Doctor Salt, by Gerard Donovan (review)

Gerard Donovan       Doctor Salt   Scribner  £14.99    263pp

Gerard Donovan’s first novel, Schopenhauer’s Telescope, was a dazzler which made the 2003 Man Booker shortlist: a dark and quirky banter about the cheapness of life and the grinding misery of death in a civil war. The language of its main characters – a baker, a teacher – had an unusual flavour, as if it belonged to a vaguely foreign palate. Donovan’s words inhabited their own, distinctive universe. Those skilful manipulations of words, and a similar pleasure in creating a surreal landscape, recur in his second novel Doctor Salt.

This is much more precisely-aimed. It’s an attack upon the pharmacological industry, the way it tips tablets in a steady stream into the mouths of addicted consumers, consumers who are fed a mulch of sales-guff about suddenly-discovered syndromes. Doctors head a sales-force composed of blandroid believers. There is an obscure parallel drawn between the brainwashers and the Mormons (the novel is set in Salt Lake City). Opiates are the religion of masses of pill-poppers.

However, where Schopenhauer’s Telescope grabs its readers from the outset, and galvanises them with every sentence, Doctor Salt opens with seventy or more pages of heavy-handed satire. An apparently simple character, Sunless, describes visits to a doctor, Mr. Fargoon. Fargoon is an agent for Pharmalak, which also operates a TV channel, devoted to extolling the benefits of its drugs for a constant stream of disorders. While there is some mystery to involve us (why is Sunless looking for his father at Pharmalak? What has become of his father?), Doctor Salt hammers us just too relentlessly with wry jokes about the phoney drug business. Not until Donovan stage-manages a scene in which Sunless wanders into a sales seminar, and in which he mixes all too easily with the psychobabbling trainees, does the narrative start to come alive.

And then, with a start, switching into the first person, and travelling us back to the start of Sunless’s life, Donovan’s novel turns into clean genius. The two-thirds of the narrative which follow are just as brilliant and original as we might expect from the author of Schopenhauer’s Telescope. Sunless, who is now, we discover, a character called Salt, describes the inexorable process by which his father – and his mother – fall into the grip of the drug-peddlers, the way his whole sorry life has been dictated by Fargoon and his crew, and how it screws up his psyche, and by steady extension, the psyche of the Western world. Salt’s voice, increasingly disturbed, laconic to the point of appalling comedy, sets out to exact revenge – by which time, he hardly knows who he is and where he is. The language is brutally simple, beautifully disturbed, macabre, downbeat, offbeat. Donovan writes with a super lucidity; he takes the reader right into the cocked-up synapses of the addict. “Isn’t it strange,” says Sunless/Salt, “that anxiety is a side effect of medication for anxiety?” With that line, Donovan nails his quarry. Any struggle with the opening third of this novel is worth it for the perfected nightmare of what follows.


From The Independent