Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Literature of cancer

Joe Eszterhas’s Crossbearer (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95) arrived in the mail yesterday. I haven’t had the time to read much of it, but so far I have not been impressed by its treatment of Eszterhas’s throat cancer.

Admittedly, Crossbearer is a “memoir of faith,” not of cancer. So far in my reading, though, Eszterhas is more worried about not smoking, and not writing, than of dying. The best reflections on cancer belong to others, whom he quotes:

“Every cancer is a journey,” said [a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic]. “You never know where the journey will take you, where you’ll go. . . . What’s important is to go with it—wherever it goes. I could never say ‘enjoy the ride’ in this context, but that’s sort of what you have to do. . . . You have to accept that you’re not entirely the driver. . .” (p. 6).Exactly so. And this is why, although Eszterhas unaccountably does not make the connection, that cancer diagnoses so often lead to conversions or renewals of faith. The cancer patient must learn to accept that his fate is not in his own hands.

Again, one Sunday at Holy Angels Church, Eszterhas is wrestling with his life: “Would I be able to continue to resist my addictions? Would my cancer return? Would I live or die? Would I ever write anything again?” After Mass, the priest stops and says to him:“Do you know what this means? This means that the best is yet to come. The best part of your life is still ahead of you!” (p. 9)It’s unclear exactly what the priest is referring to, although “this” probably refers to Eszterhas’s return to the Church after a lifetime of mocking it. Equally true, though, is it to say a diagnosis of cancer means that “the best is yet to come,” because for the first time in your life you are living under sentence of death. And anything retrieved from that sentence is inexpressably sweet.

Of all the books on cancer that I have read, only Gillian Rose’s brilliant, fragmentary, and difficult Love’s Work (1995) admits such a recognition. Rose died of ovarian cancer less than two years after she was first diagnosed.

The Medical School at New York University has a partial bibliography of the literature of cancer, although the list is not annotated and works by and about sufferers and survivors—to say nothing of the distinguished and mediocre, fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry—are tossed together like clothes donated to Goodwill.

Except perhaps for Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, which is less about cancer than post-Stalinist Soviet Communism, not a single great novel has been written about the disease. Philip Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman suffers from prostate cancer—Roth does not—and in Exit Ghost he reencounters Amy Bellette from The Ghost Writer. She now has brain cancer. Zuckerman, however, is more taken with a sexy young woman whom he cannot bed, because a radical prostatectomy has left him impotent.

The other novels on the NYU list are only about cancer in passing. The best writers on the disease have been poets, especially L. E. Sissman. No one else has quite nailed your reaction to being diagnosed with an incurable life-threatening illness:Abridged, I burned with moral purpose, seethed
With fever to persist, sang angry songs
Of vengeful, mutinous futility,
Slowed my halt feet to a death march, prolonged
The bittersweetness of each breath, paroled
Myself with garlands of last words. . . .
Sissman lived a decade with Hodgkins’s disease before finally dying of it. He understood the experience of cancer better than most. He understood that, accustomed to living in freedom, you are embarrassed and disoriented and angered to be reduced to the necessity of “enjoying the ride” of your disease.

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