PRINT December 2019


Marina Vishmidt

In a social order held together by the bones of those who didn’t survive it, cancer can act as a lenticular tool to hold our fates in high resolution. The uninsured and underinsured suffer, decline, and die quickly, mostly; the insured suffer, decline, and undie, ideally. But to undie is not quite the same as to live, even if the terminal shadow takes on iridescence with every day that marks your distance from it. Anne Boyer’s The Undying (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), her concatenated memoir of undergoing treatment for aggressive breast cancer, has at its core “the most optimistic form of suffering”: namely, the routine treatments that are as brutal, and often as lethal, as what they’re trying to destroy. Boyer’s chronicle is told with the exhilarating acuity that her other writing would lead you to expect; it’s hurtful and delirious to read. Steeped in the history and literature of bodily pain—one of her major points is that pain is, contrary to philosophical axiom, communicable, and that there ought to be well-appointed public temples for crying in order to deprivatize grief—the book moves through notable breast-cancer-afflicted lives, famous and not; the torsion of cancer on her own life; and her research on the cancer-industrial complex, the “full and festering hold” of profit that blocks a clear view of the systemic etiology of illness at every turn. Through all of it, Boyer engages with the material poetics of the worst. Hers is also a prosaic experience, one racked by the grim indignities of American life. Pain is said to be the most isolating thing, but Boyer has put the whole world in here.

Marina Vishmidt is a writer who teaches at Goldsmith.