I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
Milan Kundera begins his new novel, The Festival of Insignificance, with an unusual philosophical query — why are belly buttons so sexy right now? Or, as Mr. Kundera writes in more erudite language, underscoring the absurdity of his question, “how to define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel?”
This inquiry comes after Alain, the first character introduced, meditates on the meanings of erotic fixations of different eras: thighs, buttocks, and breasts. Finally, Alain concludes that while those three body parts are unique to each woman, all navels look the same. And thus, our era has lost a certain celebration of individuality.
Directly after Kundera introduces this belly button query, he inserts a scene about another man torn between desire to attend a Marc Chagall show and repulsion at the thought of becoming “part of that endless queue” outside the museum, suffering from overcrowded galleries where “bodies and chatter would obscure the paintings.” Here, he exemplifies the tension between an individual and a group. Not only does a group prohibit this individual’s access to art, but also the individual’s enjoyment of art, should he enter the museum. Art and sexuality, once sacred and individual pleasures, have lost some of their potency and become banal elements of a mainstream popular culture.
It’s a bleak assessment of contemporary life from an author with over 80 years of experience in the world. Yet, it’s Kundera writing it, not your grandfather, so it’s more poignant, surreal, and funny than the typical line of thought that begins something like, “In my day, milk cost less than a dollar and English professors could still get jobs.” In seven short, loosely-connected chapters, the author writes of the trials and tribulations of four aging male friends (Alain, Ramon, Charles, and Caliban) as they move among the Paris streets, attend a party, and share an extended joke about Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.
The novel most deeply explores the generational divide as it details Alain’s relationship with Madeleine, a young woman many years his junior:
Even the dialogue between two lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood. That was why, for instance, he never knew if the reason Madeleine twisted the names of the past was that she had never heard of them or that she was parodying them on purpose, to make clear to everyone that she was not the least bit interested in anything that had happened before her own lifetime.
The narrator suggests an unbridgeable gap between generations. How can a man (say, Kundera), who was at one time a member of the Communist Party, became partly involved in the Prague Spring, and is now living in exile, write something that will make any sense to a millennial (say, me), an American who was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall and now receives much of my news in 140 characters? It’s certainly a depressing thought for those of us who want to believe that some human experiences — love, grief, joy, pain — transcend generations.
Yet, it’s also notable that Madeleine is either unaware of — or isn’t interested in — anything that happened before she was born, that the older man has chosen someone totally preoccupied with the present and future, who chooses to be ignorant. The affair becomes a way for Alain to both forget and escape the past, to dwell in conversations that amount only to insignificance.
Another character, Caliban, meets a maid who develops an interest in him after learning that he speaks neither of the languages (French or Portuguese) in which she’s able to converse. He does, in fact, speak French, but he has told people that he only speaks Pakistani. The two speak to each other in their own languages without hope of ever being understood. When they do speak, it’s of trivialities, like the maid’s choice in lipstick colors. In a variation on the same theme, Kundera introduces a character named Quaquelique who seduces women by making banal remarks that demand “no intelligent response whatever.” He’s quite successful.
It all seems like a cop out. There’s something cowardly about choosing a romantic partner with whom you’ll never have a meaningful conversation. Instead of devoting themselves to romantic relationships, these characters choose partners with whom they’re literally and figuratively speaking in a different language. It’s certainly a shift from the characters in Kundera’s most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who seek love and immerse themselves in complex affairs. As a reader, it’s more difficult to invest in the new characters of The Festival of Insignificance and their partners when they are only interested in attachments that are ultimately insignificant. They don’t care, so it’s difficult for the reader to care.
So, in this novel that suggests that art, sexuality, and love have all lost their power in the 21st century, is there any redemption at all?
In a small line, the narrator explicitly reveals what he does value among the trivialities in our lives, our individual festivals of insignificance. “In my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: ‘friendship,’” he says. This line holds promise for an explanation of friendship, its merits, and the reasons why it trumps all other human relationships. The reader might expect Kundera, in his own masterful way, to raise questions about the nature of friendship and platonic love in the way he contemplates contemporary life and attitudes toward sexuality and art.
Kundera doesn’t deliver. Instead of exploring what brought these men together and makes their relationship work, he focuses instead on those relationships that hold no significance. The readers hear the friends’ witty conversations and witness their rogue activities, but never much more. In its own twisted logic, the novel asserts that the insignificant is actually significant and worthy of its own narrative. But for the reader looking for four fully developed characters, a clear picture of what makes the bond between them so “sacred,” and some questioning of human interactions, it’s not fulfilling.
