Boutique Diseases: Curtis White Rewrites Thomas Mann


Shifting from the snowcapped International Sanitorium Berghof’s Swiss Alps to sludgy “mountain-like” coal deposits of a “toxic grotto” in central Illinois, Curtis White’s America’s Magic Mountain situates Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp in a Mr. Donut at the Elixir, a blue-collar strip-mall day spa for recovering alcoholics that encourages “Flask Meditation”—i.e., swigging bottles of the hard stuff.

Mann maniacs will find the book a pleasing jigsaw of retooled minutiae. Instead of following a shipbuilding engineer, the quasi-bildungsroman stars a recent graduate of a Midwestern university toting zero street smarts and a jargon-filled degree in Industrial Psychology, a/k/a corporate damage-control spin-doctoring. There are plenty of Americanized versions of Mann’s characters (Clavdia Chauchat is cleavage-laden ex-CPA Cecile/Frau X, and cousin Joachim is recast as Ricky, a priapic sociopath). In a meta-moment, Hans pages through a partially hollowed-out Magic Mountain that houses a bottle of Golden Gate, “the cheapest imaginable grocery store vodka,” and after reading a few pages dismisses Mann’s masterpiece in true English 101 style: “The central dramatic incident was borrowing a pencil. One boy borrowed a pencil from another boy and then thought about it for the rest of his life. . . . To be fair, the description of the pencil made it seem like a very special pencil.”

References go two levels deep when White interweaves his own oeuvre. For instance, imagination-impoverished Hans embodies the thesis of last year’s The Middle Mind, and the “four points on The Elixir’s spiritual compass” (Reverend Phenues Boyle, Mayor Jesse, Professor Feeling, and Ricky) revisit themes of sex/death and family ritual (e.g., a father’s right to fart, patriarchal remote-control hogging) from Requiem and Memories of My Father Watching TV.

For readers unacquainted with Mann or White, America’s Magic Mountain is a thin but humorous dissection of the American education system, liberal banality, and so-called “boutique diseases,” and unlike the 700-plus-page 1924 masterpiece, this speedy Palahniukian narrative will keep even the attention-deprived in the zone. How very American!