In the past ten years, I’ve had more orthopedic surgeries than I can count. Well, I probably could count them, but let’s not dwell on the numbers. Let’s just say that my relationship to physical pain has been longer and more ardent than many of my other relationships, say with my fellow human beings.
And this means I’ve spent a lot of time reading while in pain, or anticipating surgery, or recovering from surgery. I’ve found that there is a certain kind of fiction best-suited to a soul that’s eager for some intellectual input but unable to concentrate on anything too challenging or abstract—when Italo Calvino is too much for your brain, which is busy regulating pain receptors and/or absorbing Oxycodone.
The question that arises is: what is that happy place between something that I’ll toss aside for being too difficult to abstract, esoteric, or too rich in complex language, and something that I’ll toss aside for being, in a word, dumb?
My first foray into all this involved a short stay in a hospital following surgery. On this little jaunt I brought two books: Derek Walcott’s collected poems, and a popular best-seller that will go unnamed here because I’m about to speak ill of it. Both were poor choices. The poetry took too much brain power, and I struggled to follow Walcott’s beautiful, haunting lines, managing to read just one entire poem over the course of three days. I have a vague memory of the sea being involved. (I’ve since browsed through the collection, and can say that he’s now one of my favorite contemporary poets—now that I have regained my faculties.) On the other side, I struggled to get through even two pages of the bestseller for the opposite reason: it was infuriatingly dumb, with far too much explanation and language about as interesting as an old lima bean.
But I have found that slim border between the two, and I’m happy to share it, though the first note I have on it is that during these times I had to find my own reading material, and I could not rely on anyone else’s recommendations, no matter how heartfelt. Pressed into my hands (or, more often, sent as links to sites where I could order them myself) were books rich in meaning, deeply felt, poetically written. The last thing I was capable of reading.
The first surprise was that plot had become more important to me than language or, even, character. I needed a good story to grab onto. And though my concentration flickered off and on like lights on a heart monitor, I found that some of the books that kept me afloat were very, very, long. The first was The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, weighing in at over 700 pages. This was an easy choice: it’s set in a sanatorium, and I felt I’d been exiled to one, though mine was lacking the views of the Alps, not to mention a dining hall. Still, I felt a certain kinship with poor Hans Castorp, who goes to the The Magic Mountain in perfect health to visit a friend but ends up staying, and staying, and staying. It is a long book, and while it’s far from packed with adventure, once I started it, I didn’t want to leave the sanatorium; he’d become kind of like a hospital roommate to me, and I needed to see him through to the end of his (long) story.
I found with The Magic Mountain this case, the more ornate the better. Or the more ornate, the more captivated I was, and the more quickly the time incarcerated in bed went by. And I was able to gloss through the discussions on various philosophies, feeling I’d earned the right to not tax myself too greatly during my stay.
But not all books that work for recovery/pain/illness have to take place in a sanatorium. Another time, when living with severe nerve pain for a summer, I picked up Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I’d been a Murakami fan years before, and had read three or four of his books in a row, then realized I felt I was reading the same book repeatedly. (I’ve also had this experience with Paul Auster—I like the books, but afterward I can’t keep straight which was which.) But here was a huge honker of a book, longer than The Magic Mountain by 350 pages, and I recalled how mightily The Magic Mountain had gotten me through before, and I laid on the futon on the back porch and read through the whole thing, one hour at a time. Having so many pages ahead was enormously comforting, making me feel this book would be with me for as long as it took for me to return to the kingdom of the well.
The thing about severe nerve pain is that they give you a bottle of oxycodone to get you through until you can try some more permanent (but hopefully not the most permanent) treatment. So much of that summer involved debating with myself whether the pain was bad enough to warrant taking an Oxy—I’m no dummy, I read the news, I know it’s addictive—and finally, after twisting around on the sofa for a few hours, giving in. Often as I settled in with 1Q84 I was a little high, or about to be a little high, and often I would, after reading for an hour, with great serenity, set the book aside, careful to mark my place because, for god’s sake, who can find their place again in a book of over a thousand pages? Especially if stoned?
1Q84 was perfect for all this, because it’s a gripping story, but one that’s impossible to summarize here as it spins across time and place and involves a kind of magic-realist time/space travel thing. Despite its multiple story lines and its sprawling nature, it’s so keenly plotted that I could always regain my footing. So it was easy for me to fall along with the story, and the story was so compelling, giving me that delicious feeling of needing to know what would happen next, that I was able to come back to it each time and immediately drop into Murakami’s weird and wonderful (and terrifying) world.