It’s a shame. Kundera has written novels that raise complicated questions about political ideology and human interaction while engaging with fraught historical conflicts. Yet with this new installment, he seems to reject the more thoughtful approach and substitute it for this short work about what doesn’t matter. Sure, he ends with a lyrical appreciation of “the value of insignificance,” but it doesn’t satisfy. At the conclusion of the novel, Ramon gives a monologue in which he states, “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence.” The way that Kundera structures the novel, it seems to call for some final, conclusive speech. Here it is! The narrator teases. You wanted a pearl of wisdom, and this is it!
The narrator also mocks those readers looking for something more substantial. Another character outside of the core friend group, D’Ardelo, says nothing when Ramon makes this proclamation about insignificance. The narrator states, “Ramon understands that his hymn to insignificance has not succeeded in pleasing this man so attached to the gravity of grand truths.” Ramon disparages D’Ardelo for his earnestness. To appease him, Ramon tells him that he looked beautiful next to a woman at a party.
At fewer than 150 pages, The Festival of Insignificance is a breezy read that just might prove to be insignificant within Kundera’s larger oeuvre. The book contains a multitude of ideas, some more satisfactorily detailed than others. The thing about belly buttons, though, is that they don’t all look the same. Just ask the piercer at your local tattoo parlor. And if you think they do, you just might not be looking hard enough. Alain’s conclusion is based on a fallacy, and his initial question, too, is based on a premise that isn’t quite believable — I still have yet to meet a man, millennial or otherwise, who prefers belly buttons to buttocks, thighs, or breasts. Perhaps, after all, there is still hope for this era, for individual experience, and for lives of some significance.
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says, “not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.” To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the sweeping multi-generational family saga. I’m continually amazed that a good writer can will us to abandon one protagonist for another, the father for the son; we hesitate, but a hundred pages later, we’ve forgotten the earlier generations as quickly as history does itself. But there’s something a little cruel in this sort of book: it’s not history — it’s a novel, and its ironic circumstances are wholly constructed. The innocent early days, the invariable fall, the important details that get distorted and misplaced over time: the author is setting us up, and the book would be innocuous — even pointless — if we weren’t eventually let down. These books are inherently about loss: the characters we meet at the beginning will die, or if they don’t, something else will be lost to the passage of time.
Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is one of those sweeping multi-generational family sagas, and, of course, Hollinghurst is one of those writers who can do most things remarkably well. It’s as beautifully written as his previous books, but it feels like a departure: the last four have been relatively stationary affairs in comparison, centering around young, gay Englishmen with a lot of time on their hands, and the narratives are largely expository and internal. I’ve read three out of four — the friend who eagerly pressed Hollinghurst on me years ago agreed with the critics and told me to skip The Spell — and of them, the 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty had been my (well, everyone’s) hands-down favorite.
But The Stranger’s Child seems as if it’s been written for me — or, at least, someone with my proclivities — with its somewhat traditional subject and straightforward narrative, a plot that moves on dialogue rather than description, and a pervasive Englishness, reserved and class-bound, that encompasses whole swaths of 20-century British literature. Parts of it, to my delight, feel very much like Brideshead Revisited fanfiction — in the best possible way, of course. (Who didn’t want more of “those languid days at Brideshead,” to actually see what Charles and Sebastian were surely getting up to that summer?)
The book’s been repeatedly compared to the work of Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and, as with Hollinghurst’s previous novels, Henry James, as well as that of contemporaries like Ian McEwan (for Atonement, which, on the surface, has many similarities) and Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day). But Hollinghurst brings a precise elegance to the genre, building upon the novels that came before it. In an essay on Atonement written a decade ago, Geoff Dyer said that, “It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling certainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up and into the twenty-first century.” Hollinghurst, rarely transgressive, occasionally labeled as “fusty,” but an unfailingly extraordinary novelist, is extending and hauling Brideshead into the present day. (Dyer had high praise for The Stranger’s Child and its author: in a review, he wrote that “Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer.”)
The novel begins in the summer of 1913 at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family in outer London. The initial Brideshead parallels are reversed: the family is middle class and their houseguest, Cecil Valance, is an aristocrat. He’s a mediocre but deeply charming poet, and during the visit he puts aggressive but rather tame moves on the impressionable Daphne, all the while having it off properly in the woods with her brother, George. Cecil is killed in World War I, as are other characters from the idyllic opening passages, and most of them fade into obscurity by the second part, set a decade later. But Cecil is remembered, even revered: celebrated as a minor war poet, he’s quoted by Winston Churchill in the newspaper and viewed, as with so much of the late-Edwardian canon, as prophetic.
