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Book Review: NO by Carl Djerassi

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The “NO” in the title of this lab lit book by Carl Djerassi stands for nitric oxide, the erectile dysfunction-curing properties of which are the subject of this novel. It also sums up my recommendation of this painfully poorly written work of science-in-fiction. Djerassi is an accomplished scientist; among his credits is the development of the oral contraceptive pill. For that I am genuinely grateful. He is also a playwright and author, and if NO is any indication of his talents in this field, I’d be equally grateful if he quit writing.

Being fond of interested in both science writing and penises reproductive health, I thought this novel exploring the ethics of research, development of biotechnology, capitalism, and academia would be a worthwhile read. Immediately, I found myself wading through stilted narration, undeveloped, one-dimensional characters, and enough wooden prose to reforest Madagascar.

I knew I was in trouble when I opened the book to find a detailed preface explaining the whole premise of the book, for those of us dolts who might not be able to comprehend it. And in case we missed the fact that Djerassi is a Real Scientist, the author reminds us, in as many ways as he can, in passages which begin,

  • As a chemist…
  • Since my own scientific contributions…
  • As a long-term insider of this tribe [research scientists]…
  • As a founder, former officer and director, and occasional gadfly of several such companies — as well as a university professor…

All this before page 1!

Any doubt I might have had that this book was an output of ego rather than literary skill was dissolved by page 13, when he has one character inform another of the recipient of a prestigious award: none other than Carl Djerassi, of course.

These instances demonstrated, with a resounding lack of subtlety, Djerassi’s dim view of the ability of readers to put together facts. Yet it didn’t stop there. I find it both annoying and insulting to my intelligence when an author feels it necessary to provide background information on the setting or characters by trotting out excessively expository dialogue or artless narrative techniques such as clumsy switches to inner thoughts or personal letters. We have all three in the first ten pages of NO.

In the very first paragraph, the main character is talking to his wife and explains “…recently, hot shots, like yours truly, here at Brandeis’s Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center discovered…” Who the hell would say something that overwrought to a spouse, save perhaps a newly arrived mail-order partner?

This bizarre conversational overkill continues within the inner dialogue of another main character, a female Indian post-doc. She also writes her adviser letters that begin, I’m sorry to say, “Dear Prof,” and which contain not only the same types of extraneous detail described above, but also thoroughly unbelievable passages that I cannot begin to imagine any student communicating to a male colleague, such as, “And then there is the relatively primitive selection of cosmetics and female sundries available here…”

Elmore Leonard is not my favorite author, but he does have ten rules for writing. I am sure this book violates most, if not all, of them. For instance, one rule is, Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Leonard explains, “The line of dialogue belongs to the character, the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” In the opening pages, two characters mimed, sighed, interrupted, prodded, and exhaled dialogue. Leonard sums up his rules by saying that if it sounds like writing, he rewrites it. The overbearing voice of Djerassi and his amateurish writing are simply deafening in NO.

I made a recent resolution to not feel obligated to read, or complete reading, every single book, journal paper, or magazine article that ends up in my hands. I realized that while I enjoy being well-read and able to spout arcane facts about topics that I really have no use for, I was wasting too much time digesting all this enlightenment. I felt especially compelled to read every page of any book I had purchased; not doing so made me feel guilty.

I did not have to force myself to adhere to my resolution in order to put this book down. The writing was so atrocious, I couldn’t carry on, not even to evaluate the plot. This book may be full of technical brilliance. It may, somehow, point out how research science functions and highlight timely and important ethical dilemmas. I don’t know. Guilt-free (and with pronounced relief), I ditched this book on page 30.

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