‘The Undying,’ a Crucial Work of Literature About Illness in the 21st Century
The Illness of Pierrot, Thomas Couture, 1859
In September, Anne Boyer released The Undying, her first book with a major publisher. I’ve read three of her books: the startling Garments Against Women, the obsessive, dizzying A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, and now The Undying. As a thinker, she is as brilliant and wide-ranging a theorist as Noam Chomsky, as unimpressed with sacred cows as Christopher Hitchens, and as radical a Marxist as Marx himself. She proves all of this in The Undying, an indispensable memoir for anyone experiencing the horrors of either cancer or the American medical system, or, in the worst-case scenario, both.
The Undying purports to narrate Boyer’s experience with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Because it’s Boyer, the book concerns more than that. The subtitle is “Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care.” There’s also economics, ecology, epistemology, literary analysis, et al. It’s a book of harrowing details, but it’s also a book of ideas. For instance:
“If you didn’t know me, you might think, too, that my illness was so precious it was merely a suffering for the sake of semiotics, that I sat in the infusion room thinking only of Ancient Rome. But I was a single mother without savings who existed in a world of profit, had no partner to care for me or family nearby in a world that privatizes survival, had to work all through my treatment at a job where I was advised to never let on I was ill, had never had wealth or been proximate to the seats of power.”
Here, Boyer writes about the failure of America’s healthcare net compounded by the failure of its social net, such that people easily fall through and splat on the hard ground. But multiple other axes exist from which to view The Undying. She writes about the environmental effect of chemotherapy drugs, barely diluted, passing through urine and into our waterways. She writes about the shameful spectacle of Pinktober, and how the narratives of real women who die of cancer get buried underneath merchandise. And she writes, with unflinching precision, rage, and sorrow, about the moment-by-moment experience of cancer-driven chemotherapy and illness.
She always returns to what her story means in a larger context, and she showcases a gift for perceiving larger forces at work than the cells threatening her life:
“The system of medicine is, for the sick, a visible scene of action, but beyond it and behind it and beneath it are all the other systems, family race work culture gender money education, and beyond those is a system that appears to include all the other systems, the system so total and overwhelming that we often mistake it for the world.”
Because she is an incorrigible researcher, Boyer writes about reading Audre Lorde, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Virginia Woolf, Fanny Burney, Kathy Acker, Susan Sontag, and many others on illness. They don’t give her any answers. Her own experiences offer no answers either. This is a potential flaw in The Undying, that it offers no succor and no idealizing. No closure. “I didn’t die, or at least not of this,” she writes in the epilogue. To live on is an open-ended conclusion to a book about a deadly disease. But the book never claims to have definitive answers. It offers nothing more homogeneous or concrete than perspective, connection, and the full power of one of our finest minds attacking a problem without a solution: how to be sick in America.
If Boyer has a single ideologic purpose in this memoir, aside from recording her illness and analyzing all the little experiential tendrils snaking away from that illness, it has escaped me. But I think she would want it that way: “Nothing I’ve written here is for the well and intact, and had it been, I never would have written it.”
(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, September 17, 2019)