Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Only Connect (Me)

In Jennifer Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep, a central character, Danny, who has “304 Instant Messaging usernames and a buddy list of 180,” has rented a satellite dish for a trip to Europe for guaranteed cell phone and wireless Internet access. He can’t bear being disconnected. Egan writes

His brain refused to stay locked up inside the echo chamber of his head—it spilled out, it overflowed and poured across the world until it was touching a thousand people who had nothing to do with him. If his brain wasn’t allowed to do this, if Danny kept it locked up inside his skull a pressure began to build.

I love The Keep for a lot of reasons—its updated metafictional gambits and its surprising and moving ending to name two—but one of the things I love the most about the novel is the character of Danny, the way he’s arrogant and laughable and pitiable, and at the same time, eerily recognizable: eerily like me, eerily like a lot of us, I’m guessing, in his terror when he isn’t connected, isn’t wired, when his brain is locked up inside his own head.

As I write this, I am, for some reason, without wireless. Blame Verizon. My daughter is playing in her room with a friend, and I have an hour or two before I’m sure to be needed (“We’re bored”), and I’ve decided it’s time to get back to my blog.

But I can’t. That ought to make me happy, if you believe all the things I say to other people and to myself, about the distracting uselessness of blogging, of Facebook, of Twitter (not that I’m up to Twittering yet). And yet, here I am, unable to blog, and instead of seizing such a moment of potential restfulness, focus, lack of distraction, I’m feeling really jumpy.

I haven’t even wanted to put anything on the blog for a while now. I’ve been taken away from that, for good and bad reasons. Too busy with work and home life, trying to concentrate on another book, carving away at a couple short story drafts. Lately, though, I’ve wanted to come back to the blog; I’ve felt a strange sense of neglecting my novel In Hovering Flight, and maybe its readers, by not posting things here.

Mostly this feeling came, I think, from talking with the members of a book group here in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania who recently read In Hovering Flight. Several members of the group are nurses on the neurology ward of a big area hospital, and man, they told hair-raising stories about, among other things, doctors who lull families into thinking that their brain-damaged relatives are going to recover.

I love nurses. I love their clear-sightedness about medicine, their humor, their independence, their bluntness. Someone needs to write a book about them, I told them—a book about “the night shift” (a favorite topic that night). Right, they said—but truly about them, not another TV series glorifying the doctors.

Our conversation wasn’t as far afield from the issues in In Hovering Flight as this might sound. We got to questions about life support, and what doctors say to families, from a very specific point in the book: Addie’s decision not to treat her cancer when it returns. The honesty of all the people in that group took my breath away, but none more than that of our host that evening, a woman who’s had chemotherapy, radiation, and a double mastectomy and who knows, without a doubt, that if her cancer comes back, she will go through none of those horrors again.

It was the first time anyone told me that I’d gotten Addie’s cancer, and her feelings about treatment, exactly right. I felt such gratitude to her, and to all the people in this group, for their willingness to confide their deepest feelings and fears about their own well-being and the impact that has had, and will have, on their families.

I’m still waiting for the picture of all of us that our host’s husband took that night. When it arrives, I’ll post it here. Suddenly, it seems, I have things I want to say about In Hovering Flight (and other things) again.

I’m not sure how to reach people with this question, but I’m genuinely curious and would love it if others would weigh in with their thoughts here. Is Addie’s decision to forego conventional treatment when she’s diagnosed with cancer a second time understandable? Selfish? How do you decide? If you’ve read the book and thought about this, please let me know.

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