Composing a Life: Counterpoint in Memoir

If you missed Fine Arts 101, read Lanie Tankard’s review below and click on all the links. You will enjoy the ride–especially since a lot of those links take you to countries and cities in Europe. Lanie is heading off to Singapore soon. We’re all lucky she squeezed this fine review of an excellent memoir into her crowded schedule. Since Lanie and I both have this teacher bug we’ll never get rid of, here’s more about Singapore. But be sure to come back to read the review!

[sic]

by Joshua Cody

New York: W.W. Norton, October 2011  (272 pp.).

Available in hardcover and ebook formats.

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“In memory everything seems to happen to music.”

Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

The Latin word [sic] in brackets is a heads up to the reader that what may appear strange or incorrect has in fact been written intentionally or quoted verbatim, according to the unabridged edition of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language.

Thus, we suspect before we ever crack the spine of Joshua Cody’s new memoir about being sick, titled [sic], that we’re likely to encounter the unconventional within its pages. Indeed, that becomes so much the case that Cody may have created a new form of memoir, or at least a subgenre that redefines the approach. I’ve always been fond of intellectual nuance, and [sic] displays it in abundance.

Cody brings to writing a music composer’s ear, to memoir a forceful libretto of cancer survival, and to readers a brilliant polyphonic score played capriccio, energico, and espressivo.

Joshua Cody was a young composer in New York City about to finish a PhD at Columbia University. He had already earned a bachelor’s in music composition at Northwestern University, studied privately in Paris, had a Chicago radio show called “Music of This Century” on WNUR–FM,  cofounded the international journal and website Paris Transatlantic  as well as the Ensemble Sospeso, and written a number of articles.

Then he noticed a lump in his neck, and his life turned upside down when the tumor was diagnosed as a belligerent cancer. Cody cuts right to the chase on the first page of his memoir as he brings us along with him to begin chemotherapy, wondering, “’What’s it going to be like?’”

We hitch a ride inside his head as he’s handed orange pamphlets, “professionally printed, the Garamond font levelheaded, direct but never alarming, confidential, appropriate; poised; the thickness of the paper just right, more consequential than flimsy copy stock, but a good long way from cardboard, which would be terrifyingly permanent. The care that takes, the thought that goes into it: all the parameters are really masterfully designed, as if the hospital had hired a PhD in semiotics from Brown.”

He digresses into his thoughts as he waits, likening that period between being a patient reading the pamphlets and “the unknown experience that beckons” to “Philippe Petit on that taut tightrope between the Twin Towers.”  Cody wants specifics, like what kind of chair he’s going to be sitting in and whether he would be alone in a room.

“Are you expected to carry on a conversation with the nurse? What’s the etiquette?”

Anyone who has spent time docked in chemo ports of call, or accompanied a friend or loved one to such anchorage, will nod in recognition of Cody’s trenchant observations.

And it turns out he’s not alone in the chemo room: “I’d brought a friend, my journal.” Slowly he reels out his life, giving us the backstory of his illness and the childhood memories it triggers. He is a relative of Buffalo Bill Cody.

Joshua Cody thinks about all that is around him, all that is going into his body, all that he has experienced, and all that might happen. He follows, in fact, any line of thought when it pops up in free association. He tunes out his oncologist speaking to him in the present, wondering instead about the strong aroma of rubbing alcohol in the room.

“What was the source of the odor?”

Then he takes off pondering the meaning of happiness, considering the things he would miss if he “made it out of all this alive.”

He talks a lot about writing as he writes — metawriting. He utilizes a conversational manner to bring the reader into his stream of consciousness with phrases such as “I’ll talk more about this later” and “Why relate all this?” He points out “the literary tone I am attempting to employ.”

Cody switches from Susan Sontag to David Foster Wallace with the ease of a conductor directing a baton toward different sections of the orchestra. He transitions from Mozart to the Rolling Stones on his iPod as effortlessly as he talks about actor Ray Liotta in the movie Goodfellas in one paragraph and painter Paul Klee in the next.

Cody travels in his thoughts, rolling along wherever the train takes him. One minute we’re in Paris  with Ezra Pound, and suddenly we find ourselves in Germany: “Like this one time I was in Düsseldorf with a couple of German friends having brunch, and….” Next thing you know, he’s having his car washed in a Chicago suburb, pondering the effect of sunlight on water and glass, listening to Debussy in his head.

Suavely Cody blends remembering with theoretical musings, observations about his cancer treatments, and descriptions of the sex and drugs he turns to for escape. It’s a virtuoso performance.

He begins to experience chemophobias. He sees a psycho-oncologist. He compares the chemotherapy that has just failed him with the radiation that is supposed to save him. His mother arrives to assist, and we see pages of her notes. He reproduces his calendar, covered from corner to corner with medical appointments.

“Being sick is very much a full-time job,” he comments.

Cody is aware of the “immediate stimuli of the present moment” bombarding him along with the “recalled stimuli of the past.” He notes, “And these two layers wrap around each other like two electric currents encircling some wobbly magnetic pole.”

