Book Club #1: Everybody has cancer

A.M. Homes, “Do Not Disturb”; David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death; Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

Hello and welcome to my book club, I hope you’re a person who likes books. So…are you a person who likes books? Can you prove it with your book ends shaped like letters or cardboard shelf sitters that endlessly remind you of your love of the written word (pro-tip, they sell them in styrofoam at your favorite chain bookstore, but that shit ain’t sustainable so make sure to bring a reusable tote to make up for it [whoops, babbling])? Then please sit wherever you like, unless you are already sitting as you read this. In that case, good for you! Sitting down is the best. I’m not even going to qualify that. It’s the best.

For my first edition of Alice’s fucking Book Club (assuming there is anyone else here besides me) we’re going to dive face first into the world of things that cause crippling depression with a special “Nope, there’s no cure for that” cancer edition by reading…

  1. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, followed by
  2. Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and to round out (or rather SPIRAL INTO THE DEEP END OF) this list, we end it all with
  3. David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death

I know everyone’s fucking excited for the review of related dark shit we’re about to undertake (and since this is my book club and I have serious deficits in the attention department, we usually read three at a time without really finishing and glazing over the parts that we have to admit are just filler [like that fucking Real World monologue from Heartbreaking Work–what the fuck was that?), but first I guess I owe an explanation for why I selected these books.

See, I’m a firm believer in embracing your darkness. If I was a follower of organized or institutional religion, I could chalk it up to seeing the light in how the lord made you. But I’m not religious in that sense and I can’t even maintain any form of ritual now that I’m unemployed and have enough time to consider why it is that I’m drawn to literature about suffering–especially with these three, which deal with the suffering of white, educated citizens of first world countries. In which case, the three I’ve chosen are veritable institutions in contemporary American Lit: Eggers is behind McSweeney’s and 826, Didion is…well, I can’t really explain who Joan Didion is because I never had to, given the average amount of shelf space I see dedicated to her. I guess the least popular among the three would be David Reiff, but Swimming in a Sea of Death is not so much a biography of Susan Sontag, as it is a narration of her diagnosis and eventual death as told by her son.

This is not just about terminal illness though, but about working through it as a member of an exalted class. There’s the fact that you can’t talk medically about cancer without having it diagnosed, but there’s a privilege to actually be in a place that affords you the diagnosis, that element of choice rather than the acceptance that accompanies fatalism. It’s called a disease of the rich for good reason, and it’s precisely this tension between privilege and suffering that is tackled so well in these three books–and one story…because now I want to throw in A.M. Homes’s “Do Not Disturb,” which was anthologized in three different editions of The Best of McSweeney’s (available at your favorite chain bookstore [this post is not sponsored]).

What these three books and one story have in common is that they’re not told from the perspective of the dying or infirm, but from the one tasked with caring for them. And rather than give a rosy eulogistic account out of reverence to the dying (spoiler, everyone dies), they thresh out the humanity of being forced to love or to care despite the eventuality and clarity of the end in sight and its attendant despair- a deadline in the truest sense. In the cases of Rieff and Eggers, we read of sons and their mothers, for Didion, it’s the loss of a husband, and for Homes, it’s a fictional account of a husband losing his wife – who also happens to be a doctor, and a very unlikable one at that.

“But I’m supposed to like doctors! And strong female characters! And strong female characters who are doctors WITH CANCER!” you protest. But nope, haha! The world doesn’t work that way! The world is full of condescending book club leaders and remember, everyone in these books has some kind of terminal illness.

All the same, this is not a meditation on how the world does or does not work, nor is a book club a platform to tell you how literature works; rather it’s a site where we use words to negotiate the otherwise non-negotiable. Like our relationships with our families. Or deadly diseases. Or, you know, death.

Anyway, this was fun, guys! Join me/us again next week when I give away a bunch of books I forgot I had and force you to read about Balkan genocide.


Edited to correct the title of Didion’s work and David Rieff’s name.

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Author: alicesarmiento

San Juan, Metro Manila

3 thoughts on “Book Club #1: Everybody has cancer”

  1. Oh so Didion’s daughter also died. I’m still on the first few chapters of her book and dropped it down after I sort of can’t take the pain as my grandparents died a few months ago.

    I read Eggers’ last year and maybe there was a difference in pain with Didion considering Eggers is a child while Didion is a mother and wife. And of course, considering she experienced the death of a husband and a child.

    Reiff’s book is interesting although I think I still have to finish Didion’s.

    Thanks, Alice! I will wait for Book Club #2.

    1. Sorry, this needs editing as I was writing from memory (and out of frustration) and didn’t have my copies with me then. It’s actually The Year and not A Year of Magical Thinking, and if I remember correctly, it’s not there that Quintana dies, but somewhere between Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. And yes, I do agree that there are differences in pain not only between Didion and Eggers, but differences that are qualified and rendered creatively through fiction. I’ve been thinking a lot about the contradictions involved in taking something from a place of loss, and these titles came to mind.

      Sorry about what happened to your grandparents. I’ve lost my grandparents too in the past couple of years and the wounds haven’t healed or even scabbed over. In that case, stay away from Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary for a while.

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