Somehow, this is just the book I needed to read today. It’s like God made me buy it for my Kindle, which is ironic, since Christopher Hitchens was one of the more vocal of the latest guard of Atheists—his “God is NOT Great” caused quite a stir.
(Anyway, I just mentioned that in passing. I don’t want to start a theological debate or anything. I’m just a guy who reads books and writes about them)
Christopher Hitchens was also a prolific author and writer, and genuinely regarded as being a very learned, intelligent guy, who had more than a casual acquaintance with eccentricity. He smoked and drank heavily, and eventually, he was diagnosed with Stage Four Esophageal cancer. It was bleak. It had already spread into his lymphatic system and other nooks and crannies. He was terminal.
Being a writer first and foremost, Hitchens chose to write about his experiences as he “battled” his cancer. I put “battled” in quotes, because that’s one of the observations Hitchens made: “I’m not fighting or battling cancer—it’s fighting me.”
Hitchens doesn’t get all morose about his situation. He understands that getting depressed won’t help him, and that he’d spent his adult life “knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light.”
He takes us through some of his various treatments, wondering after the fact whether he’d have undergone them had he known how bad they’d hurt—it was a lot of pain and a lot of side-effects just to gain a few more months.
“Mortality” is not a constant narrative. This is a series of pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair. The resulting document lacks the smoothness of a memoir, and I found this beneficial. It gave me the feeling I’d have were I to have a friend facing the same malady. A friend wouldn’t relate the entire ordeal in sharply written, well-polished linear prose. It would be like “Mortality,” where we hear the story in dribs and drabs, as we would during occasional visits with a friend.
Hitchens was an outspoken Atheist, and he doesn’t undergo a sickbed conversion—at least, not one that he was able to write about here. The saddest part of “Mortality” is watching this great mind dim as his disease moves him progressively closer to the final checkmate. The early dispatches are full of bluster and wit. The middle sees a little more serious tone. By the end, Hitchens’s essays are done: we see one or two sentence notes, a quote here and there. Nothing published. Just little seeds he might have finished had remission found him.
I don’t have cancer, thank God, but I have had this thing the past year and a half, and sometimes it really lays me low. It’s been kicking my ass the past two weeks. I take lots of brightly colored pills, like handfuls of expensive Pez, but inside, I’m just depleted, apathetic gray fog. This book put my own suffering in perspective. Even on bad days, I can read and write and not feel physical pain. It’s the small blessings, I guess.
This is not a long book. I’m sure Hitchens would love to have had a few more healthy months to lengthen it. As it stands, it documents eloquently what many people we love have endured. When my grandfather had throat cancer, for example, I couldn’t observe his treatments clinically, because he was my idol, and I loved him to death.
“Mortality” gives us a glimpse at certain depots on the journey, without being clouded by our own emotions. It is not a scenic, pleasant excursion, but Hitchens proves a most eloquent travelogue narrator. This is not a warm, fuzzy book—there are no saccharine endgame memories of sunsets or babies laughing. It’s stark and unflinching. Rather than lamenting the beautiful things he’d be missing, Hitchens wondered whether he’d die before his driver’s license expired.
That dark, unconventional questioning is probably just the sort of memory Christopher Hitchens would want to leave us.
Requiescat in pace, Hitch.
Most Highly Recommended