Monday, May 2, 2011


When Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon was published in 2001 it must have set some kind of record for impressive blurbing. The back cover of the first edition dust jacket is festooned with effusive praise from William Styron, Harold Bloom, Larry McMurtry, Louise Erdrich, Naomi Wolf, Adam Gopnik and Kay Redfield Jameson. On the back flap, DNA co-discoverer James Watson calls the book "A brilliant, kaleidoscopic portrayal of the human experience of depression," while the front flap features praise from constant blurber Edmund White and (the piece de resistance of blurbs) the soon-to-be-late W. G. Sebald, who called the book "astonishing." Anything that astonished the astonishing Mr. Sebald is of interest to me, so I decided to give Solomon's book a try, reasoning that a work so highly praised would either live up to its blurbs or quickly sink beneath their weight. (My exact thought went something like "either this is one of the greatest books of the past decade, or somebody been osculatin' mucho posteriori...") Rarely an optimist in these matters, I expected the book to sink like a millstone.

My expectations were pleasantly disappointed. (I seriously doubt that posterior osculation was exchanged for advance praise.) The Noonday Demon is both a harrowing personal memoir and a readable journalistic account of the phenomenon of depression considered from many angles (biological, historical, sociological, political, psychological, etc.). Despite the author's pro-pharmacological bias (about which he is admirably up-front), it's a surprisingly balanced book that both lauds the efficacy of antidepressants and criticizes contemporary psychiatry's flight from 'mind' to 'brain,' from psychological causation to pharmaceutical treatment. It didn't criticize this quite enough for my taste, but that's my bias. The book is quite well-written, with some passages of great beauty (these are concentrated, for some reason, in the opening chapters; the last few chapters impressed me less), and the chapters on suicide and the history of depression, while heavily reliant on familiar sources, have a disturbing (and in the latter case, surprisingly Rabelaisian) power. Does The Noonday Demon live up to it's blurbs? Perhaps. Is it worth reading? Yes, especially for those who have never been to the depths. Solomon at his best almost succeeds in taking us there.

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