Life After Life

Life after Life is Kate Atkinson’s new novel – it’s long and gratifying. I have read a lot the last three weeks, mostly though not exclusively novels, the reading matter overseen and sat upon by Elvis. Reading is one of the things you can do while keeping your head very still so the world doesn’t spin, and if it’s engrossing you can be transported. You might think that the “second” life in the title is a replacement of the word and concept of “death.” Not really. On the most simple level the novel plays with the idea of the novel. The novel as a progression of seemingly inevitable events, of teleology, of the crocheting of character and description into the momentum of plot. But life too, as we live it day by day, entails plotting, dramatization and anticipation. Atkinson asks “what if”? What if, for instance, the baby had lived instead of dying, what if –that old chestnut—Hitler had been assassinated, what if the dog had a different name, what if the girl had kicked back? A writer can mess with events and this is what she does, giving us multiple versions or possibilities, or more accurately – unfoldings. But philosophically, she also spins a meditation – upon the eternal return. The idea that what exists after life is not death but more life, or more prosaically we could say people go on living, and the dead re-emerge in various incarnations according to different beliefs and modes of representation, and through the intricacies of memory. As always she is preoccupied with the concepts of déjà vu and amor fati, of history and the future, of memory and delusion. A minor but key character whose presence is woven through the book is a Buddhistic (come Nietzschean) psychoanalyst. In one of her incarnations, as a ten year old girl, Ursula is sent to see him.

 He had trained in Vienna (“Where else?) but trod, he said, his own path. He was no one’s disciple, he said, although he had studied “at the feet of all the teachers. One must nose forward,” he said. “Nudge one’s way through the chaos of our thoughts. Unite the divided self.” Ursula had no idea what he was talking about.

Atkinson also plays with the idea of the novel as a bourgeois form. Life After Life begins with a long idyllic evocation of upper middle class English life. She has said that it was Forster always at her back, but to me the angel at her back is Virginia Woolf, particularly Mrs Dalloway. As the story begins again and again on that snowy night in 1910 so the Merchant and Ivory scenario disintegrates and nostalgia is untethered, teased out, floats like seaweed in a bloody sea. Not just the Virginia Woolf of the novels but also the essayist and the woman who kept a diary full of quotidian details. While it is surely a false dichotomy to pose quotidian detail against the sweep of history, the trick is surely to understand and craft scale, through writing to mobilize that precarious, never stable, relation between scale and perspective. What the most intriguing novels and biographies do is illuminate not just details within the large sweep of history, but the sweep of history in the details. The new biography of Marx by Jonathan Sperber does this. I dipped in and out of it while out-of-it. Jeffrey read it voraciously from cover to cover (when it could be pried away from Elvis) and would relay the revelations, day by day, in between making endless supplies of chicken soup, a ministering Scheherazade.

IMG_1453

I always find myself (again, time after time, life after life) a better Buddhist when things are going well. “Better” of course is the wrong word, no I mean more inclined to be philosophically calm and accepting of fate, unperturbed by death. The last few days, before this awful smothering black blanket of nausea lifted I felt very despairing, as though I would never get better, even for a while. “This is it!” kind of a feeling. There is a simple line in Life After Life: “How sorry she felt for herself, as if she were someone else.” Somehow, as almost everyone must know, illness induces this as you see time falling through all the cracks in your life, never to be retrieved. Today, though, I feel grandiously like a besieged city that has been liberated. I woke up this morning feeling transformed, the nausea almost gone, euphoric. I hadn’t quite finished the Kate Atkinson and so got up, fed the cats (without experiencing that usual vomit-inducing odor as the tin of grain-free chicken-and-herring delight is prized open), let the chickens out in the dawn light, made a pot of tea and went back to bed and finished the novel – it felt so luxurious, reading not to allay sickness, but for pure pleasure. And of course I should know from the novel that after a besieged city is liberated (London and Berlin during the Second World War bombing) there isn’t immediate relief, what follows may be starvation, suicide, old age, mundanity. And yet …… and yet I loved the novel, it filled me with a peculiar happiness like Mrs Dalloway with her flowers. Atkinson has said you cannot write about happiness, that’s not what life is. It’s true the novel is not about finding happiness, I wept in parts and had to gloss over others that were too grim, and yet happiness is no less complex an emotion than say, despair, or misery, it’s just as implicated in the devious trajectories of desire. I’m glad I finished the novel on a high so I don’t always have it snuggled into bed, in a semi-illicit association with sickness.

Today I feel quite different, not sorry for my self at all, actually rather overwhelmed by the wonderful world I awoke into, but more convinced than ever that the self, though experienced materially, bodily, is a fiction. And what is it that constitutes feeling OK?

