Against Cancer Memoirs

Anne Boyer, The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness

Allen Lane, 320pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780241399729

reviewed by Liam Harrison

The slogan, ‘Fuck cancer,’ is always the wrong slogan, writes Anne Boyer, ‘because “cancer” is a historically specific, socially constructed imprecision and not an empirically established monolith.’ Fuck Cancer Memoirs might have worked as a far less poetic title for Boyer’s book, The Undying, which is a cancer memoir against cancer memoirs. More accurately, it is a challenge to ‘cancer’s near-criminal myth of singularity,’ addressing the way that any writing about cancer is solely ‘judged by its veracity or its utility.’ This is a book searching for alternative forms to write about cancer. ‘I have always wanted to write the most beautiful book against beauty’, Boyer writes, ‘I’d call it Cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, paclitaxel, docetaxel, carboplatin, steroids, anti-inflammatories, antipsychotic antinausea meds,’ and it goes on. The book we do get is propelled by visceral suffering, poignant beauty, and sheer rage, while maintaining a scepticism of all three, as each one is just as likely as the other to reduce Boyer’s narrative, and herself, to the limited role of survivor.

Boyer underpins how disparate experiences and definitions of cancer are flattened and capitalised for horrifically nefarious ends within the carnivorous, market-driven monstrosity that is the American healthcare system. Despite the many guises cancer takes, Boyer questions the omission of ‘breast cancer’s industrial etiology, medicine’s misogynist and racist histories and practices, capitalism’s incredible machine of profit, and the unequal distribution by class of the suffering and death of breast cancer,’ from ‘breast cancer’s now-common literary form.’ Where does one start with writing the slogan for that? Boyer offers one suggestion: ‘Fuck white supremacist capitalist patriarch’s ruinous carcinogenosphere,’ but, she admits, ‘it is a difficult slogan to fit on a hat.’

When she was 41, Boyer was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which led to long treatments of intensive chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Listing this already feels like a disservice to Boyer’s narrative, reducing it to the ticks and boxes that make up ‘cancer’s now-common literary form.’ Boyer writes ‘I do not want to tell the story of cancer in the way that I have been taught to tell it.’ In turn, dutifully detailing the facts of Boyer’s illness feels like explaining the story of cancer memoirs in the way that we have been taught to explain them. Boyer anticipates and rejects any such attempt to gloss her story for didactic lessons:

‘The way I have been taught to tell the story is a person would be diagnosed, treated, either live or die. If she lives, she will be heroic. If she dies, she will be a plot point. If she lives, she will say something fierce, her fierceness applauded, or perform the absolutions of gratitude, her gratitude then praised. If she lives she will be the angel of epiphany. If she dies, she will be the angel of epiphany.’

We are told, emphatically, not to come away from The Undying recounting tales about an angel of epiphany. Instead Boyer’s anti-memoir asks what kind of shadowy and undefined form an anti-epiphany might take. The literal life after life experience of undying might be one of these forms: ‘When I got past my cancer’s immediate threat, my daughter said I had done the impossible and arranged for myself to write inside a living posthumousness. After cancer, my writing felt given its full permission.’ The atemporality of this ‘living posthumousness’ functions as a kind of inverted grief, as Boyer’s experience of undying is expressed through a form which reproduces and resists the affective conditions of its own creation. The impossibility emerges as Boyer’s narrative reaches towards a sense of futurity borne out of rupture and devastation, in a trajectory that resonates with the vertiginous pain of Denise Riley’s Time Lived Without its Flow. This is not a ‘pinkwashed’ epiphany of ribbon-adorned survivorship, but a searing account of enduring the ‘ideological regime of cancer,’ while Boyer admits that ‘to call myself a survivor still feels like a betrayal of the dead.’

Boyer writes about how the language of cancer is instrumentalised in a way that reduces it to sterile and socially acceptable narratives of suffering:

‘In literature, one person’s cancer seems to exist as an instrument of another person’s epiphanies, and sickness takes the form of how sick a person looks. At a poetry reading I attend during my illness, a poet is nearly shouting and wailing poems about a cancer she doesn’t have, then another poet at another – everyone’s mother – then a book comes in the mail in which the mother dying of cancer is, now that she is so thin and pale, compared with a long list of famous thin pale beauties. None of this literature is bad, but all of it is unforgivable.’

On one level, The Undying operates as a rebuke to the strangers who ‘fetishize suffering,’ and the overfamiliar men who expect Boyer ‘to absorb their own excessive feeling on the occasion of my devastation.’ More pressingly, The Undying hits upon a tension between individual pain (which is either ignored, aestheticised or made profitable) and collective modes of expression. Boyer rejects the clichés of the former while striving towards the latter. She criticises the idea that pain is ‘language destroying,’ and argues that it demands articulation through expressions of radical intimacy that are outward-looking: ‘To write only of oneself may be to write of death, but to write of death is to write of everyone.’ Following this expansive conception of writing, she quotes writer and activist Audre Lorde: ‘I carry tattooed upon my heart a list of names of women who did not survive, and there is always a space for one more, my own.’

By drawing on writing about breast cancer from Lorde, Kathy Acker, and Susan Sontag, among others, Boyer sketches a constellation of individual experiences that are connected yet distinct, as they reflect and refract each other’s narratives, even if these accounts reveal more differences than similarities. Boyer confesses to envying ‘the horrible circumstances of the past because they are at least differently horrible and differently degraded than our era’s own.’ Boyer’s sickness, in turn, becomes a prism for illuminating the sickness of American social and political structures under late capitalism, as our attention is directed towards the structures of discrimination beyond Boyer’s own sickbed. She explains how triple negative breast cancer strikes black women disproportionately in the US, a detail Boyer links directly to medicine’s institutionalised racism and the lack of targeted treatment: ‘These women’s deaths are racist and unnecessary, and our grief over them should tear open the earth.’ In another difficult slogan (too long to fit on the back of a jacket?), Boyer indicates where we might direct some of our rage: ‘If I die from this cancer, I tell my friends, cut my corpse into pieces and send my right thigh to Cargill, my left hand to Apple, my ankles to Procter and Gamble, my forearm to Google.’

The Undying attempts to cleave language away from the ideological systems that depicts cancer as a series of warlike escapades or sporting victories and defeats – of beating, fighting, losing, triumphing. Boyer reflects on her narrative’s own processes of creation: ‘If this book had to exist, I wanted it to be a minor form of reparative magic, for it to expropriate the force of literature away from literature, manifest the communism of the unlovable, grant anyone who reads it the freedom that can come from being thoroughly reduced.’ Boyer’s narrative rejects the major note of individual revelations in place of a minor rendition of collective struggle. It is a book written for no one and everyone, as Boyer explains, ‘Nothing I’ve written here is for the well and intact, and had it been, I never would have written it. Everyone who is not sick now has been sick once or will be sick soon.’

This might risk sounding relentlessly bleak, but Boyer’s virtuosic style and eclectic allusions (from Ancient Greece and John Donne, to her fondness for the wigs of Dolly Parton, Beyoncé, and Medusa) prevent The Undying from striking a singular note of despair. Reflexively dwelling on the inter-twining forms of both cancer and her own narrative, Boyer crafts a contrapuntal work which is radically playful while maintaining its political potency – a duality captured by an affirmation of solace and grief: ‘Now that I am undying, the world is full of possibility.’
Liam Harrison is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham researching late styles and modernist legacies in 21st-century literature.