Alice & Oliver: Just Another Cancer Story?

Alice and OliverThis month, Snotty Literati reviews—with spoilers—Charles Bock’s novel Alice & Oliver about married New Yorkers who are young, hip, urban, and the parents of an infant. Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, and she needs a bone marrow transplant. As illness colonizes their entire lives, readers hear its impact from both of their points of view. Alice lives, knowing she’ll probably die before Doe grows up. Oliver tries to hold them all together. The medical community rallies. Cancer encroaches. Charles Bock, sadly, writes from personal experience. The book is dedicated to Diana Joy Colbert, his first wife who was diagnosed in 2009 and died in 2011. Bock is now married to Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. He lives in New York with his wife and his daughter from his first marriage.

 Jennifer: Well, this book was—this will sound nuts—a relief after our last book. This was heavily literary: all about character, luminous prose. I will say it took me a long time to read it. I enjoyed it all, but it was a slooooow read.

Lara: You can say that again. I took it with me on a four-day vacation, expecting to knock it out in two … and it was eating the big salad. You know, the kind you get that you eat and eat and it never looks or feels like you are making any progress. That’s a Seinfeld shout out, by the way.

Jennifer: Nice way to add some levity. Did you like it, though?

Lara: I liked it. But I didn’t love it. Clearly, Bock can write. And I think he actually wrote this book as a kind of love letter to his wife, which is sweet. But Oliver, who started out sweet and loving, ended up being a total asshole. And, Alice, who—SPOILER ALERT—beats her illness and chooses to stay with him….pissed me off. She totally had the opportunity and complete justification to make a clean break…and she didn’t. In the end, I was just disappointed. These aren’t characters who will stay with me.

Jennifer: Well, hmmm. I’m going to disagree and explain. I don’t think he was a total asshole. I want to say that he was weak, but it wasn’t that either. I’ll have to do the personal-thing here. As many people know, I’m in remission after Stage Two Breast Cancer. I think Bock got so much of this illness right that what may seem like ass-holery here is just honesty. I didn’t really like Alice herself all that much either. But I found these two to be real. Very real characters. Oliver was strong in many of the ways in which he cares for her. He goes to prostitutes when she’s ill, and that made me boil. In that, he was weak and cruel. Generally, I would support his actions of coming clean with his wife—but not when she was about to die (I didn’t think she’d live). I guess I think it would be better to not tell her. When I told my husband about it—because I was so upset—he was, like, After only one year? What a waste of money!

Also, I’m glad they stayed together! Of course they stayed together! The book’s finale clearly reveals their love for one another, as well as the forever-altered state of their sexuality: “Doe knew her parents loved her and she knew they had once been in love, but she often wondered about whether they loved each other. Now she watched them staring at one another with a clarity and intimacy that she recognized as laden with tenderness, and history, and more than that, too.” What a great quote about a successful marriage.

And that’s another thing I liked about this book. It showed how illness doesn’t cancel out human sexuality.

Lara: It was very cruel for him to seek out prostitutes. I am not even sure it was after a year. I get the whole bad-choices-don’t-make-him-a-bad-person thing. But his wife was supposedly this person with whom he was so in love and he wasn’t even sure would live? He can’t just watch some porn for a year? Not that there’s ever a good time to cheat on your spouse—but I am thinking when she or he is on a death bed, awaiting news of a bone marrow donor, it’s not the time. He did take on a lot, but he had immense help with Alice’s mother and some of Alice’s friends. There’s so many stories of men going out on their marriages. Is it really that hard to stay faithful?

I am with you that it was a realistic portrait of a marriage, disease, and the healthcare system. Oliver’s affairs—it wasn’t just one prostitute—were a cheap opt-out for his character. And it didn’t seem like something he would have done. Honestly—and this is going to sound super contradictory—it would have been more realistic and a better story if he had screwed a sister or best friend. Certainly more devastating. I am sounding all over the board here. Come at me, bro! I am ready.

Jennifer: Well, he deliberately chose anonymity so that there was no emotional involvement. In this way, he felt as if he were being faithful to her. Which is absurd, but people always think this shit. Ultimately, he’s saying that sex and love are totally two different things—so he’s somehow okay. The guilt comes for him anyway. Also, he stops cheating at a pivotal moment. One of the anonymous prostitutes has a moment in which she reveals her own depths; Oliver talks of his wife’s cancer and the prostitute says that Alice is undergoing suffering of biblical proportions—or something like that. Once she’s said something truly compassionate, truly human, he can’t cope—and he leaves. I’m not saying this is good, but it makes sense: Oliver dehumanized his whores. If they were human, he was most definitely cheating.

We might note that Alice, too, has a less-indecent infidelity, a little flirtation that gets out of hand. I felt like this was imposed on the story a bit—to maybe justify Oliver or “even them out.” I didn’t think it did anything for the novel.

Lara: Wait a minute. Are you trying to tell me that Alice’s situation with the roving hospital guitar dude, who she clearly told she was not interested in but who obviously flattered her, is the same thing as Oliver seeing MULTIPLE prostitutes, even after he told her he would stop? I am going to call bullshit on that.

