randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
[personal profile] randy_byers
Diski In Gratitude.jpgThis book was recommended to me by [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond. It's a cancer narrative of sorts, but it's also a memoir. Diski had a highly unpleasant childhood, with two dysfunctional and abusive parents, and an adolescence spent in and out of psychiatric institutions. Eventually, because she had gone to school with her son, Diski was invited to live with Doris Lessing, which she did for four years before Lessing decided she was a lost cause and kicked her out. Diski was the basis for Lessing's novel, The Sweetest Dream.

Diski eventually realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and published a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. In 2014 she was diagnosed with cancer and given two to three years to live. This book was the result of the diagnosis, and it was published in 2016 right before she died at age 68. I really struggled with it. I found her a very sour personality -- understandably so considering her difficult early life -- and I found her inability to reconcile herself to death strangely alien. (We'll see how that goes once my cancer really starts to eat me.) Her writing style is allusive in an almost stream of consciousness way, and I found the allusions hard to follow at times. I almost bounced off the book in the very first chapter, as she wrestles with how to write about cancer in a non-cliche way, going through all the conventional approaches that she desperately want to avoid. The self-consciousness was deeply unappealing.

Then, however, she moved on to her life with Doris Lessing, which I found more interesting, even if neither she nor Lessing comes off as a person I'd want to spend time with. But ultimately I was impressed with her honesty and willingness to delve into difficult, unresolvable feelings. As Ron said, she explores the way that gratitude and ingratitude define each other, and she's never sentimentalizes the way in which her own feelings about Lessing and life shuttle back and forth between the two poles. I'm prone to irrational optimism and sentimental romanticism myself, which is one reason I really struggled with the book, but I think her relentless investigation of fear, depression, and mental illness was a reality check I needed to receive. Not everybody has the privilege of a sheltered upbringing or of a loving family and circle of friends. In this section Diski also writes about the famous people Lessing hobnobbed with. Suffice it to say that Idries Shah comes off as a creep and an asshole in her accounting, but R.D. Laing comes off better.

By the end of the book, her free associations had a kind of magical realism to them, tying together completely disparate ideas and alternative, if not contradictory, theories into a unique vision and response to the conundrum of her life. I doubt I'm capable of resisting the cliches as powerfully as she did, but I ended up admiring her for the ability to do so and for creating a vivid depiction of the people she knew and the crazy, messy era of sex and drugs, literary heavyweights and mental hospitals she lived through.
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