Descent is the provocative first novel by VUW Masters student Matt Gers. As with many first novels, Descent smacks of autobiography. However, the fast-paced passages that follow the life of medical intern protagonist Juan are a fascinating read.
Descent starts in full flight, with Juan tearing his way out of the hospital, described as the “stagnant confines of the State-fired oven”. You will never look at hospitals or healthcare in the same way after reading this book. The horrors of disease and death so discreetly hidden from the rest of us are amplified through the experience of Juan, who had no idea what he signed up for.
As he tries to fulfil his duty in the “war against death”, we see how his own personal life collapses and the futility of the crusade defeats him. Again and again we are haunted by the overriding truth of not only the patients’ futures, but also our own: “He will die, they all do”.
What makes this gritty novel stand out for me is that it manages to ask the hard questions in a refreshingly contemporary way. Clever wordplay and references from E.M Forster and Dante to Britney Spears and Eminem make it an intertextual orgy such as I’ve read only in Salmon Rushdie’s Fury (which, fittingly enough, makes an appearance also).
Unfortunately these magic touches, along with the superb surreal subplot, are sometimes blemished by the lack of subtlety in the latter parts of the novel. Having empathised with the outpouring of Juan’s heart, I became frustrated with the heavy-handed and contrived conversations that merely repeat arguments I had already been convinced by.
Despite its flaws, I would highly recommend Descent to anyone who looks beyond the façade of ordinary daily life to the core of human existence. I found myself thinking about things I read in the book for weeks afterwards – something I wish I could say about other novels I read.
Descent, interestingly, has the distinction of being the first print-on-demand book published in New Zealand, available from New Zealand publisher TightWriters. For more details visit www.tight-writers.com.