 Jennifer: No, not the same thing. I want to emphasize the realness of these characters, though. That marriage was pretty real. I like this line:

“Please,” she told Oliver. “We’re getting to a place where you can be right or we can be married. And I need so badly to be married to you.”

Frankly, this resonated with me. I’m sure—like absolutely, totally sure—I’ve said it to my husband or thought it to myself.

Lara: I loved that line too. It’s brilliant. I actually loved Oliver. In the beginning…

Jennifer: Elsewhere, when they’re trying to keep their lives together, there is this sentence fragment about finding babysitters for their child:

“Relying on one or two distressingly attractive, semi-competent young women fresh out of art school . . .”

I love the distressingly attractive part. I’m so very sure, also, that my husband has found young women “distressingly attractive.” I’m sorry for seeing this novel so thoroughly through my own cancerous lens. This is a cancer story.

But I want to riff on that for a bit. I’ve read quite a few cancer stories by now (everyone writes a book), and it’s become increasingly obvious that the quality of the writing, the strength of voice and rigor of prose, the beauty of verbiage is the distinction: what distinguishes the good ones from the bad. It isn’t the harrowing plot line. It’s the writing.

And it’s something else: it’s the “scope of the imagination,” to quote Anne in Anne of Green Gables. It’s the writer taking the story beyond cancer, to something else—something that speaks to those not suffering from cancer.

I liked a lot about the marriage here, though you didn’t. But, but, but . . . This is a New York Novel, and I love me a New York Novel! I love when a book captures the pulse and character of New York. I’ve already brought in my own cancer, and now I’m going to bring in my own—nameless—novel (not the collection, folks). I wanted to do that New York thing with my book: really create an authenticity. Bock did that superbly.

Lara: I would agree with you on those points. I do think there was a bit too much on the details of cancer, the names of the medicines and treatments, fighting with hospital billing, and the insurance company; while it added to the realness, it also bogged the story down. I hope that doesn’t sound terrible. I don’t have cancer. My son had a swallowing condition at birth that we dealt with for five years, so I totally get the stress of having what feels like a second and third job as a Case Manager/Caregiver/Parent/Spouse. But something about it was maybe too much.

Jennifer: I’m not sure. I was into it. I admit that it could be because of my own cancer. I did like this passage a lot (it’s Alice’s thoughts):

“This is part of my plan. Whenever somebody is going to do something for me, take me somewhere, give me anything, I am going to make a note. A series of short, sweet anchors. This is how I will survive.” Hence, the details.

Lara: Again, I did like it. And parts I loved! I loved their early marriage, and the beginning of the diagnosis. They were sweet and fighting a united fight. After a rough night in the hospital, Bock writes:

“Her hand was clutching his. She welled up, swallowed and said, ‘Tu esta mi favorito.’

‘Tu esta mi favorito,’ he said.

And in this way, they kept going, following the directions Alice had written in her to-do notebook, muddling through the lobby, their hands together on that stroller, the sick woman in the blue wig, and her dapper stubble-headed husband, and their baby, too, a small, quiet family, shrinking, moving forward.”

Isn’t that beautiful? I really was rooting for them.

Jennifer: Yes. And the entirety of pages 234-235 with its New Yorkisms, its East Village collisions, CBGB-Limelight-Patti Smith-Yaffa-all night Polish diner ministrations bedazzled me. I loved how a chic life could be turned on its head, the brutality of it—like some kind of plucked peacock. Which would make a great title of a story: A Plucked Peacock. Dibbs. All Rights Reserved. Copyrighted. Whatever.

Lara: I also loved the reality that I am sure exists when you are in treatment and need the regularity of life to continue, to ground you. I loved the scene about Crab Fest—a virtually impossible event to get into. Alice gets reservations and is hell-bent on attending, even though it’s scheduled at a critical point in her treatment.

“Howard Eisentstatt, MD, let out an airless gasp. ‘The Black Tide?’ he sputtered. ‘You have reservations?’ An amazed laugh; he shook his head, rubbed his chin. ‘Mrs. Culvert, you’re obviously a resourceful woman. But this time it’s my turn to be as clear as possible. Leukemia and induction have severely compromised your immune system. By severely, I mean to say: your immune system is as close to non-existent as possible. I’m telling you I’d rather you not go out in public at all. If and when you go out, it must be in a controlled environment. This means wearing the mask. The gloves. Antibacterial wash in your purse. No way you are going to a crab boil.”

Jennifer: Yes! The authenticity of the moment. We cling to the lives we create for ourselves, right? It makes us figure out what really matters. I’m not sure these two characters really do that. I’m not sure Alice’s Buddhist tendencies ever enlighten her in any real way, and I’m not sure they emerge as better people or better parents. Rather, it is a true picture of the bad, bad times. And I think Bock did what you mentioned earlier: he wrote a love letter to his deceased wife.

Lara: Mmmhmm. He also created several reactions for me—even ones I didn’t like—and that’s the sign of a good writer, to elicit feeling. Even if it’s feelings we don’t necessarily enjoy.

Next Up!

If cancer wasn’t enough, we are going to tackle marriage, family, and mental illness with Adam Haslett’s newest, Imagine Me Gone.

See you next month, Snotties!