Horizontal Woman

James Marcus reviews the book "Horizontal Woman: The Story of a Body in Exile" by Suzanne Berger.

Published July 30, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Several years ago, Suzanne Berger bent down to pick up her child in a parking lot. Feeling the sensation of something tearing at the base of her spine, Berger toppled to the asphalt and was rushed to an emergency room. Her diagnosis -- "rotated hypermobile sacrum, tilted up, with severe damage to connective tissue" -- doesn't do much to clarify this freakish physical event. But Berger spent the next six years on her back, too immobilized even to sit up in a wheelchair.

"Horizontal Woman" is her impressionistic account of a "life lived lying down, a kind of exile." She describes the modifications to her house, the hours spent in aquatherapy and the ingenuity required to perform the simplest tasks. Her mortifications are endless and heartbreaking. Even her sex life -- the little that remains of it -- is supervised by the doctors, who give her an instructional pamphlet with "eight well-executed drawings of couples who look as graceful as the Flying Wallendas." Yet Berger is no less interested in what we might call the metaphysics of debilitation. "Who was I to myself now, without my usual capabilities, my usual physical being?" she asks. "How could the demanding old self, with its responsibilities and sensual preoccupations, coexist with a refusing body?"

She agonizes, too, over the linguistic imprecision that makes it almost impossible to write about pain in the first place. In this case, though, she needn't have worried. The author of two volumes of poetry, Berger has brought a kind of grimacing lyricism to bear on the subject, and the results are painfully lucid.

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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