My life searches for normalcy, a theme familiar to readers. The publishing schedule that I so optimistically established months ago is more difficult to follow than I thought. Fevers, fatigue, and family make for compelling detours.
But finally we return to Called Back, Mary Cappello’s meandering meditation on her breast cancer experience. Readers looking for a start-to-finish, diagnosis-to-remission story will be disappointed. The book is cut from a different mental fabric. This is not a narrative about her cancer experience but rather a personal exploration of hidden meanings and symbols suggested by the nature of the disease and the idiosyncrasies of her treatment.
While the final two chapters are devoted to chemotherapy and then radiation treatment, the two therapies serve only as a launching point for the author’s astute though tangential reflections on a variety of unseeming subjects such as the meaning of color in life and in illness or the perfection of flowers.
Cappello writes in a kind of prose/poetry, words dense but at the same time lyrical, words that are precise though sometimes obscure. She clearly loves language not only as a descriptor but as an exploratory tool, a manifestation of her commitment to semiotics. But this kind of writing demands more from the reader. And I suspect that readers deep into their own cancer treatments will find the task all the more daunting.
The narrative thus does not “flow” like more ordinary memoirs but rather pitches forward haltingly, stopping frequently to examine words and nuance, then often taking detours further into her consciousness. She objects to the word “fine” in relation to a cancer patient, finding the term “insultingly inacccurate if not dismissive. A person following treatment for breast cancer will never be doing fine, though she will be doing differently.” The word “radiation” serves as a stepping off point for comparison to the concept of “radiance”.
The author’s points of reference belie her academic and intellectual background. Spectres of books, fiction, poetry, and otherwise make appearances in her meditations. Likewise works of art and of music serve of as vehicles for comparing cancer-related experience.
There is little dialogue in the telling. And when it occurs, the dialogue is minimal and muffled, appearing only to propel the author’s thoughts toward other, deeper considerations. Likewise the role of other persons in her narrative again serve as inspirations for analysis. I was struck by the fact that Jean, her longtime companion, is mentioned only periodically though always with affection but never in much depth. It may be that that relationship and its deeper implications has already by examined and deconstructed prior to the onset of her illness, there now being little need to interrupt the present narrative.
At the same time people in the book almost float by, unnoticed, being offered only to illustrate the current introspection. I was surprised that the person I felt to be most present was her deceased step-father, Sid. He appears in just a few paragraphs and yet it is the image of this relationship that was most vivid to me.
Near the end of the book, after spending weeks in the radiation therapy, Cappello discourses on the myriad conversations she has had with “fellow initiates”. “Often in the radiation’s waiting room I experience narratives like this: people tell me stories with a trundling force, a blast of urgency, breathless accounts of trial without end out of which springs an unanticipated revelation, a conferral, or an annointing, whether I’ve asked for it or not.”
“I write to give form to all that lingers,” begins the epilogue. This is the author’s contribution to our collective cancer experience. The book is sprinkled with wise and sometimes ironic insight. This is not a book to be read to pass the hours while receiving chemo. It is better to read it in repose, in a quiet, warm corner with a cup of tea, while the demons are sleeping.
Order from Amazon: Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life