When essayist and novelist Jenny Diski, who died last month at 68, learned she had inoperable lung cancer, her first impulse was to make a “Breaking Bad” joke. She turned to her husband and said, in front of her doctor, “We’d better get cooking the meth.”
Diski’s second impulse was to fear she was a cliche. In her new memoir, “In Gratitude,” she thinks: Oncologists must be subjected to that stupid meth joke every day. “I was mortified at the thought that before I’d properly started out on the cancer road,” Diski writes, “I’d committed my first platitude.”
Platitudes are hard to come by in Diski’s many books (novels, travelogues, memoirs, short stories), which are mordant and talon-sharp. Her essays in The London Review of Books, where much of the material in this book originally appeared, were among the reading life’s dependable pleasures. But cancer threatened to box her in as a writer. By now it’s a cliche, when writing a cancer memoir, even to make a show of fighting the genre’s cliches.
Diski was up-to-date on her cancer lit, having read recent books by Oliver Sacks, Clive James and art critic Tom Lubbock. Their excellence she found distressing. “There are no novel responses possible,” she writes. “Absolutely none that I could think of. Responses to the diagnosis; the treatment and its side effects; the development of cancer symptoms; the pain and discomfort; the dying; the death.”
With “In Gratitude,” she has written a different kind of cancer memoir and an almost entirely platitude-free one, simply by writing a typically sui-generis Jenny Diski book. Which is to say, a book that pushes in five or six directions at once.
In part, it’s about her treatment and her onrushing frailties, and this material is plain-spoken, harrowing and invariably moving. It’s also the story of her youth and young adulthood, when she suffered from depression and withdrawal and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, “rattling from bin to bin,” as she puts it. It’s about her feckless parents, who more or less abandoned her.
It’s about her tangled relationship with Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing, a rhinoceros of a personality, with whom she lived for four years while a teenager. And finally it is about disease as performance, literary and otherwise. There was a “show going on the road,” she declares, “in which I was to star.”
A recurring joke in “In Gratitude” is how prepared Diski was to play the role of cancer patient. She’s already an anti-socialite. Her lifelong favorite places are bed and sofa. She lives, she thinks, like one of those secondary characters in Victorian literature who constantly retire to the fainting couch. She tells her doctor, “I have the metabolism of a sloth.”
Her struggles (a word she hates) with cancer and pulmonary fibrosis play out in what feels like real time. Diski has panic attacks and becomes winded just walking across a room. Weakened, she falls and develops “two enormous black eyes, like the mask of Zorro.” Food is no longer a reliable pleasure; radiotherapy has fuddled her taste buds, making everything taste off.
Weight gain adds insult to injury. A naturally thin person, she grows soft and round from her treatments, “fat that feels as if my body has been stuffed with some alien gel settled in particular places.” The details are incisive, and she stacks them carefully.
Diski admits to frank horror in the face of death. She finds what she calls “solace in the terror of the infinite desert” in a line from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir “Speak, Memory” (1951). Nabokov wrote: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
We’ve been dead before, in other words. “When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction,” Diski writes, “I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced.”
These dispatches from the medical and metaphysical fronts are infused with oblique yet intense snippets of memoir. Diski’s father was a con man; her mother was subject to breakdowns. When her family fell apart and she was kicked out of school for misbehaving, she attempted suicide and ended up in a psychiatric ward.
Lessing’s son knew Diski from school and asked his mother to help her. Diski ended up living with her from ages 15 to 19.
Lessing was a daunting foster parent. Diski rarely felt comfortable in her house. The famous writer had a cold streak. She seemed to blame Diski for not being grateful enough, for not fulfilling her potential. When Diski acted like the teenager she was, sneaking out of windows or bringing boys home, Lessing would become empurpled with rage.
There were good moments between them, too. But decades later, Diski is still coming to terms with this relationship. Viewing herself through Lessing’s eyes, she writes: “Hopeless. A terrible letdown. An experiment gone wrong. And not just because I jumped out of the window, but because I had refused to take the opportunity given to me that millions of people would have given anything for. And I apologize to those millions of people in whose way I stood.”
There’s a raw, almost feral quality to Diski’s writing about cowering in Lessing’s long shadow. It’s a trait she brought to so much of her writing. It’s just like her to leave us a title, “In Gratitude,” that slowly sheds its softness and sends up a mischievous flare.
“In Gratitude,” by Jenny Diski (250 pages; Bloomsbury; $26)