The remaining three sections make similarly brash leaps forward in time: the mid-1960s, then the early ‘80s, and finally, briefly, in the present day. Nearly a century after the initial action, all of our old friends have died. It’s inevitable, but it leaves you feeling a little cheated. With each transition you struggle with momentary disorientation, taking stock of who’s still alive and the family entanglements that have grown more complicated in the intervening decades. In a book where sexuality is surprisingly fluid and loyalties often waver, deciphering the two families’ domestic affairs is a tall order, and at times, a frustrating one. The more interesting changes are subtler: with the passage of time, characters’ histories are rewritten. Those who survive — and a surprising number of early characters make it well into old age — come to be defined by the decades through which they’ve lived. But those who died remain crystallized in memories, tinted and warped with nostalgia or bitterness. Misunderstandings and assumptions in 1913 become reminisces in the ‘20s, memories in the ‘60s, vague recollections in the ‘80s, and all but completely forgotten in the present day.
At the heart of these rewritten histories is literature: this is, after all, a book about a poet, and eventually, a book about books. The fourth and, at times, most tedious section, follows a biographer’s somewhat incompetent attempts to unravel Cecil Valance’s short life. Valance’s brother, Dudley, who winds up marrying Daphne, is a writer as well, but by the ‘80s, his work has faded from public consciousness. Daphne writes a book that is dismissed for its factual inaccuracies; she thinks back later about how her memories, cloudy with years of heavy drinking, are just as inaccurate: “The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight: she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6:45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.” The elderly characters, with their shaky recollections, leave you immensely frustrated: “I was there!” you want to shout. “Four hundred pages ago! Don’t you remember?” And when Daphne continues on, worrying over lost memories, the resulting passage is heartbreaking:
She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she’d read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art — she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent’s Park, rain in the streets outside — a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years.
A bleak epigraph marks the start of the book’s final section: “No one remembers you at all.” It’s from Mick Imlah’s poem “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” (the phrase “the stranger’s child” is from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”). Imlah passed away two years ago, and Hollinghurst has dedicated this book to him. There’s something so grim about the idea that even books will be forgotten: memory is fickle, sometimes faulty, but shouldn’t something printed and bound hold more permanence than that? In the final scenes, we follow a relative stranger into an antiquarian bookshop, and there’s a moment of hope that the characters that were scribbling away dozens of chapters ago will be remembered. At one point very early on, a character says that Cecil’s poems “will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” A century later, this seems doubtful: he is known, but he is barely remembered. The First World War, which feels palpably less present with each step forward in time, is now firmly in the past.
A book of this scope writes its own history, and if you find that history compelling, you’re doomed to fall in love with it. This was the first novel in a long while that pulled me in wholeheartedly: I stayed in on the weekend, and didn’t grumble about getting stuck on the train one night, just to finish it faster. I’ve pressed it on people at work, on friends at parties, and on strangers in coffee shops. The majority of them have never heard of it, or even of Hollinghurst himself. When I finished it, I went to look it up on Wikipedia, to read about its influences (cross-referenced, I assumed, with all the historical cameos, Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey and the like). Instead I found a skeletal plot summary and a brief paragraph on the reviews (“generally received positively”). I was indignant. Why wasn’t it tagged as an “instant classic”?
We live in a time when things struggle to stick: competing influences, recommendations, and links, bombarding us and casting aside one new thing for the next. But perhaps one of the best lessons to be learned from The Stranger’s Child is that things have never stuck particularly well. People and their words can tilt the world on its axis, however briefly, but the world will always tilt again. Imagining not remembering a thing about The Stranger’s Child decades from now, of it falling out of print, of Hollinghurst fading into obscurity, is hard for me to comprehend. But Hollinghurst’s characters carried some version of Cecil Valance with them through the stretch of their long lives. It seems difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t take all of these characters with us through our lives in turn.
In 18th-century England, most everyone got smallpox, an infectious disease that results in terrific rashes and blisters on the skin. Facial scars left over from an infection were a common occurrence. This was true for everyone, regardless of class or station in society, except for milkmaids. It was widely known that milkmaids who came into contact with cows blistered with cowpox, and who developed blisters on the hands they used to milk their cows, would not develop smallpox, even if directly exposed to someone who was suffering from the disease.
