KR Reviews

Human Repositories: On Mike Scalise’s The Brand New Catastrophe

Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2017. 303 pages. $15.95.

The enemy combated by Mike Scalise in his memoir The Brand New Catastrophe isn’t really his rare brain tumor—like most modern health crises, that battle is fairly mundane and drawn-out. Instead, Scalise takes it upon himself to wage war against the affirmative clichés of the illness memoir itself, turning each episode of his treatment and long, bewildering convalescence into a separate arena in a fight against sick lit’s prescriptive vapidity.

Even after a young adulthood spent in and out of trauma wards, mornings spent downing enough pills and syringes to tranquilize a small animal, Scalise simply can’t believe he’s writing a catastrophe memoir. It’s not that he hasn’t gleaned enough unique insight into the natures of sickness and health, of love and identity. It’s that he’s a self-conscious cynic, not to mention a hilariously ironic writer, and those books stink. Where those narrators would take refuge in newly begotten faith, counting blessings with every against-the-odds breath, Scalise harangues nurses with sex jokes, lying horizontal on his gurney. Heaven help if he should ever be so narcissistic as to tell an audience of readers what they should learn from the likes of him.

And yet, loath as he is to admit it, he is an authority in matters far broader than hormonal disarray and radiation therapy. The Brand New Catastrophe charts Scalise’s life with acromegaly, a tumor-based pituitary disorder which traffics excess growth hormone throughout the body, but there’s just as much incisive writing on the more universal trials of being a son, a brother, and a midwesterner, making for a book as much about ostensibly healthy people as their purportedly sick counterparts.

The lasting damage of Scalise’s tumor, most of which is whisked away via surgery prior to his twenty-fifth birthday, primarily manifests itself in self-doubt. With the knowledge that his pituitary has been relaying surplus hormone for God knows how long, he becomes virtually incapacitated by his own reflection. How much of his face, pallor, and figure are a result of his genes and lifestyle as opposed to the ruptured tumor scraped from his brain? Who would he be if not for the tiny mass of extraneous cells which briefly pulsed behind his eyeballs? Where does his disease stop and his real, true self begin?

Exacerbating this shock to his identity is pop culture’s lurid portrayal of acromegaly and its step-sibling gigantism. Scalise finds himself barraged with images of neolithic-looking behemoths who, he reluctantly acknowledges, are his tumescent brethren: Andre the Giant, Tony Robbins, and  B-movie monsters with names like the Creeper and the Happy Giant. The lingering catastrophe isn’t the physical ravages of his disease, but instead having to reconcile it with the man he knows—or thinks—himself to be.

Given how inextricably his condition becomes tied to his sense of self, Scalise becomes deeply attuned to the social mores of illness, developing a trusty system of working his tumor into conversation and ensuring practical control of his audience’s reaction. In one anecdote, he likens the telling of a catastrophe story with the implied contract of a mass email:

Good mass emails delicately handle at least two social dangers. The first is encroachment: inflicting your experience upon a friend’s unsuspecting inbox (e.g., the birth or growth of someone’s children, a humbling tour in the Peace Corps). The second? Activating the implied contract of the mass email, in which someone is burdened with pressure to reply to it, or worse, decide not to, which of course is a reply in itself.

Yet underlying this ingratiating storytelling, Scalise finds, is a contemptuous middle finger toward the comparably fortunate people in his life. “My brain tumor, my acromegaly . . . it was bigger news than all of their news combined,” he writes. “I was—there’s no other way to put this—far too proud of the achievement to keep it to myself.”

The imposition isn’t foolproof, however. Attending a friend’s wedding shortly after his surgery, Scalise finds himself and his condition unwelcome burdens upon the festivities, and as it becomes his default introductory measure, his hospital tale begins to resemble a cheap party trick. Worst of all is the rare occasion in which he tries to leverage it for sympathy, as in the book’s most pitiable scene where he cites his medical history during a doomed job interview.

As self-aware a narrator as Scalise is, he’s internalizing a truth that’s tough to confront head-on: why is he—a charismatic young talent with a patient wife and vibrant circle of artistically-inclined friends—so eager to be defined by his acromegaly? His first clue is a memory of a high school swimming accident which imbued him with an uneasy sense of self-worth, transforming him from an unremarkable goofball into a heroic survivor. After being hauled into an ambulance by a coterie of his peers, it lends him a tangible, conveniently inoffensive persona for the remainder of his adolescent days.

The second is his mother, who functions alternately as the foil and the villain of The Brand New Catastrophe, a long-suffering cardiac patient whose frequent flare-ups make her the center of attention whenever the family seems to be drifting apart. Mike takes a spiteful pride in his being “the better sick person.” “Pain is a socially competitive thing,” he writes early in the memoir, “and too much emphasis on it can cue people to recall their own bouts with pain, or compare theirs to yours.”

True, there’s little real desperation in Scalise’s narrative—as much a function of his attitude as the severity of his condition—and at no point in The Brand New Catastrophe does he actually fear for his life. But his fascination with his misfortune serves, he concludes, as a dishonorable cop-out. As a conversation starter, it’s a way to succinctly convey himself without consideration of his values or choices, his habit of showing off X-rays “like a gauntlet of vacation slides,” a garish defense mechanism. Given how little he grasps the magnitude of his rather abstract disease, his taking ownership of his narrative and seeking confirmation in famous acromegalics are themselves manners of coping. “Part of me yearned to feel as torn-through as I was told I was,” he writes, even if that means feigning delight in physical deformity.

It’s incredibly difficult to approximate objectivity when analyzing oneself and one’s family, and The Brand New Catastrophe can be brutal in its honesty. One can’t help but sympathize with Scalise for his plight as a jokester suddenly forced into taking himself seriously at a young age. Yet even its discursive passages are teeming with vulnerable humanity, comedy which never seems forced, and jaw-dropping moments nestled in quiet scenes when his hard-won wisdom and fantastic writing shine through.

Following his surgery, “the nursing crew took a set of forceps and unspooled ribbons of bloody gauze from my nostrils like a circus clown’s endless handkerchief”; he and his girlfriend brush their teeth “huddled around our tiny sink, bobbing into it like oilfield pumps.” When the rather average wedding scene finally arrives, it’s well-plotted, with characters so finely wrought it makes for a thrilling climax, which gives way to a humbling denouement about the disappearance of youth.

Scalise’s ultimate reckoning with his mother’s despondency provides the book’s most rewarding revelation, that even if she stands “at odds with her immobility yet still somehow pleased with the leisure it provided her,” one’s ability or inability to be a good sick person does not a character make. Such that, as wary as Mike is of the illness memoir trope, his catastrophe tale is deployed with subtle purpose: not to help readers deal with their own illness, but for the far more likely scenario that illness intrudes via a friend, colleague, or loved one.

Pete Tosiello
Pete Tosiello’s arts writing and culture criticism has appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Outline, Village Voice, and SPIN among many other publications. He lives in New York City.