Sunday, February 03, 2008


Sometimes I'll be browsing in a bookstore, poking my way randomly through title after title, wondering exactly what I think I should be looking for, when I come upon a book that seems to say: I am here for you and you alone. The subject matter seems particulary attuned to whatever it is I am thinking and feeling on that particular day, at that precise moment; the book's intent can be designed for nobody else but me.

Or so I like to believe.

The novel I bought last week wasn't one of those magical tomes. It was by an author, Richard Powers, who I'd always wanted to read, but for some reason never had; it had the requisite number of orgasmic blurbs on the back cover that are usually my criterion for picking out a book. (I almost never read the jacket copy describing the plot of the book, because these concise summaries usually, if not always, give away far too many details for my liking.) This book, titled Gain, was simply a book, one that I wanted to read, so I bought it, and I read it.

Are there a lot of novels that deal with the specifics of Stage III C ovarian cancer? I don't know. I kind of doubt it.

This was one of them.

Except that it wasn't only about a midwestern American middle-aged woman who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer; it's also about the rise of consumerism in the United States over the past two hundred years, and the manufacturing of soap, and the horrid intersection between commerce and health that seems to have overrun the modern world with a savage, feral ferocity.Do we get cancer from our own actions? Has society developed itself upward in such a way that is aftereffects inevitably drag us back downwards?

The book tells parallel stories: one narrative outlines the slow but steady rise of a company in Illinois that produces soap, charting its erratic progress from a one-man operation before the Civil War and well into the end of the twentieth century, when the company has become an American conglomerate; the other story chronicles the life of a woman who lives in the town that serves as this same corporation's headquarters, and how her savage disease may or may not be caused by her own consumerist lifestyle.

It's a fascinatingly brilliant book, and Powers is one of those writers who is so clearly brilliant, in his themes, prose and execution, that it almost overwhelms the reader.

(I think he's almost too brilliant, actually. Author John D.Macdonald once disparaged the kind of fiction that draws overt attention to itself, dubbing it the 'Look-ma-how-well-I'm-writing!' kind of storytelling, and Powers certainly falls into that camp. Every sentence is pristine and insightful, offering glimpses of understanding and perception that sometimes take your breath away. Every paragraph is polished to a perfect jewel. The result is enormously complex and moving, but oddly sterile; one is always aware that SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT is being discussed, which often drains the life right out of the tale being told.)

Maybe it's because I've been in and around and within ovarian cancer for the past two and a half years. Maybe it's because I found myself somewhat startled to realize that this book I picked up without having a fucking clue as to what it was about turned out to be about a woman suffering from, or with, Stage III C ovarian cancer. Maybe it's because books find us at the right time, randomly, when we need them. Maybe it's because I realize that most of the books we read we read too young, when we haven't learned about life. About what life can do to us.

For whatever reason, I found myself having to put down the book at times, for Power has done his homework. He knows about CA-125 tests. He knows about Taxol. He knows about chemo treatments, the pacing of them, the toll of them. He either knows somebody who has cancer or is an incredibly dedicated student of the disease. Inside this woman's mind we descend, and it's a moving and haunting downward journey. Chilling, too, is his portrayal of the price of technological development, the clinical madness of the means by which we strive, almost manically, to ensure that our cleanliness is next to godliness.

It was a reminder, the book was. About how sometimes stories can seize us by the lapels, slap us across the face, and shout: "I'm talking to you, motherfucker. This is about your life. As it is now. Read it and listen."

If I had read the book three years ago, I would have enjoyed it, I'm sure, and been moved by it, I'm certain, but it wouldn't have dragged a tiny razor across my heart the way it has done for the past week.

Good art can sometimes be an aphrodisiac, or a mindless diversion, but it can also be an emphatic embrace, warm and firm, cold and bracing. One whose warmth is so soothing we don't want to let go, but whose grip is a little too tight for comfort, a needed hug so tight it bruises.