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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Three sharply observed books showcase the enduring appeal of memoirs about dealing with disease

As a genre, disease and illness memoirs are permanently interesting if honest and sharply observed. The writer is dealt a joker from the pack. It’s an excuse to open a life for examination, now with a flame-burst of urgency.

By: New York Times |
Updated: August 5, 2021 1:01:26 pm
Writers have always known this. In his Paris Review interview, poet John Berryman restated Nietzsche, saying: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” (Photo: Representational/ File)

Written by Dwight Garner

(Critic’s Notebook)

Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim, that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, has a corollary in the book world: What doesn’t kill you will be the topic of your memoir.

Writers have always known this. In his Paris Review interview, poet John Berryman restated Nietzsche, saying: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”

Berryman committed suicide in 1972, by leaping from a bridge in Minnesota. There was no book in that.

The cultural appetite for stories of illness, disease, disorder and grave old age is bottomless. David Pecker, who presided over the National Enquirer and other tabloids for decades, understood the type of headlines — “Sad Last Days,” “Six Months to Live” — that drew the most readers.

As a genre, disease and illness memoirs are permanently interesting if honest and sharply observed. The writer is dealt a joker from the pack. It’s an excuse to open a life for examination, now with a flame-burst of urgency.

Three new books about affliction — Fred D’Aguiar’s “Year of Plagues,” about his aggressive prostate cancer; Jan Grue’s “I Live a Life Like Yours,” about living with spinal muscular atrophy, diagnosed at age 3; and James Tate Hill’s “Blind Man’s Bluff,” about being declared legally blind at 16 — have a lot to say about desire and pain and depression and shame and unlikely sources of joy, among other topics.

These books resonate especially during this COVID relapse. It’s a wary, sensitising moment. Everybody knows that no one needs more trouble added to their pile.

These books are very different.

D’Aguiar is a poet, novelist and playwright who was born in London to Guyanese parents. He’s in his early 60s and lives in Southern California, where he’s a professor of English at UCLA.

In the fall of 2019, he began to feel unwell. When he learned he had prostate cancer, he had no idea what was in store: a year of tests and probes and radiation treatments and surgery that had to take place under fear of COVID and under strict COVID protocols.

It was like dealing with a bear while a gopher attacked his ankle. He sometimes feared he’d die because treatments were delayed.

D’Aguiar’s memoir is the wildest of these books. Part of his defiance in the face of cancer is to throw everything he has onto the page. The result is weird and articulate and angry; there’s some overwriting, and sometimes the thread is nearly lost. But his rage to live shivers in every sentence.

The author fights back with music — he likes the idea of his cancer being “bombarded with the sound of Coltrane” — and with chanting, meditation, food, family and notions of what he terms a “secular spiritualism.” His kind of doctor, although he doesn’t mention him, is Doctor John.

D’Aguiar teaches, he writes, that gender is fluid. And yet he’s not at all pleased when, thanks to testosterone blockers, his testes shrink and his breasts begin to grow.

I liked the sections in which D’Aguiar enters into a dialogue with his cancer. These reminded me of Benjamin Franklin’s dialogue with his gout, during which all he could sometimes utter was “Oh! Eh! Oh!”

D’Aguiar writes: “Good morning, cancer”; “Giddyup, despair”; “Dear cancer, may I have the privilege of our first dance?”; “Take my hand, cancer. Walk with me today.” Cancer replies: “Your choices lit me up”; “You should vacation with me. I prefer a beach to a city”; “If you sink into misery over me, that is no fun for me.”

Cancer mocks D’Aguiar by telling him he’s just interested in getting his name on the front of a book. Cancer calls out “that ridiculous stationary bike of yours.” I’m happy to report that “Year of Plagues” ends on a cautiously upbeat note. Cancer has had to pipe down.

Grue is a Norwegian writer and academic who owns a shrewd, stern, pared-down prose style. His book details a life spent largely in a wheelchair, although he can walk a bit, while dreaming of freedom of motion and escape from reliance on, and the gazes of, others.

Grue, 40, is the child of well-known academics in Oslo. He had a privileged childhood in many ways. When young, he was told his disease was progressive and would only get worse. Thankfully, this turned out not to be true. But he details a childhood spent sitting in cold doctors’ offices shivering in his underwear, wearing painful leg braces at night and trying to fit in.

He fell often, and could not catch himself. For a while, on the playground, he wore a padded blue helmet. He writes, excellently: “There are worse things than hitting your head, one of which is to be a child who is always walking around with a helmet on.”

Grue is married and has a child. His body is weak, but he largely lives, as his title has it, “a life like yours.” He writes exceedingly well about his desire not to be too polite, not to be a pushover, while realizing that, as he puts it, “you cannot live in an uninterrupted battle with the entire world.” He is candid about his peppery feelings, his “hostile impulses, discomfort, ill-will.”

Grue is helplessly epigrammatic: “Diagnosis is not fate”; “Even one who is weak may despise weakness”; “The gaze of others is disciplinary”; and, brilliantly, “The search for a higher purpose can also be an attempt to flee.”

“I Live a Life Like Yours” is a quietly brilliant book that warms slowly in the hands. A bonus is the author’s writing about clothing. Grue learns to pay attention to style and cut. He becomes a bit of a dandy. He reminded me a bit of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who described his locked-in syndrome after a stroke in his memoir “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Bauby saw wearing good clothes as an upbeat sign of life continuing. If he had to drool, he said, “I may as well drool on cashmere.”

Grue observes the unusual way that Martin Sheen, as President Bartlet on “The West Wing,” donned his jacket, tossing it behind him as if it were a cape. He realises that Sheen, like him, has limited use of some of his extremities. It’s this kind of observation with which this artful book is filled.

Hill’s memoir is about how, while in high school, he learned he had Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. (“Never get a disease,” Mario Puzo cautioned, “with someone’s name on it.”) It’s a condition that left Hill legally blind.

Hill grew up in West Virginia. His family lived on a dirt road in a poor part of town; his uncle owned a salvage lot. He’s grateful for the help provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act, in the same manner Grue is grateful for Norway’s social services system. D’Aguiar was lucky to have had good health care through UCLA.

Hill may be legally blind, but he can still see a tiny amount, around the margins. “Blind Man’s Bluff” is an ideal title, because the book is largely about Hill’s attempts to pass as a sighted person. Like Grue, he really hates being left behind.

Hill doesn’t want people to know how little he can see. There’s comedy in this, and tragedy. One girl tells him, about how she never knew he was blind, “I just thought you were an asshole.”

Hill’s book is a coming-of-age story. It’s about his often-painful relationships with women. It’s about how going blind, paradoxically, made him a reader — he suddenly began to love books on tape. He spent many years in graduate school trying to become a writer. He thinks a lot about what Warren Zevon used to call sentimental hygiene.

He writes two novels he can’t sell. A successful writer puts down one of his short stories by calling it “amiable.” The writer says, “I’d borrow tools from it, but I wouldn’t buy it a beer.”

“Blind Man’s Bluff” is amiable, too. It has been a long time since I met such a thoroughly normal guy in a memoir. Hill doesn’t try to impress us with his tastes and persona. He likes Tom Cruise and reality TV. He eats McDonald’s and Hot Pockets.

His book doesn’t have the grit and the rage and determined literariness of D’Aguiar’s and Grue’s books. But I’d buy him a beer anytime.

‘Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020′

By Fred D’Aguiar

323 pages. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.’I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir’

By Jan Grue

260 pages. FSG Originals. $17.’Blind Man’s Bluff: A Memoir’

By James Tate Hill

234 pages. W.W. Norton & Co. $25.95.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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