The Brand New Catastrophe
By Mike Scalise
Reviewed by David Plick
I'm writing this review about Mike Scalise’s memoir, The Brand New Catastrophe, which is all about his experiences with a rare hormonal disease called acromegaly, and his pituitary tumor that ruptured, which began a long process of recovery, but part of me doesn’t even want to talk about the disease or the tumor. Because the book is really so much more than that. It is, in that literary sense, a simple and human story, about fear, self-doubt, deep-seated family resentment that goes back generations, romantic love, and a mother-son rivalry full of mutual love, respect, and animosity. It’s a person just telling you intimate things about his experience, which in Scalise’s case, involves a rare hormonal disease and a pituitary tumor, but it really could've been about any other fill-in-the-blank personal dilemma.
I didn't (still don't) understand the endocrine system, or its complex network of glands, how this system transmits information to the body with various hormones and even more glands, that the hormones testosterone and cortisol give males the “fight or flight” mechanism, or that hormones tell us we’re hungry or that we should take seemingly instinctive actions. I didn't know about acromegaly, or that Andre the Giant and inspirational speaker Tony Robbins have it, or that it generally makes someone very large—which sometimes, in children, results in “gigantism”—because it starts when an excess of human growth hormone (HGH) is created by the pituitary gland, which ends up destroying the pituitary’s functionality. I really know very little about diseases, even cancer, besides the fact that it killed my Aunt Marion and Uncle Otto. But you don’t have to be interested in hormones, tumors, cancer, disease, public health, the broken American healthcare system, surgery, or caretaking practices in a normal American family to absolutely adore this book. You just have to be a human who feels emotions.
What makes The Brand New Catastrophe so beautiful is that Scalise genuinely never wants your pity, or even sympathy. If anything, he only wants to make you laugh (his biggest priority) and to tell you something honest about his fear, self-doubt, and insecurity, which have just as much to do with being a young, scared shitless writer as they do with his disease. At any moment in narrating his catastrophe story, either pre- or post-surgery, if Scalise notices that he had been feeling self-pity in the past, or some form of self-victimization, or some other maudlin feeling he now considers disingenuous, he acknowledges it. He outs himself about how he felt, about what his true intentions were in his actions. Basically, Scalise the writer is now too self aware, too real and honest, to ever want your pity. Every time he catches himself in the act, he laughs at himself. He says that he was full of shit.
That’s not to say that Scalise doesn’t feel a wide-range of emotions post-surgery. The memoir follows him for ten years after his tumor ruptures, from his life as a freelance writer living in Brooklyn to being in his MFA program in Washington, DC, and years after, and he does transition from laughing at his disease in the beginning to living with it. He does, understandably, get sad and frustrated. In the beginning, he loves joking about it, which he says was to maintain a level of control over his illness, but at a certain point, he stops joking and talking about it with people. I laughed hysterically throughout most of the book’s beginning, which is centered around the surgery itself. But then I realized that I hadn't laughed in a while. The story, believe it or not, is actually a lot funnier when he's in the hysteria of the disease, when he could've died. Perhaps it was because at that point humor was all he had.
This book, in general, is fall on the floor hilarious. I won't ruin it for you, but I'll give you an example. Only two weeks after his brain surgery (the doctors remove a section of his brain and fill it in with tissue from leg), Scalise decides to fly to a wedding in Ohio where he is supposed to be a groomsmen. Everyone—the bride and groom, doctors, family, his girlfriend—tells him to stay home, don't do this. But, in his dumb pride, he goes anyway. What follows—he falls down a lot and says inappropriate, far too personal things to people—is one of the funniest sections that I've ever read in any book. It was one of those cringeworthy moments, à la Curb Your Enthusiasm, where you're wincing because you’re so embarrassed for Scalise, yet you still don't pity him because he chooses to be in that position.
The Brand New Catastrophe is beautiful because of its true sense of intimacy, because the relationships with Scalise’s family members, loved ones, and his girlfriend, are all so truthfully rendered. Throughout the book, Scalise’s mother, his “rival in catastrophe,” is going through several heart surgeries, and the bond they have is full of conflict, aggression, guilt, and anger, yet the respect and admiration they have for each other—they are both survivors, and both very strong—is inspiring.
What else can I say except I absolutely loved this book? When Scalise first finds out that he has a pituitary tumor, the doctor says that after they remove a chunk of his brain, they have to fill it in with something else. He tells Scalise that it will come from the back of his thigh.
"Back of my thigh," I said. "You mean my ass?"
"Well," he said. "The back of your thigh."
"So you mean my ass."
"Sure, okay," he said. "But we'll likely take the fat from the side of your leg."
"No," I said to him and then to everyone. "Take it from my ass. I want my ass in my head."
Scalise’s nickname for himself after that: Shit for Brains.