Review: You Disappear, Christian Jungersen

Happy 2014, lovely readers! I hope everyone has had a pleasant holiday. I schedule this post in the sincere hope that by the time it posts, I will be safely ensconced in my nice new apartment, having undergone no serious furniture mishaps in the process. I am terribly fond of my couch and would not like to see it harmed.

The beginning: While on vacation in Majorca, Mia’s husband Frederik yells at her furiously, then falls down. When they take him to the emergency room, they learn that he has a brain tumor, which triggered an epileptic seizure. The tumor isn’t cancerous, but the doctors believe that it has been affecting Frederik’s behavior for some time, possibly years, and will continue to do so more and more until it is removed. After Frederik has the surgery, Mia learns that he stole money more than a year ago — millions of crowns — from the private elementary school at which he is the headmaster. It at once becomes legally and financially crucial to determine the extent of the brain damage his tumor has inflicted upon him.

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip it if you don’t want to know!): No big surprises here. In a book about brain injuries, you can expect the affected parties to remain significantly affected throughout the rest of their lives, and most likely it will all be painful and sad. Frederik and Mia have separated within a year of his operation, and Mia is now with somebody called Bernard.

The whole: Jungersen’s strength (I recall from The Exception) is in circling around and around a knotty question from as many perspectives as possible, proving ultimately not any particular point, but rather the unknowability of our fellow humans. In You Disappear, this talent is fully on display: The questions Mia asks herself about free will are never resolved because they are not resolvable.

Mia’s day-to-day life with a brain-damaged Frederik is maddening and futile, but is it possible that her best, happiest years with Frederik were themselves a result of the brain damage? When she scolds her teenaged son for carelessness she excuses in her brain-damaged husband, is she being unfair? After all, a teenager’s orbitofrontal region is underdeveloped, resulting in similar behaviors to an adult with damage to that region. Frederik’s financial crimes were committed after the tumor had begun developing in his brain, but before it showed any (other) signs of impairing his judgment in the (extremely responsible) position of school headmaster.

Jungersen portrays the tedium of brain damage very vividly. At times, dealing with Frederik in his brain-damaged state renders Mia almost unrecognizable to herself. At other times, she’s just exhausted. Jungersen does a fantastic job at portraying both of these things. For instance:

He’s completely stopped closing windows, doors, cabinets, and jar tops. Our jam jars have all gotten sticky, and one day when I knocked over some gherkins in the fridge, the pickle juice got over everything because he hadn’t screwed the top back on.

I’ve asked several specialists, and they all say there’s no separate system in the brain that controls whether you can close things. … If his recent aversion to closing things isn’t due to brain damage, perhaps we should understand it psychologically — as [Frederik's mother]‘s therapy teachers doubtless would. Maybe he doesn’t want to close off his possibilities, regardless of whether they lie before him or behind him. Maybe it’s something to do with being unable to stand his present state.

And I was particularly struck by the truth of this:

As any family member of someone with brain damage knows, the hard part isn’t the initial shock. The hard part comes when the adrenaline recedes and you have to set out down the endless grey corridor of disheartening days, days that look like they’ll last the rest of your life.

Meanwhile, Mia is performing research into brain damage, which is excerpted between chapters throughout the book, as well as within her own narration. If you are the least bit interested in brain function and its intersection with free will (which like, I can’t really understand how anyone would not be interested in that), these bits are fascinating. It’s also good because of the relatively operatic nature of Mia and Frederik’s situation — Jungersen keeps reminding you that these are real dilemmas encountered by real people Because of Science.

It also leads to what the textbooks refer to as utilization behavior. If a person with serious damage to the frontal lobes stands in a station waiting for his train, he might find himself entering the first train that stops at the platform, for he has an automated sequence of actions associated with train trips and it’s impossible for his brain to interrupt that sequence. If he sees a bed, he might crawl in under the comforter — even though he knows full well that, at this very moment, he and his wife are shopping in Ikea’s bedroom department.

As I’ve said, this was all very fascinating to read. In the end, the ideas of the plot are more fascinating than the actual plot. The actual plot is fine, but it struggles to keep up with how interesting our knowledge of brain damage is (particularly, the gaps in our knowledge of brain damage). Towards the end, Jungersen perhaps goes one step further than necessary by intimating that yet another major character’s behavior (as admirable and helpful to Mia as Frederik’s behavior is maddening and exhausting) is itself the result of brain damage.

But overall, quite good! If you are looking for a companion fiction read to the Oliver Sacks book you are reading, You Disappear would be a great one to try!

Note: I received this ebook from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

12 thoughts on “Review: You Disappear, Christian Jungersen

  1. I know from experience that it is immeasurably hard to live with a person who has a brain injury. You yourself change because now your yardsticks are different. Also, you sit with that strong hope that things will soon get back to how they were. It is horrible, but even more so for the afflicted person who suddenly finds challenges in very basic things. Looks like this one does a great job of showing what it’s like. I will have to look for it.

    • It really, really does. My experience with this is at a couple of degrees’ remove — the person in question wasn’t someone who lived with me, so the change wasn’t as striking — but still, a lot of the stuff in this book rang very true to me.

  2. Happy new year! I hope your move has gone successfully.

    I’m not good with books on illness, I become a hypochondriac and imagine I am suffering from the same fatal diseases. It becomes quite an anxious time, because I’m irrational like that.

    • It has indeed! I am finding, though, that the amount of objects and furniture required to fill a person’s life in New York City is dramatically smaller than the amount required to fill a person’s life in a city with normal-size apartments.

      I’m not great with books on illness either, but I feel okay about brain damage. I feel like the people in my life would have spotted that and mentioned it to me if I was acting weird.

  3. Not sure this one would appeal to me, but I might give it a try. I did, however, want to tell you how much I enjoyed your “superlative” end of the reading year post! You mentioned 4 that I immediately put on my list for this year. Many thanks. Here’s to another great blogging year.

  4. My father had brain cancer, and he said some odd things in the months before he died of it, like “be quieter, I can’t hear the cards” and new observations about a painting that had been in his bedroom for more than 50 years.
    When more time has passed, I might read this book.

  5. Ooh! I liked The Exception quite a lot, but, oddly, it hadn’t even occurred to me to see if the author had any more books. I see, however, that this is a brand-new one, so at least I haven’t been missing out. Now off to ask the library to order it!

    • It hadn’t occurred to me either, but then I saw You Disappear on NetGalley (or Edelweiss?) and snapped it up right away!

  6. Hmm, my husband has days when he fails to screw the lids back on anything and he is hopeless at closing doors of all kinds behind him. I say, half-joking, that I have to be sarcastic to him in order to check that he doesn’t have early onset Alzheimers…. I have The Exception after reading your review of it and, ahem, have not got around to reading it yet. I will, though! And this sounds fascinating too. Yours is the second review I’ve read of it today, and you both say essentially the same thing – amazing ideas that rather overtake the storytelling. But that kind of flaw isn’t necessarily a fatal one.

    • No, I agree. It’s particularly nonfatal as a flaw if you’re interested in brains to begin with, which I enormously am (while also recognizing that brain science is very very flawed and imprecise and uncertain).

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