This is a writing sample by “nycghostwriter,” AKA Barbara Finkelstein. It is “The Transplant,” a book review published in The New York Times. You can get professional ghostwriting services from a published non-fiction writer. Email me or fill out the short form on my contact page.
The New York Times | Sunday, July 5, 1992
Holograms of Fear by Slovenia Drakulic
184 pp., New York | W.W. Norton & Company, $18.95
By Barbara Finkelstein
Every writer knows that there is no such thing as a subject unfit for literature. If treated intelligently, even the most private bodily functions can provide a legitimate basis for plot or metaphor. Nobody then, would quibble with the premise of Holograms of Fear, a novel by the Croatian journalist and feminist Slavenka Drakulic, which attempts to investigate the nature of identity and the process of change through the experiences of a Croatian woman who undergoes a kidney transplant in a Boston hospital.
Less understandable though is how this book can be so boring. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Ms. Drakulic’s recent collection of essays about life under Communism in Eastern Europe — concentrating on an economic system that failed to produce the kinds of consumer goods that consumers really wanted — is droll and intelligent and captivating, anything but boring. And yet, despite occasional provocative insights about the ontological trap that disease can construct, Holograms of Fear rarely rises above the abstractions implied by its title.
It could be argued that Ms. Drakulic’s main character is not her narrator but mortality itself. How else to account for a book almost devoice of place, circumstance and characterization? The reader never learns what the narrator does for a living, how she — a citizen of a disintegrating Yugoslavia — gets enough money to pay for a kidney transplant in the United States or what provisions she has made for the daughter whom she presumably has raised alone. Instead of providing explanation, appraisal or plot, Ms. Drakulic treats her readers to almost 200 pages of existential ether: “One feels only this, oneself, here, finite. You think that this is the haven you have been longing for. The ‘there’ gets lost, destroyed. ‘There’ is on the distance edge of a plain obscured by a milky fog.”
How are readers to sympathize when they know so little about this woman? What, we wonder, were the first symptoms of her disease? How old was she at its onset? What happened when she consulted a doctor? Were there dialysis facilities in Yugoslavia?
When a real person spends time in a hospital, she comes home with a story, with vivid impressions — even if these impressions consist only of the memory of a few words uttered upon coming out of anesthesia. This nameless narrator tells us, opaquely, that “I remember that blinding whiteness, the dizzy mixture of submission and resistance and the brief moment of balance between the two.” Abstract language like this would be more successful if Ms. Drakulic had anchored it with the who, what, when, where, why and how of her journalistic training.
Sadly, Holograms of Fear is the unwitting story of a missed opportunity — a compelling novel that never makes it to the page. More than once, Ms. Drakulic plays with an intriguing idea, then shrinks away from fully exploring it. She writes, for example, that “in this limited world of the hospital, I’ll never be wrong or responsible for anything.” This statement could also be applied to life during wartime: eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die. Yet the author merely refers in passing to the history of her native country, observing that “in Yugoslavia in 1946 pleasure was still considered immoral.” Of course, a Croatian writer is no more obligated to write about the particular stresses and strains of life in her part of the world than an American novelist is honor-bound to write about racism. But Ms. Drakulic talks elsewhere in the novel about a political system that has all but prepared her narrator for a life in which a properly functioning kidney is a bourgeois extravagance, like “Christmas trees, nail varnish . . . salt, sugar, longing for love, longing for water, pleasure.” The connection between hereditary kidney disease and foundering Communism may be strained, but the author herself makes it, and then retreats.
“Sickness cannot be expressed,” the narrator tells us. But that isn’t true. A writer need not have Dostoyevsky’s gifts in order to name a character, give her a personal history, put her on a plane from Belgrade to Boston and explain either through conventional means or interior monologue how she feels about accepting a stranger’s kidney into her body. Maybe this subject is too autobiographical for Ms. Drakulic, who underwent dialysis for eight years before receiving a kidney transplant, to confront in fiction. In that case, an essay styled along the lines of those in How we Survived Communism and Even Laughed would have served her and the reader better.
Barbara Finkelstein is the author of Summer Long-a-coming, a novel.