Seizure, by Robin Cook

Normally I'd try and summarise without giving away plot, but this has to be a book that it would be impossible to "spoil".

Ashley Butler is a senator who's passionately opposed to biotechnology, and stands in the way of Dan Lowell, a doctor who has been developing "therapeutic cloning". But Butler has Parkinsons disease, and when he finds that Lowell's technique might be effective for that illness, he makes a secret bargain with Lowell: he'll back down on his opposition if Lowell will treat him.

Apparently, TC involves taking DNA from the patient, extracting the bits that are responsible for the disease, and replacing those bits with an extract from DNA taken from someone who's not affected. Then the result is injected back into the patient's brain. It's never been done on humans, but tests on mice showed relief from Parkinsons symptoms starting within an hour, and leading to a total cure. Oh yes, and Ashley wants the the "healthy" DNA sample to come from blood on the shroud of Turin.

In case you're wondering how it turns out, they eventually do the operation, which seems like it might have worked, but then Ashley jumps off a hotel balcony, taking Lowell with him: they're both killed.

If the book had been well written, you'd have been pretty disappointed with the story: the ending was a complete anti-climax. But the main thing that struck me about this book was not the ridiculous plot, but the truly dreadful writing. I persevered to the end only in the hope that there must be some twist that would be worth getting to.

The characterisation reminded me a bit of My Gal Sunday: in fact in my head I imagined the characters of Lowell and his girlfriend as Barbie and Ken type dolls, who have no personality whatsoever, being manipulated by an author who's verbalising a story about them to himself as he moves them from one scene to the next. The only way you learn about them is because the author tells us that they're a world famous doctor, or that they have pangs of conscience: you'd never know from how they act or talk.

As an example, we're told quite early on that Lowell has a pathological fear of failure. Note: nothing Lowell does suggests this, but that's how he's described. Shortly afterwards, Ashley mentions to his assistant that he feels he'll be able to force Lowell's hand by playing on his famous fear of failure. But after that, there's no mention or hint that Lowell is so afflicted: it's never referred to again, and you'd never guess from his behaviour that this is part of his character.

The whole thing's like this: the only way we have of forming any impression of the characters is from the author's descriptions, in which he attributes characteristics to them purely based on the requirements of the current plot situation.

We also have people explaining and re-iterating the story to one another, e.g. "if you'll remember, we agreed to do such and such" in completely unbelievable dialog, just in case the reader needs a refresh. And usually people don't "say" things, they "retort", "agree", "question", and more often than not with an adverb too. E.g. (and this is a direct quote)

"Yes and no", Kurt responded ambigously, without elaborating.
Oh so he was responding was he? I thought he was asking a question. And he was being ambiguous by saying "yes and no"? Good thing you told me. I'm not sure what "elaborating" means but I'm sure that's useful too.

The book was pretty long (thirteen CDs) but I reckon he could have chopped it to ten if he'd just used "said", and lost the plot exposition and stuff. But even then it would have been rubbish.

There's an afterword from Robin Cook which I think explains things a bit: he says that he's unhappy with the way that politics is getting in the way of medical research, so I guess he wants to highlight that issue. Secondly he's done some research on the Shroud of Turin himself, and I think wants to encourage others to do so (at least, I can see absolutely no other reason for its being part of the plot - the only effect it has is that Lowell has to visit Italy to get the sample, and there's a bit of discussion on its supposed authenticity).

I'm not inclined to read any more by Robin Cook, except maybe from a sort of fascination to see if he can do as badly in another book.

Completed : 31-Mar-2009 (audiobook)

[nickoh] [2009 books] [books homepage]