Friday, March 11, 2005

Dentists and Mortality

Yesterday I saw a dentist for the first time in nine years. No defense: I was in Asia between 1994-8, and bereft of anything resembling an actual health plan, but since 1999 I've been covered. So why the long delay?

True, I have no love for the dentist chair, the canned music and crinkled Sports Illustrated magazines, the inevitable dentist bad breath, that focused pale yellow light that hangs above you like some brainwashing device from Star Trek, the fugitive glimpses of my bloodied gums in the tiny rounded mirror shoved in my mouth. True, I've been through a few traumatic episodes. Once, when I was around ten, my dentist scolded me for whimpering in pain during a tooth filling. He died a year or two afterwards -- somehow those two events have become linked in my mind, cause and effect. Then there were the braces, those pincer-like retainers that still haunt my dreams -- I frequently imagine I'm back in high school, and maddeningly enough, my retainers come back with me. And then the time I got my wisdom teeth taken out in December of my junior year in college. Fortunately they knocked me out for that one, because all I remember is waking up bloodied, chewy reddened gauze everywhere, and then going to a school newspaper party, complete with open bar, downing four screwdrivers in half an hour, and later sitting through a showing of Heathers at the Brown Film Society, my head between my knees in agony the whole time. So the dentist hasn't been particularly good to me, but why nine years?

The answer occurred to me as the hygenist picked and pawed at my teeth, scraping off the deposits that had been built up over the past decade: I've always associated death with the state of my teeth. My disregard for a dental checkup mirrors my fear of confronting my mortality. I often dream about losing my teeth. It's a visceral sensation -- the idea that they're falling out, crumbling and cracking into dust. As the scraping went on and on, and it felt as if my teeth were getting pulled out by the roots, I reflected on the little dents and chips that have formed in my teeth over the years. They mark losses of innocence, of points of no return. Yes, that front incisor was chipped when I bit into that pebble in my rice that time in Beijing. Or: Yes, I'm missing a piece of that back tooth, thanks to the ancient silver filling putting too much pressure on the tooth. It all adds up to a history of continual erosion, of inevitable decrepitude, and sooner than I think, I'll resemble those toothless old men on the street, or be forced to wear whiter-than-white dentures. By that point I'll no doubt have also lost a few marbles.

When my dentist Dr. Picolotti asked me if I ground my teeth in my sleep, I told her breezily, Maybe once in a while, but I don't believe regularly, and believed it. Two minutes later, the awful truth: I did grind, incessantly, so much so that she recommended I get a mouth guard for when I slept (of course, said mouth guard is $350). Next week I must return for a temporary crown, and I do not look forward to the sawing away of the filling, that peculiar warm metallic smell as they sand down what is left of my original enamel, the buildup of saliva at the back of my throat even as the tiny tube they shove before my tongue sucks all moisture away. I've been entertaining an ache at this particular trouble spot for just under a week, and ask Dr. Picolotti what I can do in the meantime to alleviate the pain. She says, quite reasonably if not very sympathetically, that I should just take some Advil. When you come down to it, that's the answer to everything that ails in life. Take some Advil. And then eventually you'll be old, and maybe the natural novocaine of the brain will take over.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Agatha Christie: Nemesis, And Then There Were None

I have a fondness for Agatha Christie, perhaps unexplainable. As a literary writer, she was nearly hopeless. Characters struggled to attain a single dimension, dialogue went hamfisted at the drop of a narrative hat, attempts at profundity (thankfully scarce) inspired only boredom. But in plotting, the simple act of telling a story, she had few peers, then and now.

My mother often tells me that when she pregnant with me, she delved into mysteries: Rex Stout, Dick Francis, Agatha Christie. The former two are superior writers, but Dame Agatha is the only one who has stayed with me to adulthood. Maybe it's because her weaknesses are actually perverse strengths -- without the clutter of characterization, without anything more than the barest attention paid to setting and richness, and all those other bourgeois trappings of literature, her best work was scalpel-skillful: thin, compact, devastating. Or to pull out another simile, like an elegant spring box with a razor hidden inside -- you admire the construction even as you become suspicious that the joke is about to be played on you.