Being drug free is undoubtedly a big part of it. It surely must have been the combination of antibiotics with the chemo that made for such awfulness. Because of the initial searing gut pain and fever I diagnosed myself with a flare up of diverticulitis and my primary care Doctor agreed, urged antibiotics and since the fever and pain were subsiding, succumbed to my resistance to yet another Cat scan with contrast (time after time, too much radiation). I thought the antibiotics were working, but not really, the pain came and went. And the worst thing was the unrelenting nausea, dizziness, sensation of fainting even when lying still in bed. Kipps, my oncologist is inclined to think that this was clearly because of the piling up of chemicals (“we don’t know how the body will protest”) but also that the pain might not in fact have been provoked by an infection (and if this were the case, tho who’s to know, no need for antibiotics), but caused by tumor lysis. This refers to metabolic complications that can occur during cancer treatment, particularly in leukemia and lymphoma. Though the treatment is meant to reduce, say, the size and frequency of lymph nodes in fact it can do the opposite for a while. The lymph nodes in my gut area are increased in size and frequency and he guesses that this has put pressure on the colon. This makes sense but nevertheless I have a gut feeling (so apt a truism) that the chemicals are also ravaging my gut and so am drinking aloe vera juice an hour before eating, and also L-glutamin powder – both of which restore the mucous membrane of the colon stripped away by antibiotics as we know, but also by the other drugs. Acupuncture provided miraculous relief, but only for a short time (though it was amazing to see how color returned to my face during those sessions). However, my skin is so thin now. Thicker emotionally perhaps but in the end there is just that thin penumbra between you and the world.

Now I’m into the fourth round. Kipps decided not to up the dose because of the complications, though he is reluctant, and feels that it is only with an increased dose that some of the symptoms will abate and improvement register (white and red blood counts are miraculously in the normal zone, but others wonky). Still, it is underway and am feeling almost fine. Phew! With trepidation I have another immunoglobulin infusion this week, since an adverse reaction during the last one…

There are other things besides acupuncture that provided relief and forgetfulness. I thought I could drive myself to acupuncture one time but when I got out of bed realized that this wasn’t going to work. I called Tershia and she came and fetched me in her 1969 Porsche (a 912, 500,000 + miles, named “Lawrence” after T.E., as its first paint color was “Sand.”). Tershia turned it green. Just looking at it is a joy. It registers beauty—in its design, but also in that color, that delicious green that seems otherwise to have disappeared from the world, a green of mahjong pieces, of bathroom tiles and my grandmother’s kitchen. Nothing grandmotherly about that ride to the acupuncturist, however. Tershia drives her racing car as though it were a racing car. You might think that this would exacerbate nausea, but it was rather like entering into a dream. I loved being inside that greenness, whizzing through the city.

And then there was the poppy. Steve Ilott gave me, months ago, some white poppies he had started. We planted them out and waited and waited as they grew in a spindly fashion. Then one day as I lay languishing, feeling sorry for myself, Peggy—who was working in the garden, fighting the weeds which have gone beserk since people on the street started planting “low maintenance native” grasses—took a picture of the blooming poppy on her i-phone and sent it to me in the house. It was a totally unexpected apparition: a glorious white pom pom. I had been assuming that an old fashioned and elegant poppy would eventually bloom. Instead: the sheer exuberance and excess of that “Swansdown” startled me into delight. On the morning when I awoke feeling OK I opened the front door in the early morning and there were four white pompoms, gleaming in amongst the irises and salvia, roses and fennel, brash colors muted momentarily in the dawn, ceding glory to Swansdown.

IMG_1464

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boomerang

Why did the Australian go berserk?

Because he got a new boomerang and then he tried to get rid of the old one.

Yesterday, an infusion day, Akos [Ronas] gave me a ride to the hospital. He was euphoric having just sent off his book manuscript. But, he said, his relief was shadowed by a joke. Akos is married to Judit Herskó, whose father was János Herskó, a Hungarian film director who would often enter his own films to tell a joke. He might for instance materialize at a trolley station, and for no very good reason, would tell this boomerang joke. I guess it was at the height of boomerang jokes, I vaguely remember them circulating when I was a kid, round about the time of hula hoops.

