Taking a scan

I just spent several hours filling out an author questionnaire for Turnstone Press, publisher of my next novel, All That Belongs. They need information to market my book. A long string of questions. Basically, who am I, what have I done, where have I lived, who do I know?

It wasn’t my favourite assignment of the week but of course I did it. It’s among the things you do after the euphoria of a manuscript’s acceptance wears off.  But it felt peculiar, vulnerable, like taking a slow 360 degree scan of one’s life, to see if anything’s still relevant. Fortunately I have an up-to-date CV I could use for my publishing history. I was also glad I could think of several places across the country where a cluster of friends and relatives might be interested in me and my book. (Glad too for a big family.)

There were questions about the work itself. A description in my words? Themes? What do I think people will like about it? (So I can’t hide behind “I hope they’ll like it”?!)

What about its inspiration? This was my answer:

I clearly remember sitting in the sun near my local library when the character of Uncle Must–a mysterious and haunted man, a kind of Desert Father, equal parts faith and fear–dropped into my head. Then, like the narrator Catherine, I had to figure out who he was and what he wanted, and who she and the other characters who soon gathered around her were and what they wanted. I was interested in the whole concept of shame as well as how the past remains with us and what we do with its legacy when we would rather turn away than embrace.

Now I’m going to reward myself with a break and go read someone else!

Death cleaning

I forget why I ordered The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning from the library. Why did I need Margareta Magnusson’s advice on de-cluttering when we already did our drastic clean-up, moving cross-country and into an apartment? But I suppose it’s like perusing reviews of books you’ve already read or plays and concerts you’ve already attended: was it the same for you as me? And there it was, arrived to the Holds shelf, and since it’s short, interesting, and funny, I read it immediately, in about an hour.

download (2)Magnusson, now “between eighty and one hundred,” moved often and cleaned up her parents’ place as well as the family home after her husband’s death. Her ideas resonate with current de-cluttering messages from tidy-gurus like Marie Kondo, but this isn’t about folding T-shirts as much as sparing the kids. (“Let me help make your loved ones’ memories of you nice — instead of awful.”) Well, yes, why not spare the kids? I don’t know if it’s certain personalities or my generation in particular, but we definitely don’t want to be a bother or a burden!

And it’s about getting started, since we’re older and slower and it all takes time. (Her place took a year.) So, clothing first, photos and letters and personal papers last, lest one get stuck in reminiscence and never clean up anything else. And drop expectations that that thing you really treasure will be wanted by children or grandchildren. Just find someone else for it.

“Aging is certainly not for weaklings,” Magnusson writes, but she makes it sound cheerful and a pleasure and she has some great ideas, so I’m glad I read her book, even if I can’t remember why I thought I should.

Grim Reaper on a treadmill

51mvUXJvBUL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The cover of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer startles: Grim Reaper in cowl and robe, track shoes and wrist weights, face set in the grinning grimace of skulls and fitness obsessives, going at it on a treadmill.

Ehrenreich was startled too, some years ago, by a report that “the immune system actually abets the growth and spread of tumors, which is like saying that the fire department is indeed staffed by arsonists.” The body carries conflict within it, and try as we might to manage and alter this, we can’t ultimately control the outcome or forestall death. I couldn’t follow all the technicalities of Ehrenreich’s argument, nor do I share all her views about life and death, but the question she raises is spot on: how much of our lives should be given to living longer when we have “other, often more consequential things to do.” She takes on the medical complex, anti-aging nostrums, and fitness and wellness industries which tempt us with essentially futile illusions of control. (Ehrenreich’s not called “a veteran muckraker” for nothing.)

I admire the nearly 77-year-old Ehrenreich’s recent revolt against screenings, exams, smears etc. urged upon her for “prevention” and her feisty resistance to faddish longevity diets and self-denial practiced by her demographic, where “health is indistinguishable from virtue.” She eats well, she says, exercises because it feels good when she does, and will seek medical help for an urgent problem but is no longer interested in looking for problems undetectable to her. “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die,” she writes, old enough “not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life.”

 

 

On Ignatieff’s “Scar Tissue”

I’ve just finished Michael Ignatieff’s 1993 novel Scar Tissue. It’s on Andrea Charise’s “Aging and the Arts” course list (see previous post), and concerns two brothers and their mother’s memory loss and death. One brother, a doctor/researcher, responds clinically; the other, the narrator, a philosophy professor, submerges himself deeply — at the cost of his family — into all the conundrums of selfhood that loss of self in Alzheimer’s and dementias involve. An ideal book for a class, I thought, so much here to resonate with, wrestle with, discuss. 41XWCW0TIxL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

Ignatieff is a good writer. I remember how I savoured his nonfiction The Russian Album many years ago. (“Reminiscent of our Mennonite past,” my friend Sarah Klassen said, recommending it.) Scar Tissue didn’t work for me as well, not as a novel, that is. The characters never quite transcended diverse positions around the dilemmas of neurological illness. (“I began to think my mother as a philosophical problem,” the narrator says). I wished Ignatieff had mused on stoicism, the relation between selfhood and memory, the difference between giving up and letting go, etc., with the more compelling integrity of memoir. (After all, the book grew out of his own mother’s Alzheimer’s disease.)

What haunts me in Scar Tissue, though, is the narrator’s stark and subterranean fear, the mother’s illness “passed from cell to cell…the dark starbursts of scar tissue [in the brain]…the inheritance,” taking hold also within him by the end. I recognize that fear. But haunting too is a curious beauty when this “form of dying in which everything familiar becomes strange” is done, plus the vision of some kind of wondrous illumination/knowledge possible even within the blinding journey itself. That felt almost optimistic.

 

On Drabble’s “The Dark Flood Rises”

We’re about to get a lot of this, I’m thinking as I read Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises (2016). Stories full of old people, that is, as a certain generation of authors gets old. Not that literature doesn’t have elderly characters — King Lear, The Stone Angel‘s Hagar, Gilead‘s John Ames come to mind — but I can’t recall reading a novel where aging is so relentlessly the theme.

51zpQxCwB2L._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Fran, 70ish, is center of a cast of mostly older folk being older in their individual ways. She races about the country assessing care homes for the elderly on behalf of a charitable trust, another person luxuriates in bed, and so on. Not much happens, though that’s not quite true — there are two falls, one hip surgery, and two deaths, plenty of drama for those affected. But in terms of plot, these developments are inevitable and inevitability is no page turner. Flood threatens, as the title suggests, be it a migrant inundation, a potential earthquake beneath the Canary Islands, or the swell and fate of the elderly.

          Inevitability is no page turner.

I admire Drabble’s work; the book has good reviews. As sociology, it rings accurate, if rather pessimistic. (“The feeble…are outweighing the hale…. It’s a dystopian science fiction scenario, a disaster movie.”) But I find myself ambivalent. Maybe I’m too much like the novel’s Jo, who teaches a poetry class “On Old Age and the Concept of Late Style,” supposing it might be “ennobling or comforting or bracing,” only to find “it threatens to be lowering, this emphasis on age… depressing.”

As “old” in fiction begins to catch my eye, what am I hoping to see? What do I want from literature for this time? Is it realistic to hold out for nobility, comfort, a brace?