The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Curious Book Reports: The Magic Scalpel


The surface of his life was as clean and shining as new skin...Underneath however, the past opened to throb in his memory, an ugly unhealed scar...
This paperback original by plastic surgeon and self-help guru, Maxwell Maltz caught my attention because of my fascination with gruesome scenes of surgery in books and film. Thomas Pynchon's nose job in V., and the botched club foot correction in Flaubert's Madame Bovary are two of my favorites. And the post-WWI photo-documentary Plastic Surgery of the Face by Harold D. Gillies is now horrifyingly accessible on my Kindle.

Robert Graham, the main character in Magic Scalpel, is described in the Mary Sueish mode as a "rugged" plastic surgeon who looks like a "nice young, pleasant prizefighter." He has a highly successful practice and lives in a luxurious penthouse above his surgical domain. The 1960 portrait of opulence and the will-he-or-won't-he marriage plot are fairly insipid but the book's surgical detail is vivid and authentic sounding.

In the early pages of the book, Graham corrects a six-year-old's hare-lip:
It gaped at him, the rough edges curling back like a second vertical mouth....[His] blade dipped down, paring away muscle from the skin above the mouth and the mucous membrane inside.
and removes a concentration camp tattoo from a Holocaust survivor (only to present her with the marked skin preserved in alcohol).

You can see the author's body image-based self-improvement streak (that gave rise to his Cronenbergian sounding bestseller Psycho-Cybernetics) in the way the touch of a surgeon's knife places all the secondary characters on a better life path. Also in the way he draws revealing lines between "the beautiful and the almost beautiful, the ugly and the grotesque and saddest of all, the dull-as-dish-water plain."

The novel--though it barely moves for most of its brief 160 pages and ends on an odd note with the genius surgeon deprecating his specialty in favor of pure research science--establishes an interesting and surreal contrast between the dated melodramatic tone and the vivid and realistic surgical scenes.

If interested you can buy my copy here.

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