Don't be daft

I Told You I Was Ill

John O'Connell <em>Short Books, 176pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 1904977294

John O'Connell's shamelessly endearing memoir of imagined illness falls squarely into the "confessional" genre. I think there must be some kind of formula for this, downloadable from the internet. Its components are: confession; historical vignette, laterally criss-crossing or wittily dovetailing with confession; some psychiatric insight, rendered readable for the layperson; a touch of sober self-examination; and more confession. If that sounds like a criticism, it isn't: this book works extremely well. The only thing that gives me pause is that the confessional bits are so well handled, and such a pleasure to read, that I occasionally wanted O'Connell to ditch the grown-up stuff and give us more of them.

Naturally, I can see why he didn't - this is a self-effacing writer, who handles other people's lives and material with more confidence and laconic poetry than his own (which he always plays a bit vaudeville). He treats every hypochondriac of the past with an economical dignity that he doesn't afford himself, probably because people would laugh at him. Describing the writer Carla Cantor's battle with imaginary lupus, which her doctor Brian Fallon treated with Prozac, he writes: "Fallon scored a success, and within months Cantor's life was handed back to her, mended." There is real tenderness here - a hard-won empathy with how broken fretting about non-symptoms can leave you, however ludicrous you sound. Historical whiners, real and fictional, get the same kindness. O'Connell is the only person I've encountered who sympathises with Jane Austen's Mr Woodhouse, whom normal people find whingey to the point of malevolence.

In writing about himself, however, O'Connell showcases his talent for the spiralling absurd. Describing a seven-minute hiccup attack (which, incidentally, could herald all kinds of disease: if you're a hypochondriac people will probably give you this book for Christmas, when in fact you're the last person who should be reading it), he writes: "I did the drinking-water-backwards thing but the water went down the wrong way and I choked and some person I'd never met before decided to play the have-a-go hero and started thumping me on the back which made me lurch forward and hit my head on the shelf." Things like this are always happening - during doctor's appointments, in very important professional situations (O'Connell is a journalist, and is called upon at times to interview people such as Gwyneth Paltrow). They are rendered excruciating not by enormous gaffes, but by incremental screw-ups that start with spilt tea.

Where this differs from your classic "I used to be an alcoholic but I'm all right now" testimonial is that O'Connell clearly isn't. He is as much in the grip of his neurosis as he has ever been, and throughout there's a high-pitched top note of "Please! Tell me I'm OK!" that interacts queerly with his self-awareness. A revealing example of this is O'Connell's discussion of Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, in which she points out the way that diseases we can't understand (such as cancer and TB) attach themselves to personality traits (cancerous people are antisocial; TB sufferers are creative). "Her point is that such thinking is specious and crass," O'Connell writes. "But that can't stop me seeing myself in this definition."

In fact, Sontag's point was that as soon as we properly understand the physiological cause of a disease, we stop looking for mystical personality features that might contribute, just as you stop appeasing a rain god as soon as you discover meteorology. O'Connell fudges this so wilfully that you half suspect him of wanting people to write in, saying: "Don't be daft!" Which is, ultimately, all a hypochondriac really wants - a chorus of "Don't be daft", from everyone, everywhere. The author's craving for reassurance is not as squarely under control as you suspect he thinks it is.

One very slight disappointment was the blase ascension into private medicine, as if this is what any reasonable person who obviously doesn't have a brain tumour would do. (When did it become acceptable to go private and not even have the excuse of an illness?) However, my main criticism, in the end, is that there isn't enough of this book. I would have liked more of O'Connell, more of his delusions, more of his long-suffering family, more of his symptoms, more of his emotional oscillations. Just altogether more of it.

Zoe Williams is a columnist on the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Guantanamo