I like reading … anything, everything, my tastes are exceedingly eclectic. I’ll sometimes pick up half a dozen books from the library and read the lot in a day or two, even though I know from the first page that they are crap, it seems that once started I feel as though I owe it to the author to finish what they have lovingly crafted. Other times I just can’t seem to stick at any one thing, so I’ll put aside the book after a chapter or so, leaving unfinished novels, part read magazines, uninspected company annual reports, extracts from the Review section of the Australian Financial Review all over the house.
Woe betide anybody that moves them, loses the place or, horror of horrors, discards them to the recycling bin. Many is the time I have dug through the paper bin the night before it is collected to rescue something ‘I know I’ll need in the future’.
So it was with some interest that I read about David Taylor’s efforts in winnowing the entrants for the Booker prize (via Matt
Curiously enough, the experience of having to read 100 books in three months ………….. has a dual effect on one’s critical faculties. On the one hand there is a terrible sense of everything blurring – plots, characters, even lines of dialogue from individual novels bleeding effortlessly into each other so that all that remains is a kind of gargantuan film set on which three dozen movies are being made simultaneously. On the other, your scent seems mysteriously to sharpen, to the point where no authorial confidence trick seduces, no shift of motive or resolution escapes your grasp. In a crime novel the culprit’s identity shines out from the second chapter.
You can see the emotional pile-up coming a mile down the motorway. Even confronted with one of those impishly experimental numbers that the English novel continues to throw up, somehow the code gets cracked and the hedgerow of thorny syntax pushed aside. What results, in the end, is a high-level crash course in the methods of the trade, material for an as-yet-unwritten compendium entitled How To Write a Successful Modern Literary Novel – how to write dialogue, and how not to write it (sticking in lots of “ers” and thinking that this passes for verisimilitude); how to introduce characters and how to get rid of them; and the themes we seem to be interested in nowadays.
And I find myself agreeing with his discovery that “your scent seems mysteriously to sharpen, to the point where no authorial confidence trick seduces, no shift of motive or resolution escapes your grasp.” It makes it so much easier to identify truly inspiring writing when you have both, experienced what the author is trying to put into words and have tried to do the very same thing yourself, as is the case with Jane Hamilton’s “The Short History of a Prince”.
To quote from the advertising blurb, “she possesses …. a lyrical intuition of the mysteries of the soul …” producing the most enthralling description of homosexual love that I have ever read. However it was not the wonderful description of the “engaging homosexual” that makes this book uncommonly interesting for me, but the passages that dealt with Walter’s relationship with his eighteen-year-old brother Daniel who died of cancer.
It was beyond the time when he could have established a friendship with his brother. Daniel slept fitfully, and when he woke he lay waiting for his next shot of morphine. He was sometimes in pain, crying softly, or he was groggy, or he was asleep. When Walter sat beside him trying to make conversation, Daniel was unfailingly polite, but Walter knew that if he’d had the energy he’d have stolen past them, gone to another room, curled up into himself, away from talk and food and emotion.
In the hospital, after school, he sat on one side of the bed, across from his mother. Joyce was knitting, what he couldn’t tell. It was a shapeless pile, probably meant to be a mansize sweater. He assumed she was knitting to do something with her hands, instead of picking at her cuticles, that she didn’t care what she made. She was long past fussing at Daniel to eat, but every few minutes she’d get up and swab his mouth with a cloth dipped in cold water, and she’d check his catheter, wipe his brow, hold his hand, speaking so quietly Walter could not hear what she said.
In the evening Robert joined them. He brought tacos rolled up in waxed paper or fried chicken in a bucket, or ham sandwiches from the cafeteria. They made a point to talk about anything, the elevator control panel, the doctor with the knee brace, the nurse who always grilled Walter about visiting privileges, the errant balloon floating down the hall. It was a relief to have words in the air. Walter had the idea that what was left in Daniel was the small hard core of his self, but the accumulated stuff of personality and learning and life was seeping away, bit by bit, hour after hour. How odd in the face of that, and also how good it was, to talk about the weather. Daniel’s essential sweetness was intact, and sometimes when he opened his eyes he smiled weakly up at Joyce and as if he’d come a great number of miles and just arrived, he’d say in a thick, phlegmy voice, ‘Hi, Mom.’
