20 June 2011

The Aquarium, by Aleksandar Hemon

I don't generally write about a single short story but I just read this piece* in the New Yorker and was totally blown away. It's pretty heartrending, but it's really powerful. It's about a man (I guess Hemon himself, because it's in the Personal History section, implying that it's non-fiction) whose 9 month old daughter is diagnosed with a brain tumor. This, Wit and The Year of Magical Thinking are the best works about the experience of physical illness, hospitals, and grief that I have ever encountered. None of them are especially upbeat or cheerful, but they are all pretty amazing.

The interesting thing about this essay though, is that the illness of the daughter is happening at the same time as his other, older daughter is inventing an imaginary friend. That in itself would seem like a fairly common trope, but what made it so memorable is that he describes this invisible friend as a symptom of an excess of language: "She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses (...) The words demanded the story." This, in and of itself, is a fascinating idea to me. But it becomes particularly resonant when coupled with the man's relationship to language, especially as regards this particular situation. The problem is not that he doesn't have words to describe it: it's that "there were far too many words, and they were too heavy and specific to be inflicted on others." There are some other twists to this series of reflections, but to me it's that basic idea of the interplay between language and experience, of language exceeding experience and forcing you to create fictional ones, or of reality being such as to make words painful, that I find kind of fascinating.

It's definitely a story that will stick with you for a long time. Pretty intense stuff. And probably not like other narratives of illness you may have read before - I'd say the aforementioned triumvirate this work has been a part of in my mind is relatively unique in many ways (and I've actually read quite a few narratives of illness - I did an independent study on illness and life writing in college and basically read everything I could get my hands on, which amounted to like 80 autobiographies plus various critical works). Anyways - recommended

*Dude, I can do hyperlinks with this app? Awesome! Also, apologies if you're not a subscriber. But the summer fiction issue of the New Yorker is probably worth buying at the newsstand anyways. Or just subscribe to the magazine. I held out for years, and scoffed at people who said "oh I just read this piece in the New Yorker", and then I randomly caved and became one of those people.

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