While the world fumbles with a devastating pandemic, a memoir about illness, care, pain, and profit wins a Pulitzer Prize. It is tragically appropriate that such an excoriating, anticapitalist memoir, written by a poet from Kansas whose life was altered by a triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis, has earned a prestigious literary prize at a time in which the people running the United States seem to be using this crisis as a competition to achieve the highest Covid-19 case counts and most exacting death toll over every other nation.
Judging by its subtitle alone, Anne Boyer’s The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer and Care would seem to contain more numerous avenues than one could