Monday, May 07, 2012

Torch by Cheryl Strayed

The fact is that as organic beings, we are situated towards death. Martin Heidegger announces that one of the universal and necessary conditions of being human is being-towards-death; he calls these universal and necessary conditions existentialia. So many authors have written about this experience of living in the shadow of death, but few have written as honestly and insightfully as Cheryl Strayed on experiencing the death of a loved one. In her 2005 novel, Torch, Strayed lays out the confusion of emotions that surround the death and dying of a thirty-eight year old woman, Teresa, and skillfully changes voices to describe the reactions of a college age daughter, Claire, a high school senior son, Josh, and a loving husband and step-father, Bruce. While it is Claire’s voice that is both the most convincing and complete, I was very impressed by Strayed’s ability to speak for the son and husband as well.

Strayed now lives in Portland, and since the debut of this sad and lovely little novel, she has published a memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail (2012), and has identified herself as the voice behind the advice column, Dear Sugar. So many excellent novels (especially first novels) are thinly veiled autobiographical sketches, and this is certainly true of Torch. Like Claire, Strayed lost her mother to cancer at an early age, and she experienced first-hand her own wild grief and the different, though no less profound, reactions of a brother and stepfather.

I won’t be giving away much of the story by telling you that about the first third of the novel describes the illness and death of Teresa, and the last two thirds focuses on the attempts of her family to deal with her death.

The mother, Teresa, in addition to working hard as a waitress, is also well known locally via her radio talk show, Modern Pioneers. Teresa’s children are alternately proud of their mother’s local fame and ashamed of the homespun stories and advice she delivers on her show and strives to live out in her daily life. At the end of each show, she invokes her listeners to “Work hard. Do good. Be incredible!”

Claire is called home from college when her mother gets the shocking diagnosis that she has only a short time to live—maybe weeks, maybe months, at most a year. For a little while, she and others in the family try to carry on with their normal routines, but as the disease rapidly progresses, each has to face the fact that there will be no return to normalcy—not now, not ever.
Claire stared at her mother as she slept or tried to sleep. The longer she watched her, the more foreign Teresa seemed to her, as if she hadn’t known her all her life. She’d felt the same peculiar dislocation years before, when it had been explained to how babies were made. It wasn’t the facts that had confused her, or the mystery of sex or birth or creation, but the question of why. Why should there be people at all? Or fish or lions or rats? Now she felt a new wonder washing over her. If there were to be people and fish and lions and rats, then why should they die? And why, most of all, should her mother die?
Bruce, the loving husband who has become a devoted father to Claire and Joshua, attempts first simply to deny that his wife is dying; her death seems inconceivable. It is she who is the glue of the family, the wise mother and pioneer. And when her death becomes inevitable, when she in fact dies, his second attempt at denial is to suppose that when she dies, so will he. He can see no other solution, though he worries about how his children will respond to this second death.

Joshua, still a senior in high school, also attempts first simply to deny. He refuses to visit his mother in the hospital, not only because he hates to see her so changed, hates to see her and hear her suffering, but because in some confused way he supposes his refusal will prevent her death. Even before she becomes so ill that she has to be in the hospital, Joshua has taken to staying away, not attending school, secreting himself in a storeroom above the restaurant where he worked before his mother became ill.
On occasion he made an appearance, showing up at home a couple of times a week for Bruce or Claire so they wouldn’t worry, and at least once a day he saw Lisa Bourdeaux {his girlfriend}. But mostly he liked to be alone, in silence, or listening to his music as he lay on the unfurled rug in the apartment or sat by the river on the rock, not remembering where the world was. Remembering it, but willing himself not to. Often this meant that he could not allow a single thought into his mind, and he got good at it, forcing his mind to go separate and blank, imagining himself not human, but rather an animal that hibernated or went into torpor.
Strayed is incredibly good at dissecting the grief of each member of the family, showing how their very different reactions sometimes drive them further apart when they so desperately need to be closer together. When Joshua asks his stepfather what he is going to do now that Teresa is dead, Bruce wants to reach out, wants to comfort his son.
And he almost reached out and put his hand on Joshua’s shoulder and said, ‘Suffer for a while, but then we’re going to be okay.'
But he said none of those things. He wasn’t that man. Not in this instant. He was so alone that he could not speak. He remained silent for so long that the silence seemed to absorb the question entirely, so that it would have been stranger to answer than to leave it be.
It would be a big mistake to suppose that Strayed is simply noting that boys and men attempt to deny or flee death and grief, while girls and women have to deal with it. In fact, she is both perceptive and exceedingly kind in her descriptions of the varied responses. Each character deals with the death and dying as she/he must, and while this is not a happy book, neither is it simply bleak and tragic. I would say that in the end she is hardest on Claire, perhaps because she expects the most from her, from herself. But in truth the author shows great empathy towards and understanding of each of her characters, and if there is no final summing up and redemption, there is acceptance and understanding of this universal and necessary condition of what it is to be human. This is a fine book, and I expect more from this wonderful writer.

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