“I love pink M&M’s,” S.L. Wisenberg writes, near the beginning of her diaristic memoir “The Adventures of Cancer Bitch.” “I eat them every day. That’s all I eat. If I eat enough of them my cancer will go away. Won’t it? Isn’t that what they promise?”
It’s a virtuosic half-paragraph, a feat of tonal control that is amplified by the pleasingly plainspoken Texan almost-drawl of audiobook narrator Jennifer Teague, whose delivery radiates the complicated stew of virtues Wisenberg’s prose offers all at once: Sassy intelligence, social conscience, humor, feminist willfulness and indignation at the stream of reductive corporate can-do logic and self-help wall-poster language that patients must endure daily alongside their cancer.
The audiobook begins not with an author note, but with a section titled “About the Bitch,” a name chosen not for the author’s bitchy qualities, but rather because the blog that preceded it “should be called Cancer Something, and Babe was too young and Vixen was already taken.” Then, this news: “No animals were harmed in the production of this book except a few mice, and they were home invaders.”
“Cancer Bitch” is long on comic capitalizations. The diagnosis comes from “the Cold (and good-looking) Blonde.” Wisenberg chooses Fancy Hospital over Plain Hospital. Her Prozac is prescribed by Bouncy Shrink. Her place of work is Smart University. Before her mastectomy, she enjoys a Farewell to My Left Breast Party.
As with the best comedy, it’s all in service of the gravest and most important things, that which we might avoid staring at directly, even though it’s the stuff that keeps us up at night with worry. When Wisenberg says, “I want an oncologist who at least feigns interest,” the reader appends the dark human tag she has left unspoken: Because I want to keep living for as long as I can.
Not all the worry is cancer worry. Some of Wisenberg’s best set pieces concern vanity, jealousy, friendship, activism, Jewishness and the Holocaust — preoccupations that preceded the cancer, which the arrival of the cancer serves only to stir up yet again. When she wonders whom to tell or not tell about her cancer, she’s sucked again into the ongoing drama with ex–best friend Amelia, who for many years has shared with her the dream — yet unfilled — of being a famous writer, a dream that has reduced both of them to a “scarcity mentality, thinking the world was not big enough to give both of you what you wanted.”
Wisenberg’s interior monologue about the question of Amelia — which she offers in second person — is particularly poignant: “Do you tell Amelia? But you’re not dying. If you were dying, would you tell her? That you are dying. Hello, is that you? I’m dying? What should we do? Which isn’t fair. There was tension between the two of you, she was impatient, you were resentful, she was resentful, you wanted too much of the same things …”
The story reaches its most strident pitch when confronting the lies told to and by cancer patients in the name of comfort or healing or straight talk. Wisenberg is with Susan Sontag in the observation that “our personality defects don’t cause our cancer.” So she has little patience when a friend offers the best-selling book “Skinny Bitch: A no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and start looking fabulous,” with its lines about how it “is no coincidence that Julie was diagnosed with breast and ovarian cancer, reflecting her lack of self-love,” or when Sheryl Crow tells CNN.com that there might be a connection between her breast cancer and “the idea that perhaps I had not allowed other people to take care of me but instead had always put everyone else and their needs before me and my needs.”
Some of the most devastating chapters in “Cancer Bitch” are the shortest. (Here is the entirety of a chapter toward the end of the audiobook, titled “Damn, Damn, Damn”: “Grace Paley died yesterday. Breast cancer.”) But Wisenberg can also scale rhetorical heights, as in a long accounting (the word itself part of a riff on “Death and Taxes”) toward the end of the book, in which she shifts from conversational prose to a Whitman-style list-and-repetition poetry in which the lines, in their abundance, overflow the right margin — even in the audiobook this is clear and overwhelming, as it is meant to be — and every grievance gets its final due. This dazzling run concludes: “You don’t know what will happen, how you will die, but you will die, even though you can’t imagine the world going on without you. / Can it?”
It’s not a question fit only for those who have been diagnosed with cancer.
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