Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell: Dispatches from the kingdom of the sick

The title story is emotionally authentic, arresting and mysterious, and its language and tone transforms what is essentially an everyday experience, writes Mary Morrissy

 Lucy Caldwell and Lorrie Moore have managed to ventilate their narratives with the highly-oxygenated breath of fiction. Yes, they are both stories of sick babies, but they give the lie to being simply memoir. Even if they are based on real-life experience, they have been transformed into subtle works of literary artifice because they have superseded mere truth-telling. Photograph: Getty Images

Lucy Caldwell and Lorrie Moore have managed to ventilate their narratives with the highly-oxygenated breath of fiction. Yes, they are both stories of sick babies, but they give the lie to being simply memoir. Even if they are based on real-life experience, they have been transformed into subtle works of literary artifice because they have superseded mere truth-telling. Photograph: Getty Images

 

One of the benchmarks of good fiction for me is – does it read like it really happened? This is one of the paradoxes fiction writers have to struggle with constantly – making stuff up that doesn’t sound invented. Autobiography may creep into the work, but it’s the fiction writer’s job, in my opinion, to hide and disguise it in the service of a greater truth – the fictional truth.

Multitudes, in Lucy Caldwell’s collection of the same name, is a story that reads like documentary, first-hand testimony, call it what you will. It’s an account of an infant’s life-threatening illness told from the point of view of its parents who are holed up in the hospital willing their baby son to survive. It is written in a mixture of first person singular – the mother talking – or third person plural – the “we” of the parents (or the “we” of the human condition?) – and it has the unmistakeable whiff of lived experience.

I don’t know anything about the author’s personal circumstances. I don’t know if she has a baby son or if the child was given a 50-50 chance of survival nine days after his birth. I could speculate from the book’s dedication but I don’t know for sure and I don’t need to know. Because the story, as a piece of fiction, works. It is emotionally authentic, it is arresting and mysterious, and its language and tone transforms what is essentially an everyday experience – watching a loved one suffer – into a contemplative metafiction with a strange, alien beauty.

The story is written in titled episodes – Visitations, Platitudes, Days, Numbers Game – like diary entries, as if the mother is jotting down notes when she can. At first, it reads like a series of reports from the medical frontline – “We are acquiring new vocabularies at a rapid pace, strings of acronyms and shorthands – GBS, PCR, LP. Some of these are almost familiar from teenage years of watching ER.” But soon another strand in the narrative emerges.

The immersion in the strangely glowing hospital underworld brings to the mother’s mind all sorts of literary consolations – I use the word consolations advisedly. Because what Caldwell’s narrator is saying by referencing other writers is – other people have been where I am now and they have sent back their dispatches.

There is a quote from Susan Sontag’s seminal essay (and later a book) on the Aids epidemic of the 1980s, Illness as Metaphor, that sent me scurrying back to the book I read over 30 years ago, while I was in hospital myself. In fact, I remember the consultant doing his rounds with a troupe of medical students in tow, remarking on my reading matter.

“Oh,” he said, “what have we here? An intellectual!” As if reading was something he might like to cure me of.

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship,” Sontag wrote. “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as the kingdom of that other place.”

In Multitudes, when the narrator is asked if she would like a hospital chaplain to come to the baby’s bedside she recalls Philip Larkin’s poem, Days: –

Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

These literary references serve to remind us that the mother in this story is a writer. In a segment titled Fiction, the narrator writes: “For the first time in my life, fiction has failed me. I can’t imagine myself out of myself, or even imagine myself doing so.” But, in fact, her reaching for other writers’ words undermines this assertion.

Reading Multitudes brought to mind another great story of a baby’s life-threatening illness – and the failure of fiction to deal with it – by the American short story writer, Lorrie Moore.

People Like That are the Only People Here appeared in Moore’s 1998 collection, Birds of America, and is a third-person account of a family whose toddler is diagnosed with cancer. Like Caldwell’s story, the baby’s unnamed mother is a fiction writer (and also a teacher living in the American Mid-West, as is Lorrie Moore.) When the story was first published in the New Yorker, it was accompanied by a large photo of the author, which, as Julian Barnes has remarked, “incited its readers, despite the ‘fiction’ strap, to treat it as a true life account”.

Lorrie Moore’s son was treated for childhood cancer, but to consider this powerful, funny – yes, funny, barbarically funny – and heart-breaking narrative as anything other than invention would be to discount the sparkling metafiction Moore has created out of personal trauma. She does this by resorting to her trademark witty irony, and by keeping a strict authorial distance. Her characters are referred to only by their assigned roles – the Mother, the Baby, the Husband, the Oncologist. As in Caldwell’s story, Moore gives us the strange twilight world of the kingdom of the sick, but she’s also looking at the fiction writer’s relationship to the “material” of life.

In Moore’s story, the husband urges his wife to write about the experience.

“‘Take notes,’ says the Husband, after coming home from work, mid-afternoon, hearing the news, and saying all the words out loud – surgery, metastasis, dialysis, transplant – then collapsing in a chair in tears. ‘Take notes. We are going to need the money.’”

Initially, the Mother is horrified by his suggestion.

“‘No, I can’t . Not this! I write fiction. This isn’t fiction. . . I can’t do this. I can do - what can I do? I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I can do succinct descriptions of weather. . . I do the careful ironies of daydream. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built. But this? Our baby with cancer?’”

But as Moore cannily suggests by implication, the Mother does take notes. And those notes become the story we are reading, so we too are implicated in the ambiguous art of writerly appropriation.

Both Caldwell and Moore have managed to ventilate their narratives with the highly-oxygenated breath of fiction. Yes, they are both stories of sick babies, but they give the lie to being simply memoir. Even if they are based on real-life experience, they have been transformed into subtle works of literary artifice because they have superseded mere truth-telling. They are real life, and then some.

Either way, the reader is the winner.

If Multitudes actually happened, it’s an incredibly artistically rigorous record of events. If it didn’t, it’s a terrific leap of the imagination.

Mary Morrissy's latest work is Prosperity Drive. Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber, £12.99) is this month’s Irish Times Book Club selection, which we shall be exploring in a series of articles and essays. The series will culminate in an interview by Laura Slattery, which will released as a podcast on September 30th

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