Toby Litt, Hospital, Penguin, London, 2007
I imagine Toby Litt sitting with JG Ballard and Will Self at a table in the back of a pub somewhere in North London. They sit chatting, discussing Bosch’s painting Ship of Fools. Though they enjoy their meetings, the insights they collectively arrive at, and though they greatly admire each others work, there is in each thoughts, lurking at the back of their minds, differing beliefs of how stories should be told, and though they are of the same paradigm, each believes in certain nuances in style and approach that could be improved upon. They do not speak of these in each other’s company, their shared respect is too high, but there are here and there, some small doubts.
My imagined scenario is likely only that and may hold little relevance to Litt’s new novel Hospital, but it is perhaps an image to refer to, to just keep at the back of one’s own mind.
Hospital is a big book; it is undoubtedly Litt’s most ambitious work to date. At around five hundred pages it challenges itself to hold the reader’s interest through a twisting and often surreal tale. It is in its length however that we find a paradox of sorts. Litt’s prose remains taut throughout; paragraphs are often no more than one or two short, carefully economic sentences. As the narrative expands he does allow himself greater freedom but continues to keep his economy in check, he is rarely wasteful. The reader should be glad of Litt’s craftsmanship. Should a less controlled author have written Hospital, an author who had not yet achieved the same maturing Litt has undergone, we would still be reading the ‘H’ (of Litt’s alphabetical output) by the time the ‘I’ had appeared as a three-for-two paperback.
Hospital is not concerned with the hospitals of a failing National Health Service, hospitals that sadly stare from the pages of newspapers and the screens of the evening news. It is not concerned with super-bugs, waiting lists or a lack of sufficient resources. Litt’s establishment is haunted by different concerns: Voodoo practicing porters, psychopathic security guards, Satanic surgeons, scheming nurses, and one particularly perverse (in all senses of the word) nurse, squeaking about the corridors, a rubber-clad wet-dream sinisterly realised. This is to speak nothing of the patients, who themselves suffer countless ills (that is until midnight).
On our journey through Hospital we find ourselves following, in the main, a young boy who believes, with apparent good reason, that far from a mere stomach ache, the apple seed he accidentally ate is truly growing into a full blown, pain-inducing apple-tree. He’d rather not be in the hospital, as would be expected – he wants his mother. His escape attempt acts as a narration device to lead the reader up down and, indeed, all around the baffling, intimidating building he has found himself mistakenly trapped in.
Litt’s descriptive skills, his unwavering fearlessness to detail the dirt, disgust and degenerate would find even the editor of Razzle a little squeamish — there are many moments of wonderful debauchery — and the lashings of original imagery and often-amusing word play help illuminate the reader’s way through the labyrinth corridors of his unreal Hospital.
Later in the novel, as the young boy finds himself running down a seemingly endless corridor, passing door after door, each detailed with a different doctor’s name, we do not need him to stop and enter the door entitled ‘Dr Benway’ to know we are already well into the main course of a lunch not dissimilar to something Burroughs would enjoy devouring.
Hospital is an undoubtedly surreal novel. Beginning at one-minute-to-eight on what turns out to be the most eventful night any hospital has ever realised, we are slowly introduced to the ever-increasing cast circling around the apple-tree boy; given the guided tour by our omniscient narrator. Litt’s ability to instil a sense that something is awry, without straying too quickly into unadulterated madness, serves him well. When the clock strikes midnight and increasingly strange practices start to see their obscene consequences, Hospital’s world is turned upside down, inside out. Perhaps reversed is the best description without giving too much away — the surreal nature of Hospital is steadily revealed in all its baffling originality.
The boy’s own adventure is interspersed by the expertly orchestrated set pieces of other characters, each bringing their own stories and mostly hellish situations to the cleverly interwoven plot, to- and fro-ing until the very end. Though sometimes the coincidences (characters passing on elevators, following each other unknown in and out of emergency rooms or patient wards) veer dangerously close to being almost too conspicuous, I am weary to criticise too heavily. Hospital is a busy place; that Litt only falters a few times in such an intricate narrative deserves him credit enough.
Indeed, Hospital is a busy place and it gets busier and busier, its patients and staff, itself even, become more and more strained. The surreal horror that ensues after the stroke of midnight builds and builds into a theological circus, an apocalyptic carnival. Through the madness, the comedies of his imaginings, Litt manages to place thoughtfully considered discussions of morality, religion, and brotherhood; he holds madness as a mirror to see how people react. Litt’s reflections are telling of our own society; given what we believe we want, would we really be satisfied, would we not need merely for more; would we, like the devilish Sir Reginald, become mad for power?
It might well be the end of the world; it might be a boy’s nightmare; it may well be a dying-man’s last thoughts; it may even be the coming of the Messiah. It is, of course, none of these things and all of these things. Hospital is an exquisitely twisted alternate world full of diabolical surgeons, violent thugs and perverted druggies. Though it may sound contradictory, Hospital is also full of caring nurses, heroic surgeons and good-hearted patients. Beneath the yellow fog, fighting through the bizarre, depraved and backwards, what we find going on in the hospital is an old fashioned battle of good versus evil and thanks to Litt it is a pleasure to witness.
On the title page, beneath the title, is a sub-title that reads ‘A Dream-Vision’. It is printed in the lightest of greys, attempting almost to conceal itself. It is noticed regardless, but its lightness leaves the reader to enter Hospital wondering ‘how real is this?’ ‘Chukka-chukka-chukka-chukka,’ begins the novel as a helicopter descends towards Hospital. Finishing the book, surfacing from ‘a dream-vision’ that could just as easily be a nightmare-hallucination, I find myself wondering if it wasn’t a helicopter but a chicken, regurgitated from the bowels of a drug-addled A&E causality. I hope I’m imagining it but I had chicken for dinner and I’m sure I hear… oh, no… something like: Cluck-cluck-cluck-cluck.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Glenn Fisher was born in Grimsby, in a county that no longer exists, in 1981. After working in local government since leaving college in 1997, he took very early retirement in 2004. He is 3:AM‘s Film Editor and currently studying on the Professional Writing degree course at the Grimsby Institute.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007.