More Than It Hurts You, Darin Strauss, Dutton
Meet Josh Goldin, a Long Island Jew. His harmless flirting with a co-worker (he can’t quite be bothered enough to remember their name) and TGIF moment (complete with “the butter smell off somebody’s microwave popcorn”) is interrupted by the news that his eight-month-old son has been placed in intensive care at the local hospital. Yet, don’t feel sorry for Josh. As he drives to the hospital, he learns “Derek Jeter had rolled an ankle and would have to go on the DL. This stole Josh’s concentration—Shit, right in midseason? Immediately there was the firmer, canceling voice in his head, Forget Jeter! What’s wrong with you?”
Ostensibly, this book claims to have Munchausen by proxy at its center, though if you are looking for a rich, psychological study of characters conflicted by this condition and how they negotiate their relationships, you won’t find it within these pages. Strauss doesn’t commit to the pathology of the disease. Instead, it’s dismissed, insultingly so, as “modern mania, attention. That’s what drives these parents to it. The only fulfillment these mothers are after is the fulfillment of the spotlight.” Dori, the mother accused of sickening her son, is drawn pancake-thin without the psychological makeup necessary for her character. Don’t feel sorry for her either. She’s “pretty” and that seems to be enough of a reason for everyone to love her. Josh and Dori never discuss the “Incident” at the hospital or the circumstances surrounding their son’s illness. Once the child is released from the hospital, Dori lament the pitfalls of Netflix (“When you’re at work, they just sit there on the table in the hall, those Netflix movies, and I know I can’t watch them, because I have to wait for you to come home from work to watch them with, and by that time I don’t even want to.”) with her husband, whom she affectionately refers to as “Mr. Goldin.” Really, Mr. Strauss?
Conveniently, months after the initial medical Incident, neither the Goldins nor Dr. Stokes, the attending doctor so black she’s “purple” and wears “the professional face of physicians and prostitutes,” can forget about what happened. In fact, they individually obsess and ruminate on it when they aren’t otherwise pondering the entrapment of our culture. Without reason, the Goldins hire an attorney, just in case, and Dr. Stokes prepares herself “to light the fuse” simply because “the idea of mothers harming their children could work up the most intimate fury in her.” Strauss tells us that these women—Dori and Darlene—are not happy yet the tone in which he describes their actions is unconvincing and ultimately their actions are explained away: “[Darlene] turned over and tried focusing on the warmth and smoothness of her high-thread-count sheets (Darlene hadn’t fully abandoned nice things when Leo left).”
With mentions of MTV, McDonalds, BabyBjorn, Coldplay, Frogger, Seinfeld, Verizon, Kinko’s, Fiji water, Dean & DeLuca, GM, Pfizer, Pizza Hut, Finding Nemo, and cameos by Jon Stewart, Glenn Close, Ludacris, Greta van Sustren, Tucker Carlson, and Sanjay Gupta,
it seems as though Strauss is more concerned with brand-name dropping as some sort of social commentary than actually providing characters and dialogue that can comment on either the situation at hand or a world where a reckless news media distort the facts of the case beyond comprehension. Some of the dialogue seems so incidental, the reader wonders why it’s there when other, more pertinent conversations – those telling conversations that must have taken place between the Goldins and Dori’s confessions to her mother group and lawyer – were omitted.
For two months, as Josh attests, he commits to his “Flawless Father Plan.” Then for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he grows tired of his both his son and his marriage, and his focus wanes. Predictably, as Josh turns away from the family for a sales conference, Dori hurts the baby again to get back at Josh since he “had been sort of a cock about helping with parenty stuff.” And it works. Josh, admittedly not the smartest guy around as he can’t even differentiate between the two hospital visits, admires Dori for how well she holds up after her commitment to motherhood is questioned. It should be noted that he never questions that commitment nor does the attorney.
Just like the newscasts Strauss wants to skewer, the sensational story is the only thing to keep the reader turning pages. The descriptions are choppy (“chaotic breasts,” “his T-shirty room,” “moist and heavy socks feeling like tongues on her feet,” “soft mittens of Muzak,” “draft-beer pull was sneezing up glasses of Heineken”), point of view shifts into the most menial of characters wandering by, the characters themselves are contradictory, there are several loose ends that never find resolution. The first few chapters feel like writing exercises—the writer warming up to his story, trying to find each character’s purpose, the reader confused by their importance. By the time Strauss gets into the groove of the story and it’s necessary for the reader to feel something for these characters, it’s too late. Strauss presents characters most people would avoid in public situations – empty people filled with sexist, racist, homophobic, materialistic thoughts – and asks the reader to spend 400 pages mired down in the character’s shallow thoughts. Josh, a sales exec, has an eye for things “with broad if shallow appeal.” It seems, in fact, as though this book were written for him. Eventually the reader grows tired of each character’s musings on whether they should talk and longs to see a meaningful conversation come to fruition.