Shortcut #63: Stiff


At least that was Megan’s response when I described to her how bodies decompose, how the skin puffs up, then goes slack and, then, simply slides right off the bone.  Of course, I was more specific, using all senses in description.  Glorious, glorious process of decay!

And you, too, can learn all this and more from

Shortcut #63: Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

I’m not really interested in biographies or history (at least not yet).  Most non-fiction I read is focused on the strange or the extreme, mostly because those are the sorts of details I want to use in my fiction and poetry and, more pertinently, it’s simply what I’m interested in.  I’m fascinated by natural processes (though many might consider death the ultimate unnatural one — if only because most of us never want to experience it).

Mary Roach is a very funny writer.  If anything bothers me about her non-fiction (as opposed to the distanced, almost novelistic tone of Deborah Blum) it’s that she’s almost too close to what she’s talking about.  Her opinions about what she’s describing, her disgust or interest, and her sense of humor are all right there, in front of you, undisguised.

And, yes, I realize that I started that last paragraph off by praising Roach’s wit, and that’s still valid.  I laughed throughout Stiff, and her humor is what made much of the more disturbing aspects of the book bearable.  Take the section on how the human body decays:

Something else is going on.  Squirming grains of rice are crowded into the man’s belly button.  It’s a rice grain mosh pit.  But rice grains do not move.  These cannot be grains of rice.  They are not.  They are young flies.  Entomologists have a name for young flies, but it is an ugly name, an insult.  Let’s not use the word “maggot.”  Let’s use a pretty word.  Let’s use “hacienda.”

Arpad explains that the flies lay their eggs on the body’s points of entry: the eyes, the mouth, open wounds, genitalia. Unlike older, larger haciendas, the little ones can’t eat through skin.  I make the mistake of asking Arpad what the little haciendas are after.

You’ll have to read the book to find out what they’re after. (Okay, they’re after subcutaneous fat.) Here, is where her humor works best.  At other points, it disturbs me because it seems almost as if she’s poking fun at what she’s witnessing.

And, well, of course she is.  And, truth to tell, it’s not something that disturbs me overly much.  It’s more that her navigation of the careful line between non-fiction and memoir (because that’s, in large part, what this book is: a memoir of Roach’s investigation into death and the body) surfaces that sort of worry in my own mind, regarding the Responsibility of a Writer to the Subject.

[One of the poetic inspirations I took from Roach’s book is a footnote about Karen Greenlee, apparently (according to Roach) “best-known modern day practitioner” of necrophilia.  My dilemma is how to write about her in a sympathetic manner, and part of that goal is based in my view of how a writer should be responsible to who and what they write about.]

Roach solves this in Stiff by documenting her reactions.  The book is as much a record of her journey into understanding our dead bodies as much as it is a manual for us to learn from.  Ultimately, it’s a record of Roach’s obsession made entertaining.  And it is entertaining.

Also, gross.

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