Cancer, Sex, Art and Mortality: Joshua Cody

Some memoirs are less about the subject than about meeting the writer on the page. New York composer Joshua Cody’s [sic], ostensibly about being a young cancer patient, is one of those memoirs.

Cody writes that his book was intended ‘as a riposte to the literature of disease … pure dreck, pale pastel book after book on the shelves’. There’s nothing pastel about [sic], which is as much about art, mortality, creativity and the way we make our own lives as it is about illness. It’s also about a thirty-something man living in New York City: studying music, making films for fun, haunting his neighbourhood bar, recreationally using cocaine and having affairs with beautiful, slightly mad women. The result could easily be a tired cliché or a hot mess, but instead, it’s a vivid, intricately crafted meditation on a life interrupted by serious illness.

Cody says that studying music has given him a particular sensitivity to form. Indeed, the form of this memoir is both unusual and seductive. Though it follows the rough trajectory of its genre by beginning with diagnosis and ending with recovery, [sic] is refreshingly different from its shelfmates. While illness provides the frame of the memoir – a timeline and central reference point – its subject is wider and more ambitious.

Illness memoirs often attempt to answer the questions ‘what is it like?’, ‘how does it feel?’ and ‘what does it all mean?’. Cody answers these first two questions with a crisp starkness reminiscent of Helen Garner’s unflinching descriptions in The Spare Room. He describes sitting in a hospital room with fellow patients, all of them absorbing chemotherapy medication through drips in their arms:

there was something grotesque about it all as if everyone were sitting around … defecating while making affable conversation.

At one stage during his treatment, he comes close to dying. He describes the sensations and steps of his brush with death in such a way that he takes the reader to the brink of the experience, somehow avoiding both ghoulishness and sentiment. Cody’s word-pictures are keenly precise, carefully articulate about experiences that are difficult to articulate and impossible to imagine. He likens the experience of feeling his life ebb away to an intense discomfort:

There was above all the body, and the need to escape from it; and that need eclipsed all else. Biologists call this escape ‘death’.

That third question, ‘what does it all mean?’, is perhaps the most interesting of them all. Cody details the ‘three-act’ structure of most illness memoirs, of which he’s read many:

(1) diagnosis and (II) the discovery of how beautiful life actually is and how there’s more to it than my hedge fund job ever told me it was and look at how lovely this flower is and this butterfly and this herbal tea, and (III) recovery and a book deal and getting a little place in Vermont maybe.

He writes, almost angrily, that there is no intrinsic worth or meaning to his experience: ‘illness was not an opportunity for existential awakenings, it was the very opposite of beauty or grace’.

Yet it was, clearly, an impetus for sustained reflection. Cody asks ‘How do we position suffering in human life?’ He answers that while illness can be pinned to a specific time and place, humans are ‘all over the place and whenever time’. This idea, that illness doesn’t happen in isolation, but in the midst of all the other elements of a life, is central to the book and reflected in the form it takes.

The narrative often leaps about wildly, branching off from the central story to follow multiple peripheral associations, before returning to pick up on the progress of events. For example, midway through sitting in a doctor’s office, receiving a crucial update on the effectiveness of Cody’s treatment, we drift with him to muse on the writings of David Foster Wallace and Susan Sontag, the process of editing films and a lost-forever revisionist western silent film made by his ancestor – before returning to the scene, trying and utterly failing to focus on the doctor’s verdict, before taking off again. It takes nearly 13 pages before the reader is allowed to digest the doctor’s information: that the chemotherapy hasn’t worked and Cody will need brutal radiation therapy, which will take a year and involve hospitalisation and a bone marrow transplant.

This seemingly chaotic riffing brilliantly mirrors the mood of the narrative and the headspace of the narrator. It is impressionistic in a way that music (which Cody calls ‘the least representational of the arts’) often is. It’s not just content but form that veers and varies like this; some sections, where Cody is focused on his experience, are starkly evocative, resembling the ‘line of polished blocks’ he originally intended the book to be, with short, precisely carved sentences. Others times, his sentences are breathlessly, deliberately long – one even goes for roughly a page – reflecting an unmoored mind. The technique, which could go so wrong, works brilliantly, proving what a virtuoso writer Cody is. (Despite the fact he insists he’s ‘not really a writer [but] just writing this one thing and that’s it’.)

[sic] poses another question, one Cody believes occupied his father, a talented writer who never published: ‘what’s the proper position of art within a life?’ For Cody’s father, literature was central to his life in a personal rather than a public fashion; he passed his passion on to his son. Art and artists were part of the dialogue they shared, the common language they spoke: to the extent that after his father’s death, an annotated manuscript of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a gift from Cody to his father, is posthumously returned to him with a final letter. Their final dialogue happens through a book.

Similarly, Cody’s book – his conversation with the reader – is suffused with references to films and filmmakers, musicians, albums, poets. He compares his openness about his sexual encounters to Orson Welles’ repulsion at the idea of a ‘kiss and tell’; contrasts Mozart’s Don Giovanni with The Rolling Stones’ New York album Some Girls, and describes one girlfriend, in part, by saying:

her personal wardrobe and her apartment somehow reminded me of the fake white Christmas tree Ray Liotta brings home for the family after the 1978 Lufthansa heist portrayed in Goodfellas.

For Cody – and for many of us – the stories we consume become part of our own stories. Art is central to a life not only for those who create it, but for those of us who consume it, borrowing parts we find meaningful or significant and weaving them into a new whole.

The way we construct our lives, consciously assemble them out of a myriad of possible parts – both as we live them and as we tell them – is at the heart of Cody’s project. ‘I don’t know how many words I’ve said that I’ve forgotten and I don’t know how many of these were recorded,’ he writes, making concrete the fact that stories are chosen, truths are made. Those fragments we notice and record; they are the ones that become our narrative.

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