He tells us of his marriage to a Bulgarian girl named Valentina and his fake imprisonment in a pretend hospital room to assist the Kádár government of Hungary in a propaganda charade, with fake IVs in his chest and arms.

His mother arrives, and he tells her they can leave to go to the limo waiting outside because the pretense is over. When he rips out the fake IVs, pretend blood spurts out. Pretend nurses rush in, while eeeevvvver so gradually he is made to understand that everything is very real indeed — that he is in the hospital for a bone marrow transplant and he is having a morphine fantasy.

“Well it just goes to show things are not what they seem.” That line from the Sixties song “Sister Morphine” is an appropriate summation of the events in Chapter 5, which is also aptly titled “Sister Morphine.”

Mick Jagger,  Keith Richards, and Marianne Faithfull cowrote the lyrics to this haunting song. The Stones and Faithfull each recorded “Sister Morphine.”

Recently (October 10, 2011), I heard Faithfull perform the song on her Horses and High Heels tour at Rotterdam’s  Nieuwe Luxor Theater, where this highly talented woman who has battled both morphine and cancer received two rousing standing ovations for her marvelous show. Click here for her performance of “Sister Morphine” at the Citadel Festival in Berlin on May 29, 2011.

As for Joshua Cody: “They took me off the morphine that night and switched me to fentanyl.” He turns to Freud, Darwin, and Nietzsche to make sense of it all, saying, “The crystalline clarity of this morphine delusion proves, perhaps, the Nietzschean maxim that ‘some situations are so bad that to remain sane is insane.’”

Cody considers creativity, memory, subtext, and voice in memoir — asking: “So what, exactly, separates a sharp memory of early childhood, say, from a morphine delusion, or an image seen in a dream from an image read in a book? They’re all equally tangible, equally intangible products of electromechanical signaling.”

These questions are the kind of research done by neuroscientists like David Eagleman, who spoke at the Texas Book Festival on October 23 about his new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainHe noted there are as many connections in one neuron as there are stars in the Milky Way. A NOVA profile explores Eagleman’s investigation of the question: “How does the brain construct reality using the information it takes in?”

Cody debates why certain things bring comfort during hospitalizations for such traumatic events as bone marrow transplants, reminding us “finding sources of pleasure is an important aspect of dealing with high levels of pain.” He compares painters and writers, saying writers are “unjustly burdened by the weight of words.”

Cody examines his parents’ marriage and divorce, and his relationship with his father, who tried to make it as a writer but never did.

Author Jonathan Franzen has also trekked in this territory of memory, particularly in “My Father’s Brain” in How To Be Alone: Essays. Indeed, Franzen makes an appearance in Cody’s memoir several times. (I reviewed Franzen’s most recent book, Freedom, on 100 Memoirs when it came out last year: Part I and Part II.) When I heard Franzen interviewed by Lev Grossman in Austin recently, Franzen mentioned that he was reading [sic], calling it a “weird memoir by an overarticulate guy with cancer — really good.”

Cody underscores the important role his mother played in helping him during his treatments, taking notes and running interference with hospital personnel. He writes, “My mother’s transcription of the dialogue between patient, doctor, caretaker, and pain management staff is fascinating in its expression of the fragile complexity in calibrating the collaboration of different specialists.”

He explains what it means to be in discomfort, he weighs nonbeing versus aging, and he relates the feeling of his near-death experience during the bone marrow transplant. He tells us what suffering is like for the sufferer, and comes close to suicide until he realizes he wants to kill the disease, not himself. Cody knows he’s getting better when he begins to feel boredom, and then says to his mother as they’re finally leaving the hospital, “I love traffic.”

He worries the night before he has to return for more scan results. He can’t sleep, so he sits down to write in his journal, remembering his father’s advice: “write it out, write it out.” He wonders if he’s losing his mind.

“Just keep pen to paper,” he tells himself.

“I am trying very hard,” he replies.

He wraps up his book with “the motif of journals and memoirs” and discusses “’journals’ as opposed to notebooks,” quoting David Byrne  on this arcane point.

Finally Cody admits he’s a bit tired.

“This book turned out to be a little longer than I thought, and way more work. Plus I’m hungry.”

He ends with a crescendo of framing.

As Victor Hugo put it in his essay on William Shakespeare, “Music expresses that which cannot be said, and which cannot be suppressed.”

Joshua Cody is a maestro and his words will ring in my ears for a long time. Bravo!

###

Photo by Jessica H. Tankard, Amsterdam

Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.

About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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2 Responses to Composing a Life: Counterpoint in Memoir

  1. Wow, if the book is as interesting as this review, it’s well worth reading. I love its apparent complexity you convey.

  2. LanieTankard says:

    Richard,

    It is a complex book, yet easily accessible at the same time. I think the way Cody bared his psyche was a tour de force. His voice represents the way we really think, with thoughts zinging all over the place spurred on by one another, rather than slowly and methodically with each category of ideas neatly grouped together into separate paragraphs. At no time did the writing seem out of control though. You could almost view it as a musical composition, as it rose and fell and had different movements with varying emotional feelings. I say, “Encore!”

    Please return to post your thoughts if you read the memoir!

    Peace,
    Lanie

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