After supper Robert turned on the TV and watched the news, and Joyce moved her chair so that she could see the anchormen’s familiar faces and hear their dispassionate voices. It seemed sacrilegious to Walter that his parents watched complete strangers talk about misfortunes in the city when Daniel was slipping away from them. Walter would have liked to whisper to Daniel, to remind him of their joint past, but he felt shy in his parents’ presence, and he wondered for whose benefit the unburdening really was, if it was actually for himself. He was so sorry about every little thing. It seemed possible that Daniel had some kind of knowledge and authority and that if Walter could confess to him there might in return be absolution. He couldn’t tell. He didn’t know anything.
Walter always maintained that it had been right for their family to be together, and he never regretted those afternoons and evenings he spent with his mother and father, listening to the tortured breathing of his brother. He was not sorry, in spite of the nightmares, and the fact that for, years when he thought of Daniel he often recalled the sick boy. It was not his experience that images of the healthy person soon supplanted the death scene.
He could not have explained to any of them that there was peace in the hospital room. It was a place where time seemed to have stopped, where the four of them might stay indefinitely. It was probably like being stranded in an elevator, or sharing a cabin at camp, or going to the moon in the same spaceship. Walter believed that when they came home they’d feel as if they knew the same songs, they’d have bruises in the same places, the shared memory of the northern lights and the sun rising red on the last day. Room 901 was a replication of heaven, he sometimes thought: the eternal life offered the consolation of sitting with your family in a small well lit cubicle with kind women in white uniforms whisking in and out, and every now and then the head physician passing through to make his pronouncement. ………………. for Walter it was a privilege to be let into the privacy of Daniel’s final month, and that the bewilderment, the wounds came later, in all of the following years that his parents never spoke of that time in the hospital.
While I was reading Hamilton’s book, my wife bought a copy of “It’s not about the bike” by Lance Armstrong. In 1996, ranked number one cyclist in the world, the Golden Boy was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer that had mestastised to his lungs and brain. Armstrong embarked upon the most aggressive chemotherapy available and underwent dangerous brain surgery to remove the tumors. His chances of beating the disease were zero ! His book is very uplifting. It chronicles just what is possible when some one is obsessive about a pursuing a singular course of action.
You may wonder why I’m interested in the veracity of books about young men suffering with cancer. August is a particularly sombre month for us because in 1994 our eighteen year old son finally succumbed to cancer after a two year fight. As a form of catharsis I tried, not very successfully, to write about the experience.
After David died I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a memory clear and bright in my mind, and think – I’ve got to remember that. That’s important ! I started to write some things down and one memory initiated another and so I thought why not structure it a bit ? I had moved my computer into his room and all my business files next to his desk. It’s very easy to imagine David just behind me, lying on his bed, and what I write is like the one sided conversations we had late at night when he was very sick. So one day I simply started a list of things to remember about David’s illness and his death. I found it was good therapy, to sit and remember. Every now and then I would think of something else to put in his box and would gather up all his school awards, then his sporting trophies, then I’d see the letters and cards he got and sit on his bed and read them again. Every time I thought I’d got better, over the depression, absolutely bereft of tears, all I had to do was to look at his stuff and it would all come flooding back.
It would be nice to have the Cancer council or Canteen or the palliative care people to be able to give something to someone whose loved one had terminal cancer, so that they could understand that what they were thinking and feeling was normal and not feel ashamed or guilty about allowing the consideration of death to enter their thoughts. But then I’ve always had delusions of grandeur in thinking that what I say or write has the least bit of interest to others. Still, by getting this off my chest makes me feel better.
Another reason is to tell others about the heroism, the courage and the nobility of spirit David displayed in dying. I can’t express the respect I feel for my son. If he had been picked to play in the Wallabies I couldn’t feel any more proud. Phil Kearns has never endured the pain that David did. When you see a report in the paper of someone dying of cancer they never tell you about the Olympian efforts made to stay alive, to beat the disease. That’s because the aim is usually to encourage pity and sympathy for the patient so that the Sunshine Association can raise money to send the kid to Disneyland. People are made to feel sorry when they should feel uplifted by the efforts of the patient in overcoming adversity. I feel nothing but contempt for those teenagers who cop out by taking drugs and committing suicide. If they had seen David fighting for every day, just to enjoy a pain free moment, just to watch the Bulldogs score, just to hear Arnie say ” Hasta la vista baby”, they would realize what miserable little maggots most people are.
My thoughts and attitudes about death and dying, the roles of hospitals and the medical profession, euthanasia and palliative care have become somewhat different from the conventional wisdom as a result. Maybe I’ll bore you with them someday.