Monday, December 03, 2012

Book 32: So Much For That

I really enjoyed Shriver's previous novels, We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World, though enjoyed is probably not the right word to describe Kevin given the subject matter.  Her characters are not easy to like, but generally their motivations and actions are rather understandable.  I really loved The Post-Birthday World which has a similar concept as the film Sliding Doors, looking at two different routes a life could have taken based on one action or decision.  The main character of So Much for That is Shep Knacker, a man that has long dreamed of leaving the rat race, and using his nest egg to live in luxury in a third world country.  After pushing it off for years, he has decided it is time to stop delaying because he is afraid if he keeps waiting, he will never do it.  After confronting his wife Glynis with his decision, she tells him that she has been diagnosed with a very rare cancer, mesothelioma, generally caused by exposure to asbestos.  Shep, of course, feels like he has no choice but to stay behind and care for his wife during her treatment, and due to the cheap medical insurance he has through work, he watches his nest egg dwindle over the course of his wife's treatment.
Being a character in a Lionel Shriver novel, Glynis is not very likable - she is hard, she is demanding and unforgiving.  Her terminal illness doesn't make her any easier; she doesn't suddenly become this sweet person that wants to make amends with everyone.  Part of this is because Glynis firmly believes she will beat this cancer, that she can survive, and she refuses to look at the prognosis, not that her doctor gives her one beyond low, instead tending to focus on the positives.  Many of the other characters aren't much more likeable, such as Shep's sister Beryl, an entitled documentary maker who expects everyone else, ie her brother, to support her.  Shriver makes several good points about the Catch 22s people find themselves in when it comes to health care, retirement and other large systems and institutions.  While I don't completely agree with many of the characters' points, they are definitely a good starting point for discussions.  The other thing I quite enjoyed, and is something that has come up in other articles as well, is her discussion of cancer.  Cancer isn't framed as a regular disease - it is framed as something that is battled, and people that recover are labeled survivors - as Barbara Ehrenreich points out in "Welcome to Cancerland", using that type of language makes it seem like a failure on the part of the sufferer when they don't survive, not as the sometimes inevitable fate when faced with mortal illness.  Even Siddhartha Mukherjee discusses this in The Emperor of Maladies - there have been cases in the past, and presumably present, when treatment was given not because there was any real expectation that it would work, but because it would make it feel like they (the doctors and the patient) were still fighting it.  However, it is hard to ask the question - how much is a life worth?  Where is the limit, and for what?  Are a few months longer worth millions of dollars in treatment, especially when those months are spent suffering the side effects of chemo?  As a society, we seem unable to face death, and do not even know how to interact with it.  Glynis and Shep's friends all dwindle and become scarce despite grand declarations and offers to help because as Shep later hypothesizes they aren't prepared for a long, slow death.  After grand statements and attempts to set things right, there is nothing left to say even if the friend may still be alive for several months.
Besides the Knackers, the other main characters are the Burdina couple, Jackson and Carol.  The Burdinas have long been dealing with the complexities of the health care system and insurance due to their oldest daughter's degnerative genetic condition.  It actually took me a while to really get into this novel, and it wasn't because the characters were somewhat dislikable - I was expecting that.  There were a few times, especially in the beginning where I felt the novel was too preachy.  For a large part of the novel, the characters felt less like people and more like mouthpieces and types.  Jackson especially would go on repeated page long rants about the moochers (obviously people benefitting from others' work) and the mugs (the people dumb enough to work and support the moochers), and it made the novel a bit tiring at first.  However, as I said, some interesting discussion points where raised, especially later in the novel, when the novel stopped having the large rants, and instead showed small moments and short conversations between characters.  Basically, it's a rough start, but I'd still recommend it - however, if someone hasn't read this author before, this isn't the novel to start with.  Having recently read The Emperor of Maladies, I also thought this worked as a follow up, showing the topic from an entirely different point of view.

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