Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Book Review: 'The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer- And Back', by Katherine Russell Rich (Tranquebar Press, 2010)
(A shorter version of this was published in February's Hindu Literary Review)
The Red Devil is a woman's story of her struggles with cancer. This makes it hard to review. To criticize the memoirs of a cancer patient might very well sound both insensitive and ignorant. But assuming (as one must) that one is entitled to assess it, it must be said, that although the book is captivating from start to finish, it is also somewhat shallow.
Katherine Rich was 32, a high-flying magazine editor in downtown Manhattan, living a fast-paced life full of work and travel, and married to a romantic, tempestuous Argentinian. Then in the space of weeks her marriage broke up and she discovered she had breast cancer. But athough it might seem a wretched incongruity that such a full life should suffer such a swift fall, Rich's own view is that it only made sense. 'I smoked two packs of Newport Lights a day', 'I drank, a lot', 'I ate like shit', 'I worked out... hardly ever', and thanks to a 'high-drive, adrenylated job', 'mostly, I inhaled stress'. As for her marriage, keeping the love alive had become an obsession, which, writes Rich, 'is the same thought repeated over and over till it blocks off reason, till it leaches sanity. And cancer is a single cell that reproduces uncontrollably till... it starves the tissue around it and ultimately destroys its host.'
It is intelligent, articulate ideas like these that make for the attractiveness of Rich's writing. They sparkle throughout her narrative- the way that cancer engenders loneliness ('if your body is divided within, how can you not feel divided from the world?'); the peculiar horror of losing your hair ('we've all had sore throats, we've all been tired, we've all thrown up before... but in the natural universe hair doesn't... fall out with a sudden, horrifying thud of force); how difficult it is to accept a chronic illness as part of your life ('after illness, as after sin, the temptation is strong: to flee the bed.').
She also presents a grim picture of the American medical establishment. The history of her treatment abounds with dodgy diagnoses, overlooked symptoms, adversarial tussles with dispassionate doctors, who are too afraid of being sued to properly care. It is easily inferred from this book that market forces and health-care are a dangerous mix. Also, that while New York may be a wonderful place to be young and healthy, it is not so pleasant to be sick there, and dependent for support on a paid therapist. For Indian readers, this book should also lead us to appreciate better the personal touch of our own culture, the familial networks that we sometimes take for granted.
But these inferences are not made by Rich. Her roving eye flits from subject to subject. In the space of pages we find interesting things being said about recovery, relationships, doctors and friends. However- and this is where the book suffers- none of these leads is properly followed through. Instead of staying with her insights long enough for them to bear fruit, she more frequently lets them descend into glibness.
For example: the first time Rich suggests that her depression over her broken marriage was a factor in her cancer, it is an interesting thought. But later, when we find her merely insisting she got 'breakup cancer', she sounds more than a little superficial. Similarly, when she analyses her dreams- a wild cat represents the illness, because it is wild and her name starts with 'Kat'. Similarly, when we find her trying a whole litany of pseudoscientific cures- from psychic healers to Egyptian ankhs to 'purple drops sold by a mysterious cowboy in Casper, Wyoming.'
This is not to mock Rich- anyone with cancer might be so desperate- and indeed she chastises herself for the fact. Just as she chastises the 'talk-show honesty' of her generation ('self-revelations about sex or degradation...but never venality or arrogance or the other, more banal sins that actually made us look bad'). But it is one thing to be perfectly aware of a shortcoming, and another to overcome it. The truth is that 'The Red Devil' does feature a kind of talk-show honesty, where splendid insights are dragged down from their rightful pedestal and mixed up in the shallows, and where the aim is not so much to share one's courage, as to have it confirmed. In the nicest and discreetest way, it is a showy book, one outstanding proof of which is that it reads like a novel. The dialogue is all within quotation marks, conversations are described in implausibly cinematic terms, and the love stories are weaved in like sub-plots. This 'fictional' treatment helps the book read easily, but it also hides the absence of real, helpful content, that a more mundane and less stagy style would not have been able to. To sum up, I think 'The Red Devil' will have you genuinely liking and rooting for the author, but I doubt it will have you thanking her.