by Joshua Cody
A few years ago, I wrote a book about memoir—not a how-to tract, but a what-happens-when an author writes one, its shocking self-discovery, its redemptive journey, akin to most events in life that change us significantly. I posited a term for a new kind of book that eschews a childhood trauma or mom and dad’s lousy parenting but embraces a just-lived drama: a divorce, a fizzled start-up business, a near-drowning in Lake Michigan. My term, “sudden memoir,” means to unpack a not-yet or nearly over relationship or event whose resolution may come about because you’re making a book about it. The mud of it is the point, especially since your subject is not past, and the book, one hopes, circumvents the mythologizing power, the authoritarian nostalgia of remembrance.
Since then, I have, happily, watched many a sudden memoir bloom–and one of its many subsets, the digressive memoir, digressive and sudden, indeed. Such nonfictional meanderers include those by the agitator, David Shields; the brooder, Geoff Dyer; and the late monologist, David Foster Wallace. In their craft-mad hands, the mind is a terrible thing to waste. As book, the style might also be called an extended lyric essay.
The memoir under the scope, Joshua Cody’s, is much more expansive essay than singularly focused memoir. A composer by trade, he is a bird who sings and flits about in equal measure, and a man to whom the modifier essaying applies.
Last year, Jonathan Franzen praised Cody as a “moderately deranged author.” I’d say Cody’s madness is (oddly) more arranged; that is, he seems “moderately deranged,” because the bounty of his enthusiasms are overdone—for effect. It’s not Cody’s meat but his motion that’s magnetic. And the slithering and striking —the sidewinder’s voice—determines how we react to him. To what exactly? His illness. What do we feel for a thirty-something man who suffers a bulging cancerous lymphoma on his neck, which doctors address as “easily treatable,” but does not respond to chemo–so Cody’s condemned to a bone marrow transplant, renewed radiation, boring hospitalization, and mind-numbing mind-wandering months of doodling on three-by-five cards (many are reproduced), all of which fueled his recent past and now fuels this wickedly playful, mock-serious book?
The big theme, the thing Cody avoids, is the sickness, the vomiting, the disability, the downer. Instead, his mind, like Emerson’s, is on fire, as though, while he was sick, he indulged anything other than his disease. To get at what he can’t face now or then (momentary pain? remembered pain? I’m not sure), he branches into all sorts of salacious, unconnected, off-the-cuff rambles: tales of his sexual trysts with a string of New York models (that’ll get your mind off the illness); ruminations on artists (Paul Klee), on albums (Rolling Stones’ Some Girls), on operas (Don Giovanni); a revisionist analysis of Ezra Pound’s revisions of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; a chapter on his father, a wannabe writer who has a stroke, quits his job to write, then dies; plus a morphine-induced dream of his imagined, fin de siècle pianist-self, studying Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata while marrying the Bulgarian beauty, Valentina—all of these wobbles in the widening gyre get his weedy mind off the illness and onto things he (and we, I guess) find more interesting.
Sort of. It’s inescapable, the tension between a writer whose unmoored style is pitted against the print/linear frame that keeps it moored to chapters and story logic. It’s not all out to sea. Cody is aware that coherence is important, but he doesn’t care for it. He likes surprise, magic, flight. He’s so enamored with his careening hither/thither that he seldom contends with the shaping possibilities of his project and/or our desire to be led along a well-marked path or two as we read.
The whole idea is to keep his distance from the thing at hand. Consider this self-complaint about his lack of political engagement: “If I spent 1 percent of my time actually reading about politics, informing myself as a responsible citizen, instead of writing all the time about nothing, and reading books about Ezra Pound, whom nobody even knows anymore, let alone cares about, I might be able to fulfill this part of my life.” Okay, that voice, which we’ve grown accustomed to, is certainly his, clever and revealing. But what does another such fanciful off-ramp have to do with cancer? It seems anything he thinks is put-down-able so long as it’s not about the disease.
A word about Cody’s emotion. The best parts of [Sic] are the most direct: these involve his parents and his last lover, a woman doctor whom he “picks up” while she oversees the bone marrow transplant and who, post-op and post-affair, suffers a breakdown that has nothing to do with Cody. He’s just the recipient of her crazy blade. His oft-fun-to-read digressive prose is less engagingly memorable than these characters—these relationships—are. Again, I wonder what Cody thought the purpose of this book would be.
Let me distinguish between the purposive push of his prose, much as a torrent of rainwater madly rivulets hundreds of parallel streams, and a recognizable direction that Cody pushes the book once he discovers (though I’m unsure he ever does) where he’s/it’s going. A musical comparison may suffice: the left hand of a stride piano player leaps from a mid-range chord to a low-range chord, and the falling motion lengthens the phrase and creates that ache we know as lowdown, versus the right hand playing a melody, a lovely glittering tune, which is like the plot and gets somewhere beyond the manic beat of the left hand. Such coupling is the essence of music. But too often, Cody’s like a jazz guitarist picking out one note at a time, a one-handed piano player.
And yet. The ending interplay of crack-up and salvation is quite fine. It involves Cody’s female cancer doctor, who counts his odds of surviving the transplant as lousy, nutty opinions he becomes dependent on, which, in turn, silo his fear that his body scan will show the cancer is not gone, which forces him one night to break everything breakable in his apartment, contemplate suicide, get so frightened he calls his mother to rescue him, which she does, after which he decides he has to write his way out of this hallucinatory death urge: “Most of this stuff . . . I’ve just been copying from journals I kept when I was sick, but now I’m actually writing, and it’s harder than you’d think.”
Well, hell, yes! Welcome to the Show. Glad you made it. Remember, honesty elevates us: the writer, the reader, and the work. Letting go of the writer’s persona. Gets you to the truth of your tale. Bravo. Plus the CT scan is negative. Double bravo.