Hospital by Toby Litt

01/04/07, The Sunday Telegraph

With Hospital, his eighth book, Toby Litt’s alphabetical march continues apace. It has always been a bit difficult to pin down the shape-shifting Litt: he wrote one of the most original (and certainly the most misogynistic) thrillers with Corpsing, a stylish cover version of Lord of the Flies with deadkidsongs, an overlong, clever-clever (and, ultimately, pointless and boring) send-up of chick-lit with Finding Myself … at which point one could have been forgiven for hoping that he would really find himself and hang up his pen. But no, his odd conflation of memoir, fiction and homage to James followed with Ghost Story and now we have Hospital, interestingly subtitled ‘A dream-vision’.
     Forgive me for being so out of step with the times, but the last time I read a dream-vision, it was the fourteenth-century alliterative Middle English poem known as Pearl. Now, Litt is nothing if not an erudite, allusive and self-conscious writer, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all to learn that he is deliberately pushing a few generic buttons but in the context of the story, nightmare would have been a more apt term. It all takes place in a huge H-shaped hospital but it could easily be H for Hell. There, a group of doctors, surgeons, nurses, patients, burn victims, a fugitive boy, a man in coma, a rubber-clad dominatrix nurse and many, many more act out a demented riff on Doctor-Nurse novels, on sexual fantasies, on escape narrative, on a weird and twisted salvation story and many, many more.
     Clear as mud? If not, then try mulling over the fact that the fugitive boy running around the corridors of this hospital is also somehow the freed inner self or consciousness of the man in coma. Or over the fact that a moral and religious allegory, featuring a Virgin and some evil Satanists, slowly takes amorphous shape underneath and pushes itself up, undeniable and unmissable in the violence-saturated apocalypse at the end. Don’t forget, too, that underpinning all this might be a tongue-firmly-in-cheek reactivation of Eliot’s image of Christ as the cruel surgeon plying his steel and you have a holy mess of a book. What does Toby Litt smoke?
     Overlong, overdone, overwrought, this is fiction as wildly, erratically inventive cacophony on hallucinogens. The book has a perverted energy and if it doesn’t make any sense, you could try just giving in to the manic, malign ride.