In This Novel, a Man’s Face Becomes Distorted. His Sanity Follows.
THE ALARMING PALSY OF JAMES ORR
By Tom Lee
“The Alarming Palsy of James Orr” starts with a nod to one of the most recognizable plot openers of all time: An ordinary man wakes up one morning to find that he’s been transformed overnight by a grotesque affliction.
By beginning his first novel on such a blatantly Kafkaesque note, it’s as if the British writer Tom Lee is announcing on Page 1 that he’s forgoing all subtlety when it comes to his central metaphor — physical disfigurement as a product of bourgeois dread, a sum of the daily spiritual paper cuts that aspirational living can inflict.
James Orr’s particular metamorphosis, at least on the surface, is far more pedestrian than Gregor Samsa’s famous turn as a giant insect. A doctor immediately diagnoses James with Bell’s palsy, a relatively common condition that paralyzes the nerves on one side of the face. She assures James and his wife, Sarah, a touch too casually, that “only a small percentage do not return to more or less normal.”
Nevertheless, the protagonist’s lopsided mug is a shocking sight. “The left-hand side of James’s face had collapsed, a balloon with the air gone out of it, a melted waxwork,” giving the unsettling “impression of two different faces, two different people, welded savagely together.” But more than the physical symptoms, the comorbid psychological trauma is what tips James into a hellish downward spiral, which Lee draws us into with unrelenting dread and deadpan wit.
At first James treats his recovery like a much-deserved vacation for a hardworking father of two. He’s free to wander his neighborhood, an idyllic development carved out of the dense woods of a former Victorian estate. Yet as his palsy fails to improve, the hallmarks of upper-middle-class ease, which used to provide him almost smug levels of satisfaction, begin to rankle. Everything from the size of a neighbor’s dog (“there was something a little conceited in having an animal this big”), to the gratuitous shirtlessness of the unmarried serial D.I.Y.-er a few doors down (“it was still only March, after all”), to his wife’s “pragmatism and lack of drama” swirls together, amassing into a more serious crisis. James suffers a series of humiliations carrying the taint of failed manhood: He bursts into tears while presiding over a residents’ committee meeting, a friendly neighborhood soccer game turns into an outlet for his mounting aggression, an attempt to seduce his wife after weeks of sleeping apart goes disturbingly awry. Not surprisingly, Lee works the symbol of James’s flaccid face on several levels.
Along with impotence, sudden illness is a recurring concern in Lee’s work (including a 2009 story collection, “Greenfly,” not available in the United States). It’s an experience Lee knows intimately, as he addressed in a pair of extraordinary autobiographical essays for The Dublin Review a few years ago. One recounts the time, just before “Greenfly” was published, when he was flattened by an anxiety disorder that left him feeling as if he’d “forgotten how to be”; and the other the medically induced coma he underwent for a case of pneumonia so serious his doctor dubbed him “the sickest man in London” (and his ensuing intensive care unit psychosis, which is just as horrifying as it sounds).
In both essays, Lee reckons with the decline of one’s health as a micro-apocalypse — life is separated into a “before” and an “after” — and the almost dystopian alienation that emerges between sufferers and the well. In “James Orr,” he explores these same themes with greater artfulness and delicious doses of body horror and contemporary British social satire. While James doesn’t become an oversize bug, the juxtaposition of his common affliction and Lee’s use of familiar genre conventions adds up to something fresh, highlighting the terrifying plausibility — perhaps even inevitability — of the real-life transformations Kafka predicted to be lurking in our DNA, waiting to wreak havoc on an otherwise ordinary morning.
Stephan Lee is an associate director at Bustle and a former editor at Entertainment Weekly. He is at work on a debut novel.
THE ALARMING PALSY OF JAMES ORR
By Tom Lee
195 pp. Soho Press. $23.