“The second time someone told me I was dying I was 30 years old. The first time I was 23, but I was living in Montréal then and chalked up the nurse’s proclamation of my impending demise to a breakdown in language. I didn’t really believe it. The second time, I believed it, even though the surgeon hardly seemed credible in his sandals and cargo shorts and a voice most people reserve for children and dogs. I cried, but mostly I thought about getting outside so I could crack jokes with my friend about the indignity of being told I was dying by a man with Birkenstocks and bad breath.”
This is an excerpt from Alicia’s longer piece on cancer and comedy (including reflections on Tig Notaro, illness as a narrative device, and the hilarious but painful indignities of the human body) in Little Brother Magazine. It is one of the finest works I’ve ever had the honour of editing.
Neither did this good little thing he said about cooking for a dinner party, which he does every week for his Fed column in the Toronto Star:
For a dinner party I’ll usually have three courses. My formula is—and this is for me, not what I’d advise other people—but I’m doing one thing that is tested, I’ve done this dish ten times, it’s a hit; one other thing that maybe I did before and it didn’t work, or maybe I did it before and now I have another way to do it, or I have an ingredient that I want to slide into it, and hopefully that dish, I’m just going to try to make it better; and a third thing that’s new. Either something I came up with, or something I’m getting directly from a book, or a recipe that a chef gave me. And that would probably be the one I write about because it’s new, it’s a challenge. And if I fail, all the better—it’s a better story. You learn more from screwing up than getting it right.
The middle act is my favourite part of any story. That’s when it’s okay for the characters to screw up, ‘cause otherwise the story would be over. So I feel like it’s okay to put yourself in a little danger in the middle part of your story.
"We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities. The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float."
"Having established that he is hardly someone who would confuse low art for high, or an original insight for tediously familiar received wisdom, Wallace gives us permission to find solace in common self-help truisms without feeling that we have lost our critical faculties. In other words, he cleaves aesthetic standards from moral ones, and shows us that it is possible, and sometimes necessary, to do so."
"But unlike Franzen’s belligerence about “society” having a deleterious effect on art or “the soul,” or Wallace’s paralyzing concern about the relationship between writers and their television screens, Smith’s work as both a critic and novelist invites her readers to celebrate the delicious and ever disastrous commingling of the world and the self. She blurs these borders in order to simultaneously honor and disparage art’s greatest article of faith-based flapdoodle: authenticity. It is a really neat trick."
"There’s an element of solipsism to everything, darling. We are inside ourselves looking out, desperately trying to gather the evidence, trying to crack the code of this strange world that we’re thrown into. We have to be solipsistic, because we are inside ourselves. It doesn’t preclude loving people, or sympathizing with people, or hating people. Or interacting with them, to use that awful term. But we are constantly inside ourselves. Don’t get depressed about that, that’s not depressing."
It’s good to be moving on to newer things, and it’s especially great to have more time for the magazine. But I actually choked up a little when I sent this in to my editor (and friend) slash co-columnist, because I did this at least twice a month since, what, March?, and I’m gonna miss it.