Magazine article The Spectator

Making a Mouthful of a Nutshell

Magazine article The Spectator

Making a Mouthful of a Nutshell

Article excerpt


by Daniel McNeill

Hamish Hamilton, 16.99, pp. 374

On and off I wonder whether the last people to read books are their publishers. `The portrait of myself on the jacket of this book may not quite be me,' states the Harvard lawyer McNeill on page 126; and a footnote adds, `It is.' If so, his face is in drag. With eyebrows plucked and mouth rouged, gazing into camera with a feminist glint of flirtation, the picture on the jacket resembles someone you would rather go to bed with than read in bed. But of course the cover of the English edition is exploiting a sexy halftone designed rather to sell the book than be faithful to its content.

So McNeill is unsnapped, but he is snappy. Yet all his busy research into the human countenance and what makes its tics tick is oddly faceless. I found it hard to make up McNeill's looks, let alone his mind, from the prominent features of his prose; a jacket mugshot might have helped. Some pages are drunk on words or theory. The nose job (rhinoplasty), it seems, `explains the paucity of long noses in the Western world today'. So is Hollywood all that remains of the West? Other sections are studded with dapper phraseology that clicks repugnantly into place - `the ear is a facial Connemara, nestled up against a wild sea of hair.' The book nonetheless feels machine-made, as if composed in an airconditioned library where thought is as forbidden as alcohol. In his prologue McNeill promises `more surprises than anyone would have guessed', without doubt the best of all reasons for switching on a wordprocessor. Among these surprises is his tabloid habit of the label that patronises our ignorance - `the dictator Benito Mussolini', `mystic and con man George Gurdjieff'- a tic of style he needs ticking off for. Meanwhile he blinds us with such unexplained science: as `The mosh'ambooymushall mask of the Kuba of Zaire shows the beginning of the world.' He savours making a mouthful of a nutshell.

But it's the statistics that provide the real 'surprises'; whenever McNeill springs one on me, I involuntarily activate 22 muscles on each side of my face. He makes me glad I shave when he early on maintains that a first step to civilisation was the hairless visage, while later claiming that `ultimately the beard is an enigma, one more marvellous fact about ourselves that we simply don't understand'. …

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