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Lauren Berlant on a Cancer Memoir That "Insists on the Commons of Suffering"


At 4Columns, Lauren Berlant reviews an unconventional memoir of illness and recovery by the celebrated poet and essayist Anne Boyer. Entitled The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care, the book traces the author’s battle with not only breast cancer, but also America’s broken insurance system, medical bureaucracy, and toxic way of life. As Berlant writes, this is not an ordinary narrative of illness, recovery, and redemption, but rather one of mundane and unglamorous survival. Here’s an excerpt:

Boyer thinks of exhaustion as a universal experience of the contemporary—not just the sick, but the proletarianized, which includes an increasing mass of persons. The book knows not all exploitation and exposure are the same, but it also insists on the commons of suffering. People will have conflicting, maybe roiling, responses to its various claims that cancer is the world’s fault, that cancer is democratic, that cancer is the poor person’s disease, and that of the unlucky ones, and exemplary here, and singular there.

So, if there’s no redemption narrative and barely a resilience one, there’s a rolling sense of forsakenness, gratitude, defeat, love, and rage. There are lawyers, insurance companies, bosses. Although Boyer has lots of friends, and a child, she feels “alone” because no partner’s there, which is lamented. She loses people and fingernails.

Image of Anne Boyer via KCUR.