Monday, January 27, 2014

Five Books of cancer

A season into my sixth year of living with Stage IV metastatic prostate cancer, I am finally writing a book on the experience. Or, rather, what began as a wider-ranging memoir has refocused itself as a cancer book. My working title is Life on Planet Cancer (© the author). A literary critic by profession, I will be including some glances at the very best cancer writing. Where, then, if I were advising readers, would I begin on the literature?

• Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly (1956). Harris tried his best to convince people that his second Henry Wiggen novel after The Southpaw (1953) was not a baseball novel. He was unsuccessful, largely because his descriptions of baseball prefer the plain speech of inside dope to syrupy lyricism (“The damn trouble [with hitting] is that knowing what is coming is only half the trick”). Harris’s story is about a third-string catcher on a major league team who is diagnosed with Hodgkins’s lymphoma when the disease was still incurable (the five-year survival rate is now above 80%). A Southerner who is prone to ignorance and racism, Bruce Pearson is a butt of cruel fun on the team until the news of his cancer slowly spreads through the roster, bringing the New York Mammoths together. Bruce’s attitude toward his own illness, lacking in self-pity, is pitch perfect. And its effect on hardened professional athletes, who do not permit any softness or sentimentality in their lives, is utterly convincing. The result may be the best single account of a death from cancer ever written.

• Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb (1961). If Harris’s is not the best account of a death from cancer ever written then De Vries’s is. Many readers will prefer De Vries’s, because it is the more profound. (I will not shy from the word if you won’t.) Based on the death of De Vries’s own ten-year-old daughter Emily from leukemia, The Blood of the Lamb is the work of a deeply religious man, a Calvinist, who believed that God need not exist to save us. This wintry faith, as Martin Marty calls it in A Cry of Absence (another fine cancer book), a faith intimate with God’s absence, is strange and unfamiliar to most Americans, who are more used to the flush-faced, hallelujah, pass-the-collection-plate religious conviction of evangelicalism. Don Wanderhope, De Vries’s narrator, the father of the dying girl, concludes that “man’s search for meaning” is doomed to disappointment. But if “Human life ‘means’ nothing” it doesn’t follow that it is without truth. “Blessed are they that comfort, for they too have mourned, may be more likely the human truth”—this is Wanderhope’s conclusion in his desperate grief. One of the most eviscerating books you will ever read.

• Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968). The first thing everyone says about Solzhenitsyn’s great 500-page novel is that it treats cancer as a metaphor for the totalitarian state. Perhaps it is time to turn the commonplace inside out: totalitarianism is, for Solzhenitsyn, a metaphor for cancer. He himself suffered from an undiagnosed cancer in the early ’fifties while incarcerated in a camp for political prisoners in Kazakhstan. Cancer is, he writes in the novel, a “perpetual exile.” There is no returning from it to a happy life of uncomplicated freedom. A peculiarly Russian vision, reeking of Dostoyevskian tragedy and pessimism? (Also the emotional byproduct of a third-rate medical system, which saved few and palliated the suffering of even fewer?) Yes, and all the more worth being soaked in as a consequence. The popular American attitude toward cancer is a dance to a sentimental tune about hope.

• Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010). An oncologist and cancer researcher at Columbia University Medical Center, Mukherjee (no relation to the novelist Bharati Mukherjee) gave his 470-page book a misleading subtitle. The Emperor of Maladies is less cancer’s life-story than an informal and anecdotal survey of cancer research and treatment since the Second World War. Although it would have been improved by a tighter structure and perhaps a more exhaustive aim, its engaging tone and focus on the personalities involved in the “war on cancer” guaranteed the book a Pulitzer Prize. There is, however, no reason to read it from cover to cover. Like an oral history, it can be read a chapter here and then a chapter fifty pages on without loss or confusion. Mukherjee is good at cramming information into small spaces and clarifying the sometimes daunting language of medicine for general readers. He succeeds in his ambition to make cancer research into a modern adventure, and if this is not the same as writing the biography of cancer, it is as close as we are likely to get for a while; and not without value and pleasure.

• Christopher Hitchens, Mortality (2012). First diagnosed with esophageal cancer in June 2010, Hitchens died a year and a half later. In his last months he wrote a series of seven articles for Vanity Fair on his experience. These were collected and published in a short 93-page book along with some pages of notes toward a last unfinished article, which should probably have been discarded. The essays are characterized by Hitchens’s distinctive brand of honesty (“the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has the tendency to wear off”) and a unique ability to notice things that other writers on cancer have overlooked (for a cancer sufferer, for example—Hitchens’s preferred term—undergoing blood tests goes from being an easy routine to a painful ordeal). No other cancer book has quite the tone of immediacy that Hitchens’s has.

There are several memoirs that might also be mentioned, especially Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face (1994), Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life (1994), Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work (1995), and Wilfred Sheed’s In Love with Daylight (1995), and they are perhaps the next books that should be read. Philip Roth’s Patrimony (1991) is about the suffering from cancer as watched helplessly from outside—Roth’s father Herman died of a brain tumor. The American poets L. E. Sissman and Jane Kenyon, both of whom died from cancer, wrote sharply and movingly of the disease. And I have discussed Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness (1993) at some length elsewhere, because Broyard died of the same cancer I am living with. If I could bring only five books with me to the hospital, though, these are the five I would bring.


George said...

Have your read Stay of Execution: A Sort of Memoir by Steward Alsop? I have not read it in 35 or 40 years, but recall it as very good.

Anonymous said...

And isn't the film version of Bang the Drum Slowly a wonderful film? As I remember it, the acting was marvelous. And the characters proved the power of transcendence over circumstances.

D. G. Myers said...

The film version of Bang the Drum Slowly, perhaps the best baseball movie of all time, had Robert DeNiro (in his first starring role) as Bruce Pearson.

Anonymous said...

David, BTDS even better than the bio-pic of Lou Gehrig with Gary Cooper? IMHO, the Gehrig film was the all time best. But maybe my age (68) has something to do with that opinion. No, I didn't see it on its first run, but it was the first baseball movie that really made an impression on me.

Anonymous said...

I am only just learning this news about your illness. I am saddened to hear it, but I hope you are giving it all the fight you've got. I have enjoyed your literary criticism over the years.

Another candidate for inclusion here may be Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss. He is writing in part about his faith, but that discussion is inextricable from his ruminations about living with cancer.

The book is, I think, an honest and beautifully written book, laced with contemporary poetry throughout. But it may leave something to be desired for some believers, as this blogger rightly points out:

You are in my prayers.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I hope you write this memoir; I look forward to coming to a reading. Five Books of Cancer is a better title than Life on Planet Cancer, though.

Lee said...

Writer J. Lake's blog may be of interest:

Best wishes indeed.

Andrew Fox said...

David, I'd like to wish you the very best of luck with your memoir, Life on Planet Cancer (by the way, I like the title you've chosen). I recently completed my own memoir of a lifetime of illness, my own and that of members of my family; but the illness I cover is mental illness (depression, panic disorder, and compulsive over-helping), rather than cancer. Writing it was an act of therapy, but I believe the stories I have knitted together have literary merit. May you also find the writing of your personal illness memoir to be an act of self-therapy and self-healing.