Every writer knows this: The sense that your book is never really finished, it will keep coming back, there will be more revisions, and more and more. And now that all the versions are electronic, the old versions, full of typos and one or two crucial mistakes, threaten to reappear in the proofs. It’s only when you get the published book—that solid thing—in your hands, that it feels finished. Maybe. But of course all that is changing. That solid thing, the book, is disappearing, words materialize and evaporate as you write, as you read. This is not to say that nano publishing and the drive towards the short bite rather than the long book guarantees the sense of an ending. No, instead there is something far more precarious: ephemeral finality, ghosted by a labyrinthine digital archive. Words are like money. They melt into air and reappear in new configurations. Akos’ book is about plastic money, a history of the credit card in post communist countries. Some of these credit cards, linked to the state rather than banks, are used much more habitually and extensively than in the U.S, for instance. Money in the form of bank notes and coins and written checks scarcely exists. Credit cards have become a form of ID, they store information, can be used to receive, electronically, all sorts of things, like your pension payments. And even as I write, credit cards themselves are disappearing: into cell phones, into thumb prints, into eye scans. Not only in the post-Communist world. You know that dubious item you bought (no didn’t even buy, just perused in a browsing sortee late one night), well it will reappear for everyone to see on some social networking site as something you “like.” Even worse, that aberrant impulse will return to plague you in the form of endless haranguing from cheesy underwear companies. You might forget but the marketing machine will not. Your secret is never safe with Victoria.

The boomerang joke can manifest in many guises. You could give it a Zizekian spin, which might go something like this. The Australian wants to get away from Australia and start afresh. So he goes to California, say, and sets up an alternative market where he sells tea tree oil and water-wise Australian native plants and a unique new service, surfing therapy (therapy while you surf ) ……. No problem with the Californian surfing dudes – they take to therapy like ducks to vodka. But then comes a guy who looks and talks like Brian Brown. Laconic, gruff, handsome in a chiseled hard-knocks kind of way. Turns out he himself is a surfing analyst, and the question he asks, which sends the whole new age entrepreunerial enterprise for a loop, is this: “Why did the Australian go berserk?”

For me, in the infusion center later in the day, it bounced back in the spectral form of CLL. In the last week I’ve been feeling considerably regenerated, exhilarated, hopeful again. The lab results confirmed that the feeling isn’t merely illusory. So Dr Choi thinks we can now double the oral chemo dose; and reduce the infusion chemo to once a month. He warns that things will probably get worse again, before and if they get better. He says they do not know whether the increased dose correlates with increased effectivity (this is a trial, it’s one of the things they are trying to determine), it does seem to be the case, but it might be that because patients are improved before the dose is increased their systems are in a better position to deal with the ravages of the drug. In the Infusion Center, while keeping up a façade of cheerfulness, I experienced again the cul de sac sensation. The futility of it all. Although there may be periods of respite, CLL itself will always bounce back. Once it’s started progression it will move in a relentlessly linear fashion, gathering momentum, working towards a conclusion. But against this teleological drive, as a person who “has” CLL (and other kinds of chronically incurable diseases, I imagine) you experience periods of optimism, euphoria even. Just when you have forgotten about CLL, are getting on with life in an enjoyable day-to-day fashion, it whizzes through the air and hits you on the back of the head, sending you catapulting back into the ER, back onto antibiotics, back into a funk. The malevolence of repetition.

There is an extraordinary air of cheeriness in the Infusion Center. At its worst you might think of it as something akin to battery chicken farming. When you close your eyes and try to sleep the noise keeps you awake, the noise of beeping machines, televisions, people talking on cell phones, nurses reading out orders – all these noises merge together and sound like the strangled clucks of a thousand tormented chickens. All of us chickens chained by tubes that run between machines, that run from little packets of clear liquid hanging from hooks, into a multitudinous network of veins, ready and waiting for chemo plumping. But at its best everyone is cheerful in the Infusion Center, polite even, even as the day wears on. There is much joshing and spinning out of repartee, bits and pieces of verbal exchange are tossed hither and thither, everyone enters into the fiction that this is just an ordinary day, a day like any other. And of course for the nurses and staff it is, which makes it all the more extraordinary that under duress and repetition they are so alert and behave with such good natured equanimity, remembering names, histories, stories. And through this enactment of an illusion everyone rises to the occasion, enters into the spirit of the performative event, into this compact of civility.

I do appreciate the considerable theatrical skills, as well as the hospital experience, that it takes to generate and sustain a mood. Still, sometimes you want something to puncture the air of equanimity, you want something that hits the nail on the head, you want a joke that is grim, black, irreverent. The boomerang, as used by Australian Aborigines, was and is a tool and a hunting weapon, some are designed to return (in their flight frightening birds, say) but mostly they are intended to hit and bring down a prey, a moving target. Curiously, when it comes to jokes (and illness) hitting your prey can simultaneously be a way of releasing all those lurgy birds lurking in the wetlands.