It is four-thirty p.m. and I seem to have hit a wall. This has been happening to me earlier in the day than it used to. My stamina has taken a hit from the double-punch of chemotherapy and quarantine. It is hard to tell which of these unpleasant necessities has caused the greater attenuation, but I can tell you which one I resent more (it is the one for which I can more plausibly blame our abominable government).
A few days ago, I began writing the last chapter of my novel. This is a novel whose first draft I finished in January and began to renovate over the summer after receiving feedback from my agent. The feedback was, generally, that the middle section didn’t work. So, I decided to remove that section entirely, which required the removal of the ending as well. The result is an overhaul, but one I have made on my own terms. I don’t really like half measures when it comes to writing. It always seems easier – which is to say, more enjoyable – to get a running start at something rather than to tinker with little sections endlessly and hope that it will make a seamless whole. Besides, having captured the book’s voice, I can, at this point, kind of go anywhere with it. The hardest part was getting the sensibility right. Structure is something that can always be amended.
Still, it’s a lot of work. And now that I am nearing the end, I am conscious of the importance of endings, of how damaging they can be if they are insufficient or wide of the mark. I think we look to endings as readers for a kind of solution – if not to the story’s drama, then to its ambiguities. To borrow a cliché, if you go out on the right note, it can make a whole lot of the preceding wrong notes sound like harmony.
I decided to re-read my favorite poem today. It is called “Crusoe in England,” by Elizabeth Bishop. It takes the perspective of the famous islander looking back on his isolation from the comfort of, apparently, London. It begins, dryly, “A new volcano has erupted, / the papers say.” The whole poem’s tone is deeply ironic and emotionally reserved. “The sun set in the sea,” Crusoe recalls. “The same old sun / rose from the sea, / and there was one of it and one of me.” In a way, the poem recapitulates all of Defoe’s novel, from the shipwreck to the arrival of Friday, in a few brittle stanzas. What makes the poem so haunting is the comparison it implicitly makes between Crusoe’s present comforts and previous hardships, and how tawdry and meaningless the former come to seem when they are juxtaposed with the latter.
There’s a quote from the playwright Richard Greenberg that I love: “Nostalgia’s just the longing for a time you know you can survive.” The attitude of Bishop’s Crusoe is perhaps too self-contained and stoic to qualify as nostalgia. He does not long to return to his isolation, but he is proud to have endured it, and he feels deeply misunderstood. “None of the books has ever got it right,” he notes in one part of the poem. Regarding Friday, he says, “Accounts of that have everything all wrong.” Nobody really knows, nobody can understand, in other words, what he went through. It is a source of irritation but also of deep satisfaction. He would never wish to go through it again, and he would probably wish it had never happened, but he cannot wish it away. The island, its inhospitability, his endurance of it, contain all of his life’s meaning.
Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?
My blood was full of them; my brain
bred islands. But that archipelago
has petered out. I’m old.
I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
The knife there on the shelf –
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
There were some new procedures in place yesterday when I arrived for treatment at MSK. Labs were a little different. For some reason, the nurse took blood from my hand rather than my arm. I asked her why and she just said it was a new protocol and I didn’t inquire further. I don’t understand my attitude to needles. They almost never hurt, but I cannot stand to look at them going into my skin. I was particularly revulsed by the idea of being poked on the top of my hand, so close to all those fine little bones. Still, when the needle went in, I felt nothing.
My nurse was someone I think I had seen before, or at least seen around. It is hard to tell these days, with everyone wearing masks. She said that she contracted COVID in early spring and had a pretty rough time of it, but did not have to be hospitalized or anything. Her boyfriend, who lives with her, did not get sick. She said that in the last few weeks, Midtown has become notably more populated, but I did not see much evidence of that. Lexington Avenue seemed particularly boarded up and inert. During the cab ride home, the driver took Second Avenue rather than the FDR and I got to see through the windows how shabby and fucked-up parts of downtown have gotten, particularly around the Bowery. Trash everywhere and lots of shuttered stores. It was nice to go over the Manhattan Bridge for a change and directly down Flatbush toward home.
The way I feel after chemo is as if I have taken a shower in all of my clothes. I feel heavy with something fluid and my brain, though still quite operable, tends to lag behind my senses. For some reason, I also get inordinately hungry – a new thing; new since the introduction in June of the second chemo I take. (For years, I have taken an antidepressant that was initially developed to stimulate hunger in cancer patients. The irony is a bit insidious. Wish-fulfillment in the form of pharmaceutical foreshadowing? The mind reels.)
Oh, and another thing. That evening, upon returning home and melting into a puddle, Katherine served me sliced apples in bed. I will not be overly sentimental, but this is the optimal way to drift off to sleep. Fresh fruit given to you by the one that you love. What could be sweeter?
I have never heard that quote, "Nostalgia’s just the longing for a time you know you can survive.” I love this. Thank you, Keith! The apple bit made me happy too.
Thoughts about authors, books you’ve read, your writings and your novel, NYC, and your chemo treatments all intertwined: they form your space. And of course, love.