Wednesday, April 25, 2012

QuickList: The Best Quips in Stiff

Mary Roach's 2003 book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a fascinating and incredibly informative study of the multifarious uses to which dead human bodies are put. It's also a masterpiece of sardonic
humor, as Roach uses her considerable journalistic wit to turn the subject matter into a surprisingly fun read.  Here are a dozen quick excerpts from Stiff, perfect examples of a writing style that could transform even a corpse's rictus into a grin:

"The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship.  Most of your time is spent lying on your back.  The brain has shut down.  The flesh begins to soften.  Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you" (9).

"Nowadays, enlightened medical schools will hire a 'pelvic educator,' a sort of professional vagina who allows the students to practice on her and offers personalized feedback and is, in my book anyway, a nominee for sainthood" (31).

"'Smell's not that bad today,' he says.  His 'not that bad' has that hollow, over-upbeat tone one hears when spouses back over flowerbeds or home hair coloring goes awry" (63).

"The difference is that when we're alive we expel that gas.  The dead, lacking workable stomach muscles and sphincters and bedmates to annoy, do not" (66).

"'Try the winch?'  Deb loops a canvas strap under his arms and presses a button that raises a ceiling-mounted motor winch.  The cadaver shrugs, slowly, and holds it, like a Borscht Belt comedian" (102).

"In the Powder River Expedition of 1876, he had been decorated for gallantry in confronting tribes of hostile Sioux.  La Garde had led the charge against Chief Dull Knife, whose name, we can only assume, was no reflection on his intellectual and military acumen or the quality and upkeep of his armaments" (131).

"According to the Kind & Knox Web site, other products made with cow-bone-and-pigskin-based gelatin include marshmallows, nougat-type candy bar fillings, liquorice, Gummi Bears, caramels, sports drinks, butter, ice cream, vitamin gel caps, suppositories, and that distasteful whitish peel on the outside of salamis.  What I am getting at here is that if you are going to worry about mad cow disease, you probably have more to worry about than you thought.  And if there is any danger, which I like to think there isn't, we're all doomed, so relax and have another Snickers" (139).

"Surrogates are preferable not only because tests involving land mines are ethically (and probably literally) sticky, but because cadavers aren't uniform.  The older they are, the thinner their bones and the less elastic their tissue.  In the case of land mine work, the ages are an especially poor match, with the average land mine clearer in his twenties and the average donated cadaver in his sixties.  It's like market-testing Kid Rock singles on a roomful of Perry Como fans" (151-152).

"The ability to perform brain surgery while traveling full tilt on a cobblestone street is a testament to the steadiness of Laborde's hand and/or the craftsmanship of nineteenth-century broughams.  Had the vehicle's manufacturers known, they might have crafted a persuasive ad campaign, a la the diamond cutter in the backseat of the smooth-riding Oldsmobile" (204).

"Spracher unbolts the hatch and raises the lid.  I don't smell anything, and am emboldened to lean my head over the vat [containing the remains of tissue digestion] and peer inside.  Now I smell something.  It is a large, assertive smell, unappetizing and unfamiliar.  Gordon Kaye refers to the smell as 'soaplike,' leading one to wonder where he buys his toiletries" (256).

"On the way out, a photographer asks us to pose with Helsing and a couple of the other [mortuary] executives for the company Web page.  We stand with one foot and shoulder forward, arranged in facing columns, like doo-wop backup singers in unusually drab costumes" (276).

"Most assuredly, a lab cadaver occupies the thoughts and dreams of its dissectors.  The problem, for me, is that while a skeleton is ageless and aesthetically pleasing, an eighty-year-old corpse is withered and dead.  The thought of young people gazing in horror and repulsion at my sagging flesh and atrophied limbs does not hold strong appeal.  I'm forty-three, and already they're doing it" (282).

Work Cited

Roach, Mary.  Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

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