But not every book that’s gotten me through these excursions to what Susan Sontag called “the kingdom of the ill” has been a tome you use to kill a mouse. And not every one, I have to admit, as been as lofty as the work of Murakami and Mann. One summer (why do I seem to recall these times of pain and surgery as being always in the summer?) it was American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I’ve found entertainment in reading about fictional politics before, and I lived through the Bush years, so I chose this book primarily for the topic, something in my normal (kingdom of the well) life I don’t do. Also, it was at the library.
This book is so clearly based on the life of Laura Bush that it took care of any concerns I would have had about having to use my imagination too much. That sounds like a criticism, but really, it’s a compliment. In this case, it was simply a good story, well-told. Nothing that would change my life, but I did want to know what would happen. In writing this essay, I looked at a review of it by Joyce Carol Oates from the New York Times Book Review, in which she calls the book “amiable.” Thanks, Joyce. That is just the word, and that’s the word for what I’ve looked for in each book I’ve read during these times of pain or recovery: amiable. I’ve wanted a faithful golden retriever of a book.
After American Wife, I started looking for books that would, to twist the adage of the medical profession, “do no harm.” I wasn’t looking for a book that would make me reconsider my choices in life, as books by Iris Murdoch have done, or make me consider the human condition, as V.S. Naipaul or James Baldwin or countless others have done. I was already sunk deep in the human condition, thank you very much, and I wanted to forget about it for an hour at a time.
And so I came upon Sue Miller. The first book of hers was The Arsonist, and it was just what I wanted: a good story, well-told, but nothing too complex or demanding. I could pick it up, read a bit, put it back down, and it would still be there waiting for me when I tired again (all too soon). And there was Lionel Shriver’s We’ve Got to Talk About Kevin, and The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. One commonality in these books is that they’re set roughly in my own time and place, among people I recognize, even though I wouldn’t necessarily want to be friends with all of them.
When I was a kid, I loved the TV shows that were set in what I called “reality.” This was long before “reality TV” came along to signal the end of civilization. What I liked were the shows with real-seeming characters living lives recognizable to me: Dick van Dyke in his suburban house, Fred McMurray in his suburban house, Marlo Thomas…you get the picture. Less appealing to me were the shows with any kind of magic; I could enjoy “I Dream of Genie” only because it was so real, apart from Genie being able to shrink down to the size (and shape) of a Barbie doll and jump back into her bottle.
So it is that as an adult, the books I enjoy most, especially when my concentration has been compromised by my body’s refusal to be what I want it to be, are those sunk deep into our own reality. But there was one during those years of being in pain that stands out as the exception: Michael Golding’s A Poet of the Invisible World. This is one book I remember as reading not in the summer, but in the fall, of 2015. My partner and I had rented an apartment while we tried to figure out where to live following a cockamamie idea about moving from New York City to Peekskill—but that’s another story. The place we rented had a little daybed tucked into one corner of a front room, in a house that had been owned by Harriet Beecher Stowe and was now apartments. That fall, between trips to the chiropractor/surgeon/radiology office in the city, I laid in that daybed, which faced a pleasant view of the long driveway, through pretty leaded glass windows, and I allowed Golding to transport me to 13th-century Persia, to the adventures of a boy named Nouri, born with four ears. Even further from Manhattan in the 21st-century than Peekskill. And yet, Nouri drew me along on his picaresque, even though I usually recoil at a picaresque, because, again, the writing was so descriptive that I didn’t have to work to see it all unfolding for me. Dervishes, monks, the mountains of Spain—all of it a parti-colored tapestry that enthralled me away from the damn pain.
So that’s it. Descriptive detail, a plot that pulls me along like a thread through a needle. Wait, don’t say “needle.” And now that I’m back in the kingdom of the well, we hope for a long, long, time, I find myself reading poetry, and non-fiction, and short stories by Alice Munro. In other words, whatever strikes my fancy at the moment, now that I don’t have to consider my drug-or pain-induced lack of concentration.
Sarah Van Arsdale’s fifth book, The Catamount, a narrative poem with her illustrations, was published by Nomadic Press in May, 2017. She’s the author of four books of fiction, including Toward Amnesia (Riverhead, 1995) and In Case of Emergency, Break Glass (Queens Ferry Press, 2016). She teaches in the Antioch/LA MFA program, at New York University, and with Art Workshop International. She’s on the board of the Ferro-Grumley Award in LGBTQ Fiction, and she curates Bloom: The Reading Series at Hudson View Gardens in New York City. She holds an MFA from Vermont College.