Lopsided — How Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting by Meredith Norton.

About a week ago I wrote about a memoir I had recently read, and why it was a failure.  Today I’m writing about one that is a success.

That memoir is Meredith Norton‘s Lopsided, which has the subtitle of How Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting, and is probably the funniest book I’ve read in a while.  Yes, I know it’s about cancer, but that doesn’t change the fact that it turned me into The Crazy Girl on the subway — you know, the one who was pitched over laughing and with whom the other commuters tried to avoid accidental eye contact.  That was me with the cut-off gloves, wiping away tears and sliding helplessly out of her seat.

From all appearances, Ms. Norton was living an enviable life; after all, she had just moved into a Parisian apartment with her French husband and their young child.  She spent her time exploring the city, learning the language, cooking European-friendly food (I thought she would make hamburgers, her husband’s client says) and being mistaken for a prostitute.  When a series of French doctors dismiss Ms. Norton’s medical concerns (which range from a whistling nose to a tightness in her chest), she takes advantage of a scheduled trip home to visit an American physician — who promptly tells Ms. Norton that she has inflammatory breast cancer and a forty percent chance of surviving the next five years.

Most people* would take this news and promptly freak the hell out, but Ms. Norton reacts differently.  She freaks out all right, but somehow she finds time between breakdowns to also find little bits of levity here and there.  She writes, “…at the supermarket with my friend Rebecca, I reached to scratch over my ear and all the hair peeled off — like a piece of Velcro. We stood holding the patches and laughed until our cheeks ached.”

Ms. Norton also gleefully details her peeling feet, an after-effect of chemotherapy, and looking forward to seeing her post-mastectomy sutures; she had been, she says, the kind of kid who delightedly removed her spayed cat’s stitches.  I can definitely see how these graphic chronicles could easily gross a certain kind of reader out — for example, how many people could possibly take pleasure in reading about the excitement Ms. Norton felt when fitted with an indwelling catheter?  Turns out I do, and not just because it’s hard to offend or horrify me (unless you’re brushing your teeth in my presence).  It’s because Ms. Norton writes with clarity and humor about these so-called disgusting things.  Let’s use the catheter as an example.  Ms. Norton, who had previously used a catheter after her pregnancy, writes:

“It seems odd to adore a tube hanging from your crotch, attached to a plastic bag filled with warm urine, but I did.  I’d spent the previous nine months running to the toilet every twenty minutes, day and night. The last two months I ran to the toilet and still peed on myself when I stood up afterward. It drove me crazy.  Urinating effortlessly and at my leisure into a bag was downright luxurious.”

Though I’ve neither been pregnant nor used a catheter, when it’s described like that I can clearly understand Ms. Norton’s joy in it, just as I can plainly imagine the empty loss portrayed in these two sentences regarding her mastectomy: “There were no black stitches, no gruesome scar. It was just gone.”

What’s tricky about reading a memoir is that there’s not often the convenient sense of closure as in a work of fiction.  This is particularly true about those writers whose works capture a specific time in their lives, or times, as the case may be for M.F.K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, Augusten Burroughs and other prolific memoirists.  It’s also true for Ms. Norton, but in her defense, who in “real life” can say he or she got that aforementioned closure following every obstacle encountered?  Even Ms. Norton understands this; after she has endured almost twenty weeks of intense chemotherapy and its side-effects, a mastectomy, countless prescriptions and more than fifty radiation treatments, she too looks for finality.  “There [I was],” she muses, “with the same annoying habits and bad manners, ungrateful, pessimistic, undisciplined, and bored. [I was] just as mediocre as when this whole drama began.”

It’s key that readers of Lopsided can look past that, the lack of conclusion, and focus instead on Ms. Norton’s ability to not only convey her humor, but also her matter-of-factness.  This is neither a heroic nor feel-bad-for-me cancer book, and Ms. Norton is adamant that readers do not feel that way.  Instead, Lopsided is a but a piece of a life.  “Nothing else has happened, but it will. As my father says: ‘None of us gets out of here alive,'” she writes.  “But life really is too short to worry. Against all the odds, I am here to celebrate [my son’s] fourth birthday on the third anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. For now, that’s enough.”

And for me, regarding this book, it is.

* Me.

Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat + Obsession by Julie Powell.

Let’s start with the obvious:  I’m a blogger and a writer and a lover of food and dogs and Julia Child, and sometimes I can be deplorably unpleasant.  This is what is called a character flaw, but I think that — when combined with my devotion to my friends and my knack for color-coordination, let’s say — it adds depth to, well, my character.  As readers, we don’t need to like the characters we encounter; what we do need is for those characters to have some sort of humanizing trait that make us care about them.  For example, a huge part of what makes Neil Gaiman‘s iconic Sandman comic book series so incredibly readable is the fact that the major players are terribly flawed.  Their losses wouldn’t cut as deeply if we the readers weren’t invested in them; the same could be said about their gains.

