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  • [sic]: A Memoir by Joshua Cody
  • Arthur W. Frank (bio)
Joshua Cody . [sic]: A Memoir. New York, NY: Norton, 2011. 266 pp. Clothbound, $24.95.

Thinking about how to describe Joshua Cody, I looked up definitions of metrosexual. Cody fits on several dimensions: even when he is physically outside New York City, he continues to imagine urban [End Page 367] spaces—his identity seems inseparable from that geography; he apparently has unlimited disposable income to spend in bars (and an equally unlimited physical tolerance for alcohol, even while in chemotherapy); his tastes and cultural reference points are mostly European; he is a modernist whose most reliable companions are Ezra Pound, Paul Klee, and Gustav Mahler; and last but not least, he rarely encounters a woman whom he doesn't end up sleeping with.

[sic] has received newspaper reviews that support its stellar lineup of dust-jacket blurbs. The blurb collection on this book makes fascinating presumptions about taste in contemporary writing. Notably, the writer Nick Flynn, after some generic praise, says: "Welcome to the new face of memoir." I read [sic] asking myself whether, if Flynn is right, is [sic] also the new face of first-person illness narratives? Pretty clearly, as retro as many of Cody's tastes are, [sic] represents a new generation of narrative expectations.

An immediately noticeable difference from earlier illness narratives is that I can't find exactly what form of cancer Cody has. After flipping through the text several times, I resort to the jacket flap, which tells me only that he is "a brilliant young composer [who] was about to receive his Ph.D. when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer." Because his initial symptom is a lump on his neck, I assume lymphoma, which fits his treatment protocol. What matters is that Cody feels no need to specify a detail that counted significantly for memoirists of earlier decades. He does tell us how many chemo sessions he had (twelve) and he describes the interview in which his oncologist tells him that chemo has failed and what's next involves "a combined treatment of radiation, a high-dose chemotherapy regime called ICE, and a bone marrow transplant" (36). The physician then adds, in what may be the book's shortest sentence, "It's relatively endurable" (36). Cody may omit diagnostic detail, but he has a fine sense of irony.

For the memoirists of the 1970s through the 1990s, cancer was a question, even an enigma; they sought to make sense of how lay and professional cultures constructed meanings of cancer; they wanted to demystify cancer, to discover ways to live with it. I imagine Cody agreeing with the television character Dr. Gregory House whose final pronouncement was: "Cancer is boring."

The book is structured—a questionable word here—less by the trajectory of Cody's treatment and more by the succession of his girlfriends and sexual encounters with them. The first of these women picks him up outside a bar during the period of chemotherapy; another [End Page 368] is a cancer patient herself, although their acquaintance precedes that; one is a hallucination Cody experiences during his transplant; and the last is a physician on the transplant team with whom he forms a relationship immediately after his discharge from hospital. Each of these characters emerges as a strong individual. Part of Cody's appeal to women is the clarity with which he recognizes the conflicts each faces—the method in each woman's madness. But for me the most compelling woman in the book is Cody's mother, who is with him throughout the transplant. Her journal entries, which are quoted when his necessarily trail off, took me back to how writers represented illness experience two decades ago: illness is the focus, emotions and clinical descriptions are direct, there are no digressions. Again, there's a generational divide here.

The first third of [sic] contains the fewest digressions, and I found it the most readable. As the book progresses, the digressions get longer, or perhaps their cumulative effect makes them seem longer. Many are on music (20th century classical, but also the Rolling Stones), some concern art, possibly...


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pp. 367-370
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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