Sunday, June 08, 2008

'An arrow of light pointing into the future forever'

Part of me knew that I should not have set myself the task of posting about Sarah Manguso's book, The Two Kinds of Decay, until the mad rush to the end of the school year was over.  But on the bus back from New York over a week ago, I just devoured it.  I had planned to savor it over the two-week period I'll be home with Robert (starting next week).  

But this is such a strong work.  I could not put it down, and I'll recommend it to anybody who's interested in the narrative of disease, strategies in narrative itself, or in lyric/narrative fusion. The Two Kinds of Decay is, at the level of the primary narrative, about Manguso's struggle with a mysterious, debilitating autoimmune disorder called CIDP.  She dealt with illness and accompanying disability for most of her 20s.   

As for me, looking for new ways to write about illness, the fact that the book tackled this difficult subject from the point of view of the ill person was extremely compelling.  Having been run through this particular ground as the parent of a child with extreme medical needs, a puzzling and undiagnosed condition, and treatment that has gone on for years--but as an observer--let's just say the connective thud of recognition after recognition, insight after insight, was marvelous, awesome in its original, biblical sense.  As a parent of a very young child with multiple medical needs, there is a part of me that goes through each and every procedure with him--yet Robert can't share his thoughts, and I live in a sort of fear never alleviated by knowing what he thinks or how to comfort him.  So reading the thoughts of someone who had suffered all of this was powerful.  

So easily, the sick become objects in our society: of pity, of that odd professional interest that doctors seem to take until they know they're up against something they can't crack, of other medical professionals' training.  That is, the sick are not potted plants--they're objects upon which other people pour their own emotions, their training, their knowledge.  The sick aren't supposed to have emotions, they're supposed to be grateful.

But of course, the sick do have emotions that are often difficult for others to parse.  In Manguso's narrative, the people who treat her are often reflected in her eyes as alien and inscrutable--how many times have people treated Robert as though he's alien and inscrutable?  For example, the character of Juan, who transports her to her fourth vascular surgery, and whose dedication must be acknowledged, or the Norwegian hem-onc who doesn't know how to talk to his lesbian daughter.  This eye for the dark comedy of illness is fascinating: the stationary eye, the one at the center of all of the activity, the immobilized eye that sees the world moving around it.  This caged "eye" that sees all the people staring in and yet describes them as though she were the one on the trip to the hospital-zoo.  

This to me, is what the hospital experience feels like.  And I wonder if Robert feels about his illness the way that Manguso says she feels at the beginning of the book:

"The events that began in 1995 might keep happening to me as long as things can happen to me.  Think of spacetime, through which heavenly bodies fly forever.  They fly until they change into new forms, simpler forms, with ever fewer qualities and increasingly beautiful names.

There are names for things in spacetime that are nothing, for things that are less than nothing.  White dwarfs, red giants, black holes, singularities.

But even then, in their less-than-nothing state, they keep happening."

The book's narrative operates both in the particular moment of a vignette (the chapters are all relatively short and most are focused on particular incidents), and across the broad motion of a span of time.  The narrative itself cycles, or perhaps moves back and forth in time from the present to the far past to the nearer past and other gradations marked in between.  From the beginning of the illness to a point in the future and then to a point sometime after the illness started.  What this allows for is a convincing emotional intensity: we aren't, as readers, forced into pity by the sheer intensity of the events.  Instead, the illness is revealed almost bit by bit to us in all of its hideousness and ugly glory.  We don't feel coerced into empathy.  We cycle with Manguso, through memory after memory, mimetic of memory itself.  Each time we cycle back to the same or similar starting point, a new detail is revealed.  This narrative technique also replicates the way I think I've had to come to term with illness: bit by bit and things repeat.  And it imitates the never-ending feeling of chronic illness, the fresh pain at every turn.

More notes on the narrative style: the chapters are composed of very short paragraphs that are separated one from the other by white space.  This gives the narrative movement an epigrammatic quality: each thought is isolated from the other, each contains some sort of 'truth' or point of contact with the reader or the environment of the book's events.  Each thought weighs in like a reckoning, separate from all other thoughts.  In this way, the narrative style is much like some of Manguso's poetry, particularly many of the longer pieces in The Captain Lands in Paradise.  In this way, the book is lyric.  We move from lyric moment to lyric moment, each moment encapsulated in that way that the best lyrics evoke or are said to evoke: as though time stands still and existence in a moment feels possible.  Yet we also move in lines, like the progression of time, whether the lines are straight from the past to the future or back the other way, or curved in a circle as is the act of memory retrieval.  That's what I mean when I referred to lyric/narrative fusion above.  

A great passage that gets at the logic of this sort of writing comes near the end of the book:

"My existence shrank from an arrow of light pointing into the future forever to a speck of light that was the present moment.  I got better at living in that point of light, making the world into that point. I paid close attention to it.  I loved it very much.

And then one day, my life was a ray again, and the point was gone."

The passage seems to me at this particular moment, looking at it, reading it again, thinking about it, as a questioning of artistic priorities or poetic priorities: if we can live our lives pointing endlessly forward, why do we place so much value and emphasis on the lyric moment?  Isn't that ironic?  We're not stuck as the sick are stuck, living in a single moment of time.  If we are forced to live in a lyric moment, trying to find beauty and value in it, are we just trying to make ourselves feel better because we can't live in a narrative reality anymore?  Is lyric a sort of pathology?  Is narrative?  

Well, all that, and a longing to have my life and Robert's move like "an arrow of light pointing into the future forever."  I read that and I thought, yes, that's what I truly want.  I suppose you always want what you can't have.

I know a number of intelligent readers who would balk at this book--why isn't there a coherent, forward-moving narrative?  Why inject confusion?  Why not just tell us what happened?  My answer to these readers is: let this book make you stop and think about illness, about living, about the way you see the people around you.  Don't be content with a narrative about disease that lets you feel secure in your separation from it, that lets you simply browse the experience and walk away.  This book requires entry of a kind different than we've come to expect from most literature about illness: this book requires a participation by the reader, and an entering into the experience alongside the author.  You will have to think and reconsider the mainstays of your world, and you will be glad that you did.

I only hope that I can do this book justice outside the parameters of a traditional review and within the confines of the sort of prose offered within the confines of a blog.  I can't wait to have time to read it through again.

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