.)
It’s no surprise that Borowitz is able to mine his situation for humor. What makes An Unexpected Twist even more satisfying is his ability to highlight some of the surreal and infuriating aspects of modern American medical care without hitting the reader over the head with them. When Borowitz became ill, he and his wife decided to go to a hospital that was “consistently rated one of the ten best hospitals in America by whatever is the Zagat of such things.” When he’s first admitted to the ER, he estimates the age of the doctor sent to see him as being 12; instead of being frustrated by the non-diagnosis he receives, Borowitz allows that “it was thoughtful of [the doctor] to skip Model U.N. to see me.” When the anesthesiologist asks him to sign a release that will allow him to get an epidural in addition to general anesthesia lest he “experience memories of chronic pain for the rest” of his life, he says simply, “I sign the release. I understand.” Later, when he’s asked to allow medical students to attend the surgery that will sew up his leaky colon because “your operation is so unusual,” he suppresses his urge to scream. “Instead, I sign the release. I understand.”
Borowitz could have undoubtedly turned An Unexpected Twist into a book of heartfelt life lessons (he suggests Tuesdays with my Colon as a possible title); it would, in all likelihood, have been as bloated and overstuffed as...well, let’s leave it there. Instead, his 18-page essay is a lively affirmation of Kindle Single's raison d'etre: “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.”
Seth Mnookin teaches science writing at MIT and blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book, The Panic Virus: The Truth Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Follow him on Twitter.