“Vaccination is a precursor to modern medicine, not the product of it,” writes Eula Biss, in On Immunity: An Inoculation. “Its roots are in folk medicine, and its first practitioners were farmers.” During an epidemic in 1774, an infected farmer transferred pus from a cow into the arms of his wife and two small boys, using a darning needle. “The farmer’s neighbors were horrified,” Biss notes. Nonetheless, his family developed immunity to smallpox.
Both the effectiveness of vaccination and the horror and outrage it can provoke live on with us to this day.
On Immunity is a wide-ranging book, covering topics as diverse as pesticides, metaphor, and vampires, with influences ranging from Greek myth to Voltaire to Susan Sontag. Biss traces our understanding of the undead along with our understanding of germs, blood, vaccination, and capitalism, which has often been described as blood sucking. (Marx: “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more is sucks.”)
Biss explores many of the ways in which vaccination has been used to exploit and oppress the powerless. “The poor,” Biss points out, in a passage about forced vaccination campaigns, were often “enlisted in the protection of the privileged.” This has been true in countries across the globe.
But those being oppressed often fought back.
The working-class people who resisted Britain’s 1853 provision for free, mandatory vaccination were concerned, in part, with their own freedom. Faced with fines, imprisonment, and the seizure of their own property if they did not vaccinate their infants, they sometimes compared their predicament to slavery.
“Vaccination, like slavery,” Biss writes, “raises some pressing questions about one’s rights to one’s own body.” Set in these terms, the moral argument about vaccination concerns the individual, not society.
The fight against vaccines rages on, though it is no longer a working-class struggle but rather a struggle fought by the privileged. The public face for the anti-vaccine movement is celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who has raised questions about the connection between vaccines and autism, and has argued for parents’ rights not to vaccinate their children. These arguments against vaccines continue to center on the individual; that is, not ‘what’s best for society?’ but rather ‘what’s best for my child?’
Vaccines do benefit the individual; however, as Biss explains, their real strength is in the community.
If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.
An individual who has been vaccinated, but who lives in a community in which few people have been vaccinated, is more likely to become ill than a person who has not been vaccinated but who lives in a community where a large percentage of people have been vaccinated. Vaccinating oneself is about protecting one’s community more than it is about protecting oneself. “We are protected not so much by our own skin,” Biss writes, “but by what is beyond it.”
Were Biss a different kind of writer, this book might have been a point-by-point rebuttal of Jenny McCarthy and others in the anti-vaccination community. The results of scientific studies, after all, clearly support the use of vaccines. Readers hoping for such a rebuttal will no doubt find the book perplexing. Biss’s project, it turns out, is far grander than a simple explanation of the facts.
Each of the 30 concise chapters of On Immunity has an element of “separateness” to it. That is, each is able to stand on its own as a self-contained micro-essay. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll find that they are all interdependent — much like the individuals who make up a community.
Some chapters of On Immunity are downright gothic, while others fall well within the traditions of literary criticism and nature writing. Biss explores the impacts of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring (1962), the book that brought the harmful effects of pesticides, especially DDT, to the public’s attention. Interestingly, Biss explains what she, and others, see as problems brought on by the movement to phase out DDT — “DDT is not exactly what Carson feared it was” — including a resurgence of malaria in parts of Africa.
Silent Spring, though remembered as a forceful argument against pesticides, was not without nuance. “But the enduring power of [Carson’s] book,” Biss writes, “owes less to its nuance than to its capacity to induce horror.” Though Biss indulges in horror throughout the book — quite literally in the figure of Dracula — On Immunity bears no resemblance to a fear-mongering polemic.
Admirers of the book-length essay will find this work remarkable. Few writers are able to so seamlessly stitch together literature, theory, personal experience, and science. Still, it’s hard to imagine Jenny McCarthy and her followers paging through On Immunity, and so, in comparison to Silent Spring, one wonders what type of effect it will have on the body politic.
On Immunity is as much a book about trust as it is a book about vaccines. The current anti-vaccine crusade is grounded in a lack of trust of medicine, of science, of each other. Its arguments are based on the assumption that we can separate ourselves from those around us. Biss provides an inoculation against mistrust, against the primacy of the individual to the detriment of the community. Perhaps, as she makes her nuanced arguments, Biss is engaging in a radical act of trust, assuming that the public is capable of understanding more than simple sound bites.
“Our understanding of immunity remains dependent on metaphor,” Biss writes, “even at the most technical level.” In On Immunity, the concept of immunity becomes a metaphor for ourselves, for the ways we relate to one another, the way we live as a social body. We cannot separate ourselves from the poor, or the sick, or the Jenny McCarthys. “We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”