When the essayist and novelist Jenny Diski, who died last week at 68, learned she had inoperable lung cancer, her first impulse was to make a "Breaking Bad" joke. She turned to her husband and said, in front of her doctor, "We'd better get cooking the meth."
Ms. Diski's second impulse was to fear she was a cliché. In her new memoir, "In Gratitude," she thinks: Oncologists must be subjected to that stupid meth joke every day. "I was mortified at the thought that before I'd properly started out on the cancer road," Ms. Diski writes, "I'd committed my first platitude."
Platitudes are hard to come by in Ms. Diski's many books (novels, travelogues, memoirs, short stories), which are mordant and talon-sharp. Her essays in The London Review of Books, where much of the material in this book originally appeared, were among the reading life's dependable pleasures. But cancer threatened to box her in as a writer. By now it's a cliché, when writing a cancer memoir, even to make a show of fighting the genre's clichés.
Ms. Diski was up-to-date on her cancer lit, having read recent books by Oliver Sacks, Clive James and the art critic Tom Lubbock. Their excellence she found distressing. "There are no novel responses possible," she writes. "Absolutely none that I could think of. Responses to the diagnosis; the treatment and its side effects; the development of cancer symptoms; the pain and discomfort; the dying; the death."
With "In Gratitude," she has written a different kind of cancer memoir, and an almost entirely platitude-free one, simply by writing a typically sui-generis Jenny Diski book. Which is to say, a book that pushes in five or six directions at once.
In part, it's about her treatment and her onrushing frailties, and this material is plain-spoken, harrowing and invariably moving. It's also the story of her youth and young adulthood, when she suffered from depression and withdrawal and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, "rattling from bin to bin," as she puts it. It's about her feckless parents, who more or less abandoned her.
It's about her tangled relationship with the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing, a rhinoceros of a personality, with whom she lived for four years while a teenager. And finally it is about disease as performance, literary and otherwise. There was a "show going on the road," she declares, "in which I was to star."
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A recurring joke in "In Gratitude" is how prepared Ms. Diski was to play the role of cancer patient. She's already an anti-socialite. Her lifelong favorite places are bed and sofa. She lives, she thinks, like one of those secondary characters in Victorian literature who constantly retire to the fainting couch. She tells her doctor, "I have the metabolism of a sloth."
He tells her, "This is different." He is right. It turns out that Ms. Diski has two particularly unpleasant diseases, lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. Either can make you feel you are suffocating. Together they are pulverizing. "I don't do things by halves," the author comments.