In other words, likable characters are boring.

That said, I hate the Julie Powell portrayed in Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, a memoir written by the blogger herself.  I don’t say I hate this portrayal because I wanted the perkier, Amy Adams version; I’m putting it like this, in a vaguely diplomatic way, because I kind of feel as though I need to give Ms. Powell the benefit of the doubt.  I’m fully aware that the way we describe ourselves via our own writing is ineffably skewed… but maybe that’s my problem.  Maybe I read this memoir while banking too much on the dumb hope that Ms. Powell would eventually reveal herself to be — well, more fully realized.  I don’t care that she comes across as utterly unlikable, but she needs to throw me a bone or two in regards to the rest of her character.  And yes, that was an intended pun.

I’m getting completely ahead of myself.

Cleaving picks up a few years after Ms. Powell finished writing Julie and Julia 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (why the chronic need to subtitle everything?), as she’s tangled up in an affair with an old boyfriend that she refers to coyly as D.  Her husband learns of this and has a revenge affair of his own, but ultimately he doesn’t want to leave Ms. Powell, who herself feels no inclination to either end her affair or her marriage.  Instead, for reasons which are never adequately explained, she heads out of Queens to become an apprentice butcher in Kingston, New York.  When her apprenticeship comes to its end, Ms. Powell, still floundering, hits the road again, this time stopping in Argentina, the Ukraine, Japan and Tanzania; supposedly she’s traveling in order to learn more about meat, and how different cultures kill, cook and eat it, but really, she’s running from her husband, a fact Ms. Powell acknowledges.

Ms. Powell acknowledges a lot more than just this, though.  She depicts in great detail her escapades with D: bondage, biting and banging, oh my.  It doesn’t bother me that Ms. Powell loves being tied up, it just bores me; each so-called sexy scenelet seems to have been written strictly to provoke and show off.  It’s as though Ms. Powell is gleefully nudging the reader in the ribs and saying, “Did you get to the part where he throws me down so hard he bruises me?  What did you think about the part where we strip each other?  What about when we dry humped while my husband slept in the adjacent room?  Isn’t my sex life so hot?”

This self-satisfied aura pervades the entire book, and the frequency with which Ms. Powell congratulates herself in one fashion or another was utterly fascinating to me.  She describes herself as sexy, as alluring, as inviting.  At one point, when explaining why she so loves the text message, Ms. Powell writes, “With written words I can persuade, tease, seduce.  My words are what make me desirable.”

Not so, I say.

Ms. Powell’s words are interesting only when she’s writing about butchery and Fleischer’s, the butcher’s shop in which she apprentices.  Here the writing is almost lovely and at times quite fine, but once Ms. Powell leaves the shop behind…  the word self-absorbed comes to mind first, with masturbatory stepping on its heels.  Do we need two hundred odd pages of utterly dull, completely abrading twaddle about Ms. Powell stalking D after he’s dumped her, about Ms. Powell complaining that she doesn’t think it’s fair that she has to break up with someone she doesn’t want to break up with, about Ms. Powell forever checking her BlackBerry to see if D has sent her yet another racy SMS?  Not only that, do we need Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotation after quotation?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Buffy fan — I’m rewatching season two on Hulu right now, and I still laugh at the bitca scene — but do I use the show as a touchstone for my life?  And if I did, would I really write about it at length, knowing that the possibility existed that a good portion of my readers wouldn’t know what the heck I was talking about?*

Ugh.

Basically, what I’m trying to say rather poorly is this: a well-constructed story — whether it’s told on the page or on the screen, and regardless of if it’s fictional or factual — entices the audience.  Its characters must somehow impress themselves onto that audience, and the narrative must purposely propel itself forward.  Ms. Powell’s characters, though they are effectively real people, fail to enrapture, and her wandering wallowing is absolutely aimless.  Inertia is something that I can understand, as is engaging in contentious behavior, but I want to stress that I don’t think Cleaving‘s fault lies in Ms. Powell’s having had an affair, or for being torn between her husband and her lover.  Affairs make for great drama — would The Great Gatsby even have a story if it were not for the infidelities of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom and Myrtle?  The difference is that Cleaving is made up of melodrama, none of which is at all great.

* This is one of the first things that Steve Almond told me, as my college writing instructor, when I wrote a terrible, god-awful and humiliating scene referencing I Know What You Did Last Summer, which coincidentally also starred Sarah Michelle Gellar Prinze.