Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart by William Leith

Confessions of the ultimate hypochondriac

Sunday Business Post, 17 August 2008

We are all doomed. Or, at least, those of us unfortunate enough to be born male now know how doomed we are.

After 202 pages of Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart, a day in the life, body and head of William Leith, we’re certainly suffering: there are twinges in places we never knew we had feelings, a freshly dark pessimism about the state of world has overcome us, and we can just about feel the first scatterings of soil falling over our heads.

Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart could be the most profoundly miserable book this reviewer has ever read – or at least it would be if it weren’t so hilarious, clever and downright entertaining.

As a journalist, Leith has written about a huge variety of subjects in his time, from Middle Eastern politics to Hollywood glitz – but perhaps none with such stark honesty and clarity as his own self-deconstruction. For men either side of Leith’s particular vintage – he is, he reminds us regularly, 47 years old – he offers an incisive terror about the health hazards awaiting each part of our bodies in future years, no matter how we’ve treated ourselves thus far.

Wherever we look, whether in the street, the newspapers or, most terrifyingly, in the mirror, there is decay; and, though there is little in the way of optimistic charity here, it all begins at home.

Leith’s previous book, The Hungry Years, was the tale of his own overindulgence, ending as a salutary warning against eating and drinking too much, and taking too many drugs. Sadly, having put us off all of that, Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart doesn’t find him in much of an improved physical state.

Despite curbing his food and drink consumption, avoiding drugs, going for long walks and taking up pilates, he is now confronted with the awfulness of his middle age, his tenuous mortality, his estrangement from his son and his post-relationship poverty.

His potential ailments seem limitless: he worries about his prostate, so checks it by stopping his urination function in mid-flow, even though it’s not a foolproof method, and it duly fails to reassure him; he worries about his knees and whether lumps and bumps appearing all over his body are or can be cancerous; he writes in wince-inducing detail about the state of his teeth, their varying types of filling and the fact that they are about to crack.

Most pertinently and poignantly, Leith analyses the deaths of both his grandfathers from separate smoking-related illnesses and, as a former smoker himself, worries that his lungs’ recovery from such abuse may be too little, too late. His feelings of mortality are compounded by an encounter with the body of his grandfather in his own house; in fact, with only five senses at his disposal, he seems to see a lot of dead people.

Many of his analogies, although grim, are marvellously and humorously inventive. He continually compares the body’s resistance to illness and disease with the German soldiers at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan – relentlessly pounding their advancing enemy with deadly weaponry until, eventually, Tom Hanks gets through and their resistance, bit by bit, crumbles.

But getting older is not all about decay, it’s also about the changing ambitions of males. Leith reflects upon how, when you’re ten, you want to be a professional footballer; at 20, you’d like to be Casanova; at 30, it’s back to being a football ‘‘veteran’’; but when you’re 40, all you want is a well-made, perfectly-ordered bookshelf.

If there is any hope in a book which states that ‘‘everything falls apart because it’s supposed to fall apart’’, it comes right at the end.

Not only does he have an unexpected encounter with a chain-smoking busker, whose life Leith had prematurely written off, there’s a heart-stopping and life-affirming scene where he momentarily loses sight of his young son in a public park and experiences ‘‘the happiest moment of my life’’ in their speedy reunion. We are so wrapped up in the destruction of everything we hold dear that it’s a victorious moment for us all.

Leith’s fundamentally miserable collection of thoughts are powered by snappy precision and darkly fatalistic humour. Like societal collapse, tooth decay, lung failure and, ultimately, death, resistance to Leith’s persuasive and hilariously downbeat analysis is useless.

We may put up our defences, deny that our lives in any way resemble the author’s, and resolve that it could never happen to us – but in the end, we can’t ignore its inevitability and the knowledge that we will all submit. In that sense, we, the readers, really are the Germans.

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