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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Desirable Body

Hubert Haddad

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To purchase Desirable Body

Title: Desirable Body
Author: Hubert Haddad
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 223 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Desirable Body - US
Desirable Body - UK
Desirable Body - Canada
Corps désirable - Canada
Desirable Body - India
Corps désirable - France
  • French title: Corps désirable
  • Translated by Alyson Waters

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Our Assessment:

B : sharp writing but the story/issues too pared-down in its presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 22/12/2018 Simon Ings
Le Monde . 3/9/2015 Eric Chevillard
The New Yorker . 29/10/2018 .
Publishers Weekly A 25/6/2018 .
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2018 Daniel Bokemper

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is something dated about Haddad’s book: an effect as curious as it is, I am sure, deliberate, with piquant hints of Ian Fleming in his use of glamorous European locations. It’s in its glancing, elliptical relationship to technology that Desirable Body takes its most curious backward step. Yet this elusive approach feels like a breath of fresh air after decades spent wading through big infrastructure-saturated fictions such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Richard Powers’s The Overstory. (...) Desirable Body is about more than one decapitated man’s unusual plight; it’s about how surprisingly little our choices have to do with our feelings and passions. A farce, then, and a sharp one: it’s funny to contemplate, but if you fell into its toils for a second, you’d die screaming in horror." - Simon Ings, The Guardian

  • "Despite much satirical hyperbole, real and disturbing questions emerge about how scientific advances exacerbate our yearning for immortality." - The New Yorker

  • "Haddad’s fabulously imagined, deeply intelligent, and vividly realized modern parable -- complete with moments of true horror -- sizzles as it grapples with the question of what makes a self, and if it’s ever possible to separate soul from flesh." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Haddad weaves complex scientific musings within eloquent descriptions of turmoil with ease. The writer’s use of detail is, ironically, never too clinical to veil or outright sabotage his narrative. (...) Haddad’s work is terrifying without relying on horror conventions. Rather, it garners its momentum by simply cascading an idea as far as it can possibly tumble." - Daniel Bokemper, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Personal identity is already at the fore of Desirable Body early on: Cédric Allyn-Weberson is the son of an extremely wealthy pharmaceuticals tycoon, but after his mother's suicide he eventually cut all ties with his father and his past and changed his identity, becoming a journalist and living under the name Cédric Erg. While his father Morice, with his nearly unlimited resources, stays well-informed about his son, Cédric has long avoided any contact with him. With: "a new pair of glasses and a bearded chin, Cédric the renegade had completely transformed his face", as well; he had become another person.
       When the novel opens, Cédric has also found the love of his life, Lorna Leer -- "Ever since he'd met Lorna, he'd found stability and no longer questioned his identity". When they take a vacation on a sailing boat together, he is ready to settle down and marry her -- only to hear that she thinks they will break up. Identity is at the heart of it again: Lorna had just learned of Cédric's true identity -- not from him, who had always concealed it from everyone -- and to her this makes it seem that:

Cédric had been cheating on her for years with himself, with a stranger.
       Before anything is decided, however, there is a horrific accident, and Cédric suffers horrible injuries that leave him a quadriplegic, barely clinging to life.
       Lorna does inform Cédric's father of what happened, and behind and away from the scenes Morice sees to it that everything that can be done for his son is. That includes not just the usual medical care, but also a much more radical experimental procedure -- the idea of transplanting Cédric's head onto a healthy body. Scientific advances are just far enough along, it is suggested, that the neural pathways can regenerate and actually allow Cédric to be able to 'use' his new body.
       If not entirely a medical thriller, Desirable Body is indeed a head-transplant novel. Cédric -- though more or less aware that he's: "a luxury guinea pig" for a procedure that's never been successfully performed and whose chances of success are small -- consents, too, and they go through with it.
       The operation is, in fact a success. The danger of rejection, as with almost any transplant, remains, but Haddad allows his protagonist to make a full recovery -- a success beyond everyone's wildest dreams. It takes a while, but eventually Cédric is again mobile and functional in this body, as if it was his own.
       The sense of 'as if' remains, however, as Cédric doesn't entirely take to his new body -- not so much physically (that works out pretty well) but psychologically (and, arguably, something like spiritually).
       Haddad does focus some on the public fascination with the operation, and how the doctors navigate the attention (between lapping it up and avoiding it), but it is Cédric's slow adjustment to this foreign body that he examines most closely.
       Haddad has Cédric find himself at odds with the rest of his physical self, that new body. He only slowly regains feeling and function -- yet the body he now inhabits remains foreign to him. He remains, to put it mildly, uncomfortable in his own/new skin.
       His issues seems as much existential as actually physical, and Haddad suggests a specific form of the mind-body problem:
How can you believe in your own past, and even your emotions, when your body is haunted by another's history ?
       True to his old life, Cédric yet again tries to sink into his old pseudo- and ano-nymity. Haddad veers again to the thriller-angle, with Cédric continuing his wandering and wondering about the body that is now his, and he more seriously looks into whose it was (a small tattoo provides one clue ...), and how he came to it. As the novel moves towards its more thrillerish climax, other questions pop up too -- such as that of whether Cédric's accident might not have been not so much accidental .....
       It's not necessarily bad to have Cédric question his identity even before he is put in this unique situation, but for all the talk of it Haddad's treatment of this very fundamental identity-issue remains entirely too superficial. Despite the promising premise, only a few limited concerns and consequences are tossed into the story. (Among the interesting ones that are slipped in: Morice's disappointment that the family line will die out, because even if Cédric can father a child: "my son no longer has his original body; he is no longer genetically my son".) Lorna's back and forth as the man she loved undergoes this fundamental transformation also seems underpresented -- as indeed the entire book feels a bit quick, skimming along (with quite a few leaps in time) and tossing up many interesting questions and issues, but barely reflecting on them, in words or action. There is a lot here, but Desirable Body is more morsel than meat.
       Haddad does have a nice way with the words, however, and if most of this -- both the action and the ideas -- could and should be put more expansively, he does express himself nicely, with a good, quick turn of phrase, making Desirable Body an appealing and intriguing if not entirely satisfying quick read

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 August 2018

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Desirable Body: Reviews: Other books by Hubert Haddad under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French-writing author Hubert Haddad was born in Tunisia in 1947.

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