Something is squeezing my skull

The Doctor is Sick

Diagnosed with a brain tumour, and given a year to live, Burgess set himself the task of posthumously supporting his wife through royalties: by writing, a lot. The result was patchy but prolific and, a year later and with no sign of actual physical death, he slowed down and improved a good deal: classics like A Clockwork Orange followed shortly afterwards. The Doctor is Sick is very much a workmanlike product of that long year, and in some ways one of the most thinly-veiled of Burgess' semi-autobiographical novels.

To list the coincidences: Edwin Spindrift, protagonist of The Doctor is Sick, has a brain tumour; he's a philologist, proficient in many languages and in linguistics generally; his wife is a borderline alcoholic—they both drink rather heavily—and their relationship is rather awkwardly open (mostly for her.) Spindrift's tumour necessitated a return from hotter climes, and the abandonment of a job he gradually realises is now utterly closed to him. He's even treated by a consultant who moonlights in the entertainment industry (Sir Roger Bannister conducted some of the tests on Burgess.) Later plot twists imply that Spindrift has never actually had a tumour at all—but then depending on whose story you read, neither did Burgess.

Though it might seem churlish to simply recite the many aspects of Burgess' life which coincide with Spindrift's, it's in these details that the novel is at its most pedestrian. Spindrift's loss of libido is tied somehow to his inability to put emotional meaning to words, his stock in trade; with ironic similarity, Burgess' desire to rattle off a book nearly shoots itself in the foot, by paying too little attention to how much fun reading that book needs to be.

Only once Burgess has all his write-what-you-know in place can The Doctor is Sick really take off. And take off, modestly, is what it does. If Spindrift's tumour does exist, then denial goes a long way to keeping its effects at bay, as he absconds from hospital and is drawn by his wife's less salubrious acquaintances into a world of phantasmagorical vice. Is he really being fed smoked salmon by a kinky crime boss, and lecturing an illegal drinking-den on the development of slang in the Cockney dialect; or instead hallucinating, unconscious, during the decisive operation which might cure him? Nothing is entirely certain once Burgess makes himself let go. Is this novel a quirky retelling of the subjective expereience of illness, or a failed experiment in writing postcards from the edge? The jury, like the good doctor himself, has yet to return.