With insomnia, asthma, a fever of 103, the pox, the shakes – unable
to leave the bed, unable to sleep, the TV is migrainous – there’s still a
book. Without distractions, the relationship is closer, more intense.
Some books mesh with the reader’s febrile state – maybe not social comedies or measured critiques, but the more uneven the better. Invented language such as those used by Anthony Burgess, Russell Hoban or in Eimear McBride’s Goldsmiths-winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing can be initially off-putting after the broadsheets’ standard Reuters-style neutered prose.
‘Puk blodd over me frum. In the next but. Let me air. Soon I’n dead I’m sr. Loose. Ver the aIrWays. Here. mY nose my mOuth I. VOMit. Clear. CleaR.’
The fevered mind may be closer to the spirit of McBride’s wayward narrator and her fragmented thought process. Quite apart from the subject echoing our sickness and hypochondriac longing for imminent death, our expectations of formal scene-setting and exposition are undermined by our own sick-room squalor, we’re in there, in Sylvia Plath’s 'Fever 103°'.
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.
Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.
Or in the rotunda ‘all white in the whiteness’ of Beckett’s ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’: ‘The light that makes all so white no visible source, all shines with the same white shine, ground, wall, vault, bodies, no shadow. Strong heat, surfaces hot but not burning to the touch, bodies sweating.’
The temperature inside goes up and down like the waves of fever, hot and cold, white and dark, until the narrator’s voice is the sound of our own fever humming in the rotunda of our skull.
‘The light goes down, all grows dark together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, the light goes out, all vanishes. At the same time the temperature goes down, to reach its minimum, say freezing-point, at the same instant that the black is reached, which may seem strange. ’
The shivering of fever is in there, weaving and guttering like a flame as our strength drains away.
A great deal is written about writing – about reading, not so much. It is passive to the writer’s active, with the reader as a spectator to genius, it’s the same for everybody and so not worth talking about. But reading is as solo, as individual as sexuality and no doubt as various. It is a Faustian pact we strike with a writer, a surrender of our critical faculties in the suspension of disbelief and entry into their imaginary world. Illness can undermine our defences, so we go further into the writer’s world on a mission to intensify the experience.
This type of reading is one of moment by moment identification with a voice, not measured appreciation or an overview of a writer’s achievement. But it is much more powerful – writers who have helped us to endure some low point are more likely to have an impact, to stay with us.
It may be more difficult to follow a plot or recall an array of characters, but the transition to the shifting dream logic of modernist or experimental works, such as Renata Adler’s Speedboat or J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition is effortless. The Speedboat carried me through nights of hallucinations with glandular fever, segueing seamlessly from one non sequitur to the next.
Motifs reappear with the instinctive force of art rather than logic, as they do in a night of dream sequences, with variations on a theme; the dreamer is chased by rats, their fingers are trapped in the change slots of cabs, Janis Joplin sings “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” as an earworm we can’t shake. The narrator slip-slides from one detailed yet affectless dream to the next, disconnected from their life.
While every imagination is a disconnect from reality, when this alienation or flight is the subject of the work, illness brings us closer to this separation, a falling away from normal life.
A narrator in drink or drugs, in extremis, then comes into their own. Geoffrey Firmin’s last moments in Under the Volcano, as he loses control of his mind in the final flare of fantasy accompanying his death are akin to the hallucinatory thought processes in a fever spike:
‘It was crumbling too, whatever it was, collapsing, while he was falling, falling into the volcano, he must have climbed it after all, though now there was this noise of foisting lava in his ears, horribly, it was in eruption yet no, it wasn’t the volcano, the world itself was bursting, bursting into black spouts of villages catapulted into space, with himself falling through it all, through the inconceivable pandemonium of a million tanks, through the blazing of ten million burning bodies, falling into a forest, falling--’
In this moment of lucid dreaming, relieved at being shot, he sees all his life hurtling towards this end, his body and mind disintegrating, unable to contain his torment any longer. As the body breaks apart it can contain everything ‘the world itself was bursting’ and the ’10 million burning bodies’.
The suspension of disbelief is easier, the analytical voice demanding to know what the author means is further away – the experience of reading is intensified, aiming at merging with the work rather than ‘literary criticism’. I’ve tried this artificially, listening to CAN, drinking and smoking, so that reading is almost like being at Gerald’s Party. Time seems suspended in the novel, in the way it does to a drunk, and it is still possible to admire Coover’s ability to juggle multiple storylines in one seemingly endless take.
This approach favours apprehension over comprehension, assuming literature can act on the reader’s subconscious as well as conscious mind, as music and the visual arts do. The repetition of sound in mantra or nursery rhyme bypasses consciousness, as does the repetition of motifs and non-linear plot, released from the shackles of realism’s cause and effect.