Before her, mysteries were mere facades for romances, the zenith being Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, of course -- the details of the actual cases fade from memory, and what remains is the classic figure of Holmes himself, shouting "The game is afoot," disappearing into the London night fog with trusted Watson at his side. Christie returned the mystery to its analytic roots, clearly inspired by Poe and his Murders in the Rue Morgue, and leavened the base with peculiarly English attitudes -- a mix of dotty disdain for these hapless victims and their slightly less hapless killers, and somber mourning for a world that was going to pot. After all, what was murder but only another sure sign that the British Empire was losing its sway?

Christie functioned best as the skilled manipulator of plot, and she found a strange kinship with her most famous (and effective) protagonist, Hercule Poirot. The Belgian sleuth was fastidious, eccentric, and in no way resembled a real person, and it didn't matter. His dissections of clues, gestures, snatches of conversations, the "everyday wash" of life, usually followed by the gathering of principals in the drawing room, the "no escape for the wicked" explanations, brought a cold, bracing sting to his adventures. I can't even consider Patricia Highsmith, particularly her Ripley novels, without reflecting on the triumph of Christie's progenitor, the icy Murder of Roger Ackroyd, with its conclusion that still shocks, its subversion of the standard convention of the trustworthy narrator. I'm less enthralled with Jane Marple, Christie's other major detective -- doddering, conversational, more flab and less Poirot's immaculate mustache, she preferred to meander through her mysteries, and Christie's writing tended to meander with her.

Case in point: 1971's Nemesis, Christie's final Marple puzzler (technically, Sleeping Murder was published later, but was written earlier). I finally read the novel this week, and was let down. The setup is classic Christie: the elderly detective is called out of retirement by a dead man, who asks her in his will to investigate a crime and miscarriage of justice which he refuses to identify. A perfect lead-in, you think: we will be presented with a series of suspicious events, only one of which will be the true crime to be solved. But no, unfortunately we're immediately shoveled with Miss Marple into a tour bus with 15 potential suspects, and learn next to nothing about any of them. Perhaps this is Christie's parody on her own well-worn plot tropes, but my guess is that nearing the end of her life, she couldn't be bothered to even wring out the red herrings like she used to. Soon we find ourselves at a run-down creepy old home run by three sisters who may or may not have a connection to a murdered girl, and to our distress we realize that we're spending more of our time reading about greenhouses and quaint village streets, and being force-fed statements like "I have a sense for evil," without witnessing much actual evil on display. Hanging over everything like damp mist is a sense of mortality, that everything made cannot be unmade. Miss Marple can't get around like she used to, and Christie, no doubt ruminating over her impending end, harps on her frailty. Even the murderer, when the culprit is revealed, is more miserable than masterly. It adds up to a curdled, lugubrious time, and made me wonder if my fondness of Christie was just another symptom of youth, just another toy I had outgrown.

Thanks goodness for And Then There Were None, written in 1940 when Christie was at the peak of her powers. This is more like it -- ten people summoned to an isolated island at the request of an unknown benefactor, all of them guilty of some sort of crime in their pasts. And just like in the poem of Ten Little Indians that adorns their walls, they begin getting picked off, one by one. No tortured descriptions of gardening, no irrelevant conversations about small town life here -- dialogue, motivation, everything is slimmed down to the point where you'd swear you're reading a Hemingway novel, minus the poetry. The plot skips happily past the bounds of probability, but it's a wondrous Chinese puzzle box of a story, not so much a whodunit as a howdunit. In its inexorable march through its list of victims, its mounting sense of unease, its cinematic segues between characters and scenes, it's no wonder the book has been translated into a film no less than five times. Its influence can still be felt in any number of suspense or horror flicks in which a group of clueless would-be survivors are whittled down, one by one. Like a Rube Goldberg device sketched up by a psychopath, the joy of And Then There Were None is analogous to the joy of observing the guillotine blade as it flashes down to the finish: you feel a dreadful appreciation.