There are a lot of people here. Anne Boyer says this before delivering a reading to the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, before even taking her place at the front of the room.
Anne Boyer would rather not have written The Undying, a memoir in essays that examines her life from cancer diagnosis to remission. She explains during her reading that the book makes her furious. In a newsletter sent out just before its publication, Boyer wrote, “I’m done. I want to peel cancer off me like cicadas peel off their old paper suits, to leave it on a tree branch and take off singing into the dusk.” The book is carried forward by this rage — against the political and socioeconomic conditions that promote suffering and the acceptance of it. During this reading she says she looks forward to the day when the book is completely and totally irrelevant, and as she nears the end of her reading the room starts to ring. This is probably just a result of faulty audio equipment, but the effect on the atmosphere in the room is tangible. The lights flicker; the speaker pops. The ghost is with us.
There is an agony in The Undying that is, of course, indefensible. Boyer writes, “These agonies are not only about the disease itself, but about what is written about it, or not written about it, or whether or not to write about it, or how. Breast cancer is a disease that presents itself as a disordering question of form.” Boyer reiterates during the following discussion that she wishes she did not have to write her book.
We should be especially thankful, then, that she wrote The Undying anyway.
The Undying is not so much a cancer memoir as it is a flag burning. It is a work fueled by rage — against cancer, sure, but also against culture, and against the world which made her sick. It is an interrogation of everything that is difficult to look at directly: the way cancer makes one both “the most human and the most object all at once”; the difficult ethics of survival where the instruments of that survival poison not just the body they are meant to save (where chemotherapy, even if it saves you, destroys so much of you) but the planet they’re extracted from; the continual need to work and to parent and to wash dishes when one is dying; and even the pink-ribbon visibility projects, where Boyer writes, “every pink ribbon looks like the flag of a conqueror stuck in a woman’s grave.” Like Sontag at her best, Boyer is able to shed light on a darkness where most don’t dare to tread.
Her prose cracks and sparks, perhaps like only a poet’s can. Boyer already proved her ability as a dynamic prose stylist in her Handbook of Disappointed Fate, but in The Undying each page feels unmatched in its urgency, especially when she is ruminating on the writings of Aristedes and the 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne. Boyer is a library, and her ability to not just argue with canonical authors most of us fell asleep learning about, but to do so with an intellectual alacrity that makes those authors feel dreadfully important, is stunning. Boyer says, “You have to do something that formally and structurally baffles the market which will try to absorb it” — and she does. The essays in The Undying are dizzying in their heights and angles. Boyer throws everything at the wall. There is an essay filled with instructions for where to leave the hair that will fall off your head during chemo. Boyer says to the room, “I have a middle finger for a heart, this is my nature. But I knew I had to find a way toward productive rebellion.”
Everything is under fire, or on fire. Boyer does not for a moment pull a punch, whether it be for cancer fetishists, vloggers, the sickbed, or for the systemic violence of capitalism that creates banal statistics: “The death rate gets higher if you are single and poor.” Even a generally accepted truism set in stone by thinkers like Elaine Scarry that pain is essentially incommunicable — a position that attempts sympathy for pain — isn’t let off the hook. “Pain is a fluorescent feeling,” Boyer writes. And it must be. The book is here to prove it.
The deep ambivalence Boyer feels for her engagement with her subjects drives the book forward in a way that is refreshingly grounded. Boyer writes late in the book, “I hate to accept, but do, that cancer’s near-criminal myth of singularity means any work about it always resembles testimony.” That clause, “I hate to accept, but do” feels like a microcosm for the book, and a way forward for the kind of intellectual engagement that Boyer proposes. There is no high-intellectual idealism in The Undying that is not a target — the book remains on the ground, with the rest of us, and refuses to entertain any methods that aspire toward weightlessness, even if it occasionally questions the ground. There is a deconstructive impulse to examine language closely, to ask what a word means (which proves its relevance in a cultural climate where the most powerful have shown repeatedly their utmost disdain for language), because the truth is that to ask what a word means is to examine what it does — to the body.
Anne Boyer carefully balances autobiography and theoretical argument with an action-forward method of engagement that shows intellectuals can have a place in our world. The Undying is a masterwork of uncompromising essays that proves an author can write stylishly about difficult subjects, with difficult citation, while encouraging real engagement. There are few authors that can pull off what Boyer has done in The Undying, and fewer still that would be willing to try. By its end, the rage that fueled Boyer is rightfully, inevitably felt by her reader, and as such might radicalize us to ask the question: what do we do now with this rage?
By Anne Boyer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published September 17, 2019