Between the covers of nonfiction books is surely one of my favorite places to be, but without fail, they place me in a rather sticky situation.
When it comes to exposes, biographies, histories, or anything of the sort, I approach nonfiction with an excitable, “tabula rasa” mentality: I have everything in the world to learn from you, Book! Teach me the fruits of your research, which I (in my infinite naiveté) neglected to conduct! One hundred percent of the time, I walk away from a nonfiction book having learned something new, whether I enjoyed the book (or agreed with its positions) or not.
Scott Carney’s THE RED MARKET was no different. Already an avid fan of books like Mary Roach’s STIFF, and a frequent visitor to the BODY WORLDS museum exhibition, I found Carney’s exposé of the underground supply-and-demand of human tissue to be right up my alley. Chapters were divvied up according to each human commodity’s path along the supply chain, beginning with human bones (bought and sold to assemble laboratory skeletons), moving on to everything from child trafficking in the adoption circuit to illegal blood farming (yes, that’s the official term), and ending with the arguably least dubious commerce: human hair used for wigs, weaves, extensions, and food additives. The book’s organization was such that I ended every chapter decidedly more educated on a discrete unit of this massive economy, which has been operating for decades, and to which I have been wholly ignorant. My exposure to this oft-gruesome world makes me more privy to ways I can avoid contributing to it, and that sort of knowledge feels powerful and exciting.
Herein lies the sticky situation: In my reading of nonfiction, and the blank-slate mentality that accompanies it, it’s much more difficult to parse out my excitement for a book’s factual content from excitement for the craft of the writing itself, which, like any book, has a chance of being subpar. Do I assess Carney overall as a good writer, or am I just wedded to the subject matter he happened to choose for the book I happened to read?
Of course, the solution is to read more of Carney’s work (I chose Wired and the BBC as my sources, though there are many others). But as this entry is largely a review, THE RED MARKET requires individual appraisal. I did find some passages that read, not as “preachy” like some Amazon reviewers put it, but as simply unnecessary. For example, the story of a farmer who was kidnapped by a hospital for extraction of his blood is certainly one that’s terrible and illuminating enough on its own, without Carney’s excessive character sketch of said farmer:
“Kedar Nath spent much of his life…farming a patch of dirt…His face is worn and wrinkled from sixty years of honest work….When I meet him the weather-beaten farmer is wearing a white dhoti and sun-bleached turban. His hands are knotted with age, but his eyes are lively like a young man’s.”
Some passages, meanwhile, fall flat in their illustration of a point by coming off trite, or even slightly insulting to the reader:
“Where we used to pray to God for longer and healthier lives, now we pray to scientists to develop cures for the things that could kill us.”
These moments, however, are redeemed by the far more frequent instances of extensive research, surprisingly deft moments of humor (particularly in the chapter where Carney undergoes Phase I testing for the erectile-dysfunction drug Levitra), and clearly defined solutions to the problems facing the Red Market—solutions much more straightforward than many other exposes I’ve read, which often dwindle, after their initially shocking revelations, into equivocation rather than a decisive call to action.
Consider this passage in the chapter entitled Immortal Promises:
“If we want to live in a world where human lives are priceless and in some ways equal, then the market cannot be the best decider of which people have the right to other people’s bodies.”
His conviction continues throughout the book like a breath of fresh nonfictitious air:
“The depersonalization of human tissue is one of the broadest failings of modern medicine.”
Ultimately, my conclusion is that, whether the style is cloying at times or not, THE RED MARKET is a book that is necessary. Readers and non-readers the world over need to be exposed, however they can, to the perpetual scandal of our bodies as black-market commodities. If readers connect to Carney’s particular approach—occasional moments of moral superiority for the trade-off of a clear-cut solution presented in the afterword—then I’ll take it. He’s so effective at demonstrating the need for global change that I’ll hope for said change to start any place it can. THE RED MARKET was that starting point for me.
And let me tell you: I’m going to start keeping a very close eye on what food additives are in my cabinet…