Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
In January 2003, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad arrived in Baghdad on a 10-day visa. With arrangements in place with various Scandinavian print and television media, the freelancer joined the growing ranks of international press who wanted to witness the changes that were in the air. Well, ten days grew to twenty and eventually to a-hundred-and-one. When she finally left, in April 2003, one type of hell had been replaced by another.Out of all this comes A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal – a powerful bit of reportage that chronicles not only the thuggish brutality of Saddam’s regime and the heart-wrenching civilian “casualties of war” caused by the chaotic “Shock and Awe” invasion, but also a gripping behind-the-scenes account of war-journalism which at times plays out like a thriller.When she first arrives, its still Saddam’s show. We see Seierstad working her way through the red tape of the Iraqi Ministry of Information. It seems so much like Soviet-style media control that at times I feel like I’m reading an account of a Western journalist in Cold-War era Moscow. When Seierstad eventually gets the chance to meet people in Baghdad it’s always with an official “minder” and the answers she gets are almost always stock answers. These people are afraid. Saddam had instituted a form of domestic terrorism, putting fear into the lives of Iraqis. Even the odd time that Seierstad escaped the watchful eye of her “minder,” responses from some citizens showed just how Saddam’s cult of personality had indoctrinated them. Saddam was everywhere. Posters, statues, all art glorified this megalomaniac. Seierstad also chronicles the poverty under his regime. The wars with Iran and Kuwait, the first Gulf War, and the ensuing Western sanctions had crippled the country.But it was early 2003 and something was in the air. Whatever line the Ministry of Information was giving, everyone knew the US invasion was imminent. The closer they got, the more Saddam’s regime lost its grip. The reins of government slackened and when Seierstad sneaks out to interview people, they begin to speak a bit more freely, more candidly. Feelings were mixed. The US invasion, just days away, was alternately feared and anticipated, often in the same breath. The common thread through most of the civilian responses was “Well the US is coming, let them sweep Saddam and his regime away and then leave, immediately”. Given the hell they’d been living through, no one could be surprised by this kind of resigned-optimism. And given the nature of war, no one can really be surprised that this optimism was shattered.Seierstad’s eye for detail is remarkable. At one point, on the eve of the invasion, she goes to an open-air book market. At that point, it had been a dozen years since the last scientific periodical was available in Iraq, but the Iraqis’ thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. There was a boy looking for a book about cloning, and a man seeking any book he could find about structuralism. Another was searching for Sartre. The insatiable quest for scientific knowledge and artistic enlightenment, especially through periods of brutality and oppression, has always been, to me, humanity’s saving grace.Seierstad also shows how the “human shield,” that collection of activists who flocked to Baghdad to physically oppose the US invasion, wound up becoming a tool of the Iraqi regime. While the Shield-ers wanted to protect hospitals and orphanages, the Iraqi government instead used them, co-opted them, by placing them in front of Iraqi infrastructure. They became pawns.Free of the lures and pressures of being an embedded journalist, and providing a clear-headed Scandinavian reasonableness to a chaotic situation, Seierstad’s account is unique. And as a Western woman trying to maneuver independently in a Middle Eastern country, even one which is admittedly more tyrannical than fundamentalist, Seierstad’s compelling tale becomes a worthy addition to modern reportage.
I wonder if Paul Kalanithi remembered, as he wrote this book, the childhood dream of the father of modern neuroscience. This was a Spanish anatomist called Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who, as a child, wanted to become an artist. “At eight or nine years old,” Ramón y Cajal wrote, “I had an irresistible mania for scribbling on paper, drawing ornaments in books…” The boy’s father discouraged such frivolity. Ramón y Cajal went to medical school, where he grew devoted to histology, the microscopic study of cells.
At that point in the 19th century, inferior microscopes, which failed to show the fine structure of the nervous system, had stalled neurological investigation. (The vague term “gray matter” is a product of this period — coined, one imagines, by exasperated scientists.) So it must have been with excitement that, in 1887, Ramón y Cajal learned about a staining technique, using silver nitrate, by which nerve cells finally revealed their intricate features. “A look was enough,” he wrote. “All was sharp as a sketch with Chinese ink.” He drew what he saw. His illustrations would lead to the discovery that the neuron was the basic unit of the nervous system.
The artist’s pencil advancing science — such is the intellectual traffic that might have intrigued Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi was a neurosurgical resident at Stanford when, in his mid-30s, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. While his peers fretted about careers, his life tilted toward a reckoning with mortality all the more ferocious for how, as a doctor, he had spied death in the corner of his eye. His own encounter with death contained his patients’, too. “I had pushed discharge over patient worries,” he remembers, critical now of his actions, “ignored patients’ pain when other demands pressed. The people whose suffering I saw, noted, and neatly packaged into various diagnoses, the significance of which I failed to recognize — they all returned, vengeful, angry, and inexorable.”
Death is one thing, and dying another. Dying might bring a series of humiliations and panics, time choking upon itself, or it might slyly resemble living. Kalanithi and his wife had a child, a daughter, while he grew increasingly sick. When his wife questioned his wish to become a father, asking if having to say goodbye to a baby wouldn’t make death more painful, he replied, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” Avoiding pain was never a priority for Kalanithi. Pain signalled love and meaning. In his professional life, Kalanithi continued to perform surgery, resting his aching back against the wall of the operating room, until, one day, he declined to schedule any more operations. It was time, he accepted, to discard plans for his future. Looking to his past, he wrote this book, typing with painful fingers soothed by silver-lined gloves.
Kalanithi died on March 9, 2015. The book he worked on in his final months — this memoir, When Breath Becomes Air — has achieved tremendous recognition as a moving narrative of a doctor’s dying. Rightly so. Unclasped, however, the book is also an argument for an intellectually rousing way to live. Why have we not seen, in widespread and admiring coverage of the book, engagement with the ideas Kalanithi held dear? Might not such an engagement honour the doctor’s life?
Within the mortal man — never a smoker, yet whose lungs grew dense with tumors — there agitated a rare intellect that continued to consider questions of science and art even while life’s end alighted nearby.
Kalanithi argues that the great divide between science and literature is false.
As a teenager with literary aspirations in Kingman, Ariz., Kalanithi read what sounds like an awful book. Still, Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S., loaned him by a girlfriend, offered the astounding realization that the mind was simply a function of the brain. “Of course, it must be true,” he writes. “What were our brains doing, otherwise?” The revelation turned his mind to neuroscience. At Stanford, he added, to his list of literature classes, courses in biology.
Though Kalanithi went on to complete graduate studies in English literature, ever present on his mind were the physiological systems, sturdy and fallible, that undergirded meaning. He writes, “There must be a way…that the language of life as experienced — of passion, of hunger, of love — bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.”
(What does he do by referring to languages rather than fields? Well, even while admitting how the humanities are positioned against the sciences, he planes smooth the friction of their edges. This might be to the credit of the philosopher Richard Rorty, under whose tutelage the young Kalanithi began to see academic disciplines not as separate regions but separate vocabularies. When we see sociology and chemistry as vocabularies, we perceive that they are methods, not subjects, of investigation. Under unified examination across literature, the humanities, and the hard sciences: consciousness, living, the world.)
Kalanithi continued to grapple with the opposition between science and literature, and to live, in his life, with commitment to each. He worked his instruments — blades, electrodes — into bodily interiors as unfamiliar to his patients as a foreign country. Yet these interiors were the matter of which their personhood was composed. In one operation, Kalanithi placed an electrode nine centimeters deep in a patient’s brain to treat a Parkinson’s tremor. The patient protested, “I feel…overwhelmingly sad.”
“Current off!” said Kalanithi. And the patient felt better.
At the same time, faced with cases where surgical instruments could do little, Kalanithi drew on words to comfort patients. More important for him than saving lives — in the end, everybody dies — was the task of bringing patients and family members to an understanding of illness with which they might make peace. How else to do this but by speaking, and listening? By asking us, in this book, to consider how a life in medicine is essentially composed of — not merely ornamented with — the light and shelter of language, Kalanithi foregrounds one of the ways in which literature and science are continuous. We encounter both through the medium of language.
It is difficult, here, not to think about the language of this book, both gentle and relentless, retrieved and arranged not only by Paul Kalanithi but also by his wife. Lucy Kalanithi took on the work of gathering his words from e-mails and other documents to complete the book after he was gone. In a moving epilogue, she shares her husband’s final moments. A machine helped him breathe in a hospital bed — he’d stood over this very bed as a doctor — while his daughter, too young to be grave, played atop his prone body.
As a younger man, Kalanithi had turned to medicine as a way to find the truth — perplexing, knotty — of human experience. Within the hospital he had found it rewarding to confront the persistent irresolution of life. “Would you trade your ability — or your mother’s — to talk for a few extra months of mute life?” he writes. “Your right hand’s function to stop seizures?” He had felt then that true experience of mortality and suffering came not from text but from immersion in the world.
Diagnosed with a serious illness of his own, however, the doctor found that he needed literary translation of his experiences. When scientific studies and survival statistics offered little, he turned to books: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf. He read memoirs by cancer patients. “It was literature,” he writes, “that brought me back to life during this time.”
Throughout When Breath Becomes Air, which is, true, a moving memoir of a man’s dying, but very much more than that, Kalanithi directs us to consider the braiding of science and literature. Kalanithi might have grasped, more intuitively than many, how meaning originates both in a book that moves us, and in an electrochemical operation in the anterior insula.
Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of dendritic branches and axons, an artist’s hand tracing scientific truth, remain. The representations are arboreal. They are beautiful. Kalanithi might have asked: What do we do when we call a neuron beautiful? Aesthetic appraisal expands the proper place of the nerve cell. The cell crosses the boundaries of scientific study, and submits itself to humanistic consideration.
What we come away with is not just a sense of science and literature’s abutment, but something greater. Shining a beam on the beauty of a neuron asks that we consider not just neuron but also beauty. Isn’t it true that the humanistic notion of beauty is then allowed access to the laboratory, and to the clinician’s office? Such visitation might have pleased Paul Kalanithi — neurosurgeon, reader, and writer. For in his life, as in few others, the disciplines appeared, their hostilities eased, to show themselves as forms of the same revelation.
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story “The Locked Room,” the narrator describes her boyfriend, Takashi, as follows: “He seemed fearless, like he could do anything he wanted to do, even if it was disgusting.” Moshfegh’s collection Homesick for Another World demonstrates that the author, too, is fearless, with the ability to write anything she wants, even if it’s disgusting. But what does Takashi want to do, and what does Moshfegh want to write (even if it’s disgusting)? Takashi, a talented violinist who is “very intelligent and preoccupied with death and suffering” sometimes “bit into his lip and dribbled blood down his chin” and “vomited in public just to make a scene.” The narrator is attracted to Takashi precisely because of his willingness to shock, to transgress. There’s a parodic element at play that crops up throughout the collection. Though an atheist, Takashi claims to believe in hell. When asked whether truly believing in something makes it become reality, he simply responds, “I believe in death.” The detail that Takashi’s mouth “tasted like excrement when we kissed each other” is followed by the line “Takashi was my first real boyfriend.”
If it isn’t apparent from the above examples, the stories in Homesick for Another World are screamingly funny. Though cohesive in a way few collections are, the work is a polyphonic one whose author fully inhabits a range of narrators of differing ages, genders, and geographies. It is also superbly arranged, with an almost musical variation to its progression. What the pieces have in common brings us back to the aforementioned fearlessness on the part of the author, in essence a refusal to look away. For example, several characters in the collection (Takashi included) have skin issues. In fact, nearly every time skin is mentioned, it is deformed, damaged, or afflicted in some way, whether by pimples, rashes, wounds, disease, scars, or garden-variety wrinkles. In this regard, the collection is a work of realism — we’re all falling apart, or will eventually. One of few exceptions to the emphasis on decay and flaw takes place in the collection’s final story, titled “A Better Place.” The story’s narrator, a child, compares her scarred mother’s body to her own: “My thighs are like my arms. They are just skin and flesh with no marks. They are clean blank skin and flesh.”
If the author can write anything she wants, even if it’s disgusting, what is it we find disgusting? Our bodies, mostly, and ourselves. The collection’s opening story, “Bettering Myself,” announces an intention to depict bodily processes without flinching. “My classroom was on the first floor, next to the nuns’ lounge. I used their bathroom to puke in the mornings.” Toilets appear with regularity throughout the book, and the reader encounters the gamut of bodily fluids. It’s important to note that the title of the collection contains the word “sick.” Just as the body is most often portrayed as an ailing vessel, when the act of eating occurs it is tinged with nausea, or occurs merely to produce waste. To quote Paul, a character in “No Place for Good People” with a “moderate developmental disabilit[y]” who sometimes overeats until vomiting: “the poop is in the pudding.”
In many of these stories, disgust is otherwise coupled with desire. Immediately preceding sex, the narrator of “The Weirdos” looks up at her lover’s face “just to see how ugly it was and opened my mouth. It’s true I relished him in certain ways.” Here and elsewhere, it is the desire to look upon something that both pleases and displeases the eye. The story titled “Mr. Wu,” when it appeared in the Paris Review, was originally called “Disgust.” In it, the titular character has fallen in love with the cashier at a video-game arcade, a kind of gaming Internet café he frequents to be near the woman he pines for. He fantasizes about a future life together, in which “she gazes at him with almost nauseating devotion.” When Mr. Wu occasionally visits prostitutes, he hates himself “a little” afterward, and “was never startled when the thought came to him: I am disgusting.” He is disgusted by himself, by his desire, and, in turn, by the object of his desire, which inspires another wave of self-loathing. After discovering the woman’s number on a flyer for the arcade, he texts her and arranges a meeting. She reveals she is a deeply sad person. This spooks Mr. Wu, who begins to imagine her engaged in “disgusting” sex acts with a prostitute. Interestingly, he experiences revulsion at the thought of kissing on the mouth, as well as anything to do with the nether regions. The mouth, the anus: places where outside becomes inside, and vice versa.
“A Dark and Winding Road” blends attraction and revulsion in a similar manner. The narrator of this piece allows a dead-eyed woman to “do whatever she wanted to do” to him, which “wasn’t painful, nor was it terrifying, but it was disgusting — just as I’d always hoped it to be.” Pleasure is heightened by disgust, by the performance of the forbidden, that which is out of bounds. This story in particular constellates a number of breaches and infringements. After a squabble with his pregnant wife, the narrator drives to his parents’ mountain cabin. He plans to live it up one last time, bringing junk food, weed, and a special bottle of wine. The bottle was a gift from a college friend whose girlfriend the narrator slept with. To drink the wine would amount to at least a double transgression, though the lack of a corkscrew renders the bottle “impenetrable.” The narrator’s brother MJ has transgressed as well: he has been visiting the cabin, and he, or someone else, has left behind a dildo. The narrator recounts how he and MJ enjoyed breaking into houses as children, stealing and fiddling with other people’s possessions, and in one instance inserting poisonous berries into a pie. When a woman shows up at the cabin looking for MJ, the narrator engages in another double act of betrayal. Unlike the bottle of wine, he isn’t impenetrable.
Not only is this collection remarkable for its engagement with the body, ingestion, elimination, intercourse, aging, darkness, and decay — the horror and beauty thereof — it appears as if in relief against a contemporary literature largely rid of such fixations. Throughout the work, the author’s own transgression is the depiction of transgressive acts — pleasurable to take in on the level of the sentence, and often unsettling in terms of content. The characters in Homesick for Another World violate and are violated in turn; they are sick in every sense, and sick of this world. For the reader sick of the familiar, the staid, the banal, Ottessa Moshfegh presents an otherworldly alternative.