Edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts
Night Shade Books ($24)
by Justin Maxwell
The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases—let's call it The Guide for short—showcases the fictive imagination unencumbered by plot or protagonist. An engaging and humorous read, The Guide virtually abandons the traditional tropes of conflict, climax, and resolution, opting instead to use the wit contained in its quickly shifting entries to keep the reader moving from one page to the next. The result is an idiomatic chimera; each author's entry is a separate-but-dependent part that allows the whole to become a subtextual free-for-all, with healthy doses of subversion and cultural analysis. Contributors (ranging from science fiction stalwarts such as Michael Moorcock and Rachel Pollack to literary experimentalists like Brian Evenson and R.M. Berry) have infested The Guide with diseases like "Delusions of Universal Grandeur," which entails "a severe delusional belief that the universe is ever more gigantic. Sufferers assert with great confidence that the universe is expanding continuously to absurdly large dimensions," and "Wife Blindness," initially diagnosed by "a failure to observe significant dates," but eventually progressing to the later symptom of "spousal nudity oblivion."
The bulk of The Guide is its listing of diseases, which include three subsets: infectious (the reader might catch the illness from the entry), quarantined (the author of the entry is clearly afflicted), and discredited (disproved or in doubt by Guide staff). The entries feel unified because they are cross-referenced with one another, generally follow the same format, and frequently engage other fringe (and equally fictitious) medical publications such as The Trimble-Manard Omnibus of Insidious Arctic Maladies; The Journals of Sarah Goodman, Disease Psychologist; and Doctor Buckhead Mudthumper's Encyclopedia of Forgotten Oriental Diseases. These false works are interspersed with references to real texts, giving The Guide a surprisingly authentic feel. Illustrations accompany the entries, and these—along with the superlative design of the book throughout by British artist John Coulthart—help to advance the tone of the writing and make the whole of The Guide a sumptuous treat for the eyes.
Alphabetically arranged from "Ballistic Organ Syndrome" to "Zshokke's Chancres," a long catalog of diseases might risk overwhelming the reader with its premise, but just at the right time The Guide changes. The disease entries are followed by a selection called "Reminiscences," in which a sampling of The Guide's doctor-authors recount their experiences with the amazing Dr. Lambshead, a sort of medical Indiana Jones who's only now slowing down at age 102. These reminiscences are as unique and pleasing as the disease entries, hewing to the traditional construction of fiction a little more faithfully and thus offering the reader the pleasures of story. Following that is a third section called "Autopsy," presenting choice entries from some of The Guide's previous (and of course non-existent) eighty-two editions. This section is also replete with illustrations, including fabulous diagnostic sketches of "various head diseases" by one Dr. Rikki Ducornet, and covers to Borges-edited versions of a "Metaphysical Disease" Guide.
The originality of this book and the sincerity of its presentation helps to give The Guide a feeling of importance and even utility—after all, despite being a beautifully produced hardcover it's a "pocket" guide, so readers can take it with them just in case they stumble upon an outbreak of "Fungal Disenchantment" or "Female Hyper-Orgasmic Epilepsy" (which, by the way, is fatal). And in case one doesn't believe the real usefulness of this fiction, look at Dr. Neil Gaiman's hilarious "Diseasemaker's Croup"—listed, quite correctly, as infectious—a disease in which people who begin to think about fictitious diseases then begin to feel the need to create them. (I myself am now suffering from Compulsive Book Review Myopia.) Risky though it is, this book is a delightful carrier of such sicknesses.
Driven by its own ironic sense of self worth, The Guide creates its own value. By combining the self-righteous pretense of medical knowledge and the pleasures of investigating the arcane, the book satirizes our cultural blind faith in the scientific and the reasonable. Simultaneously, The Guide mocks its literary pretensions by nonchalantly exploring its own troubled history; this, the 83rd edition, makes its own tradition by including samples from the previous editions and a publishing history. On several occasions The Guide was self-published by Dr. Lambshead; although it also spent thirty years being published under the auspices of the "Jolly Boy Publishing and Soap Company of Bombay" with covers "influenced by the rise of Bollywood." The book has, according to its own legend, taken on many forms before its current incarnation at Night Shade Books, establishing the real world publisher as part of the text's mimicry.
The Guide exemplifies a successful use of wit and parody, much like the best writing of The Onion. Editors Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts, in fostering the independent collaboration between fifty-four talented artists, have created a unique text—one capable of holding so much in its pages that there is easily room for the paradox of "independent collaboration," as well as all the seeming contradictions traditional fiction tries to smooth over. In the words of Dr. Lambshead himself, "it appears to apply logic to otherwise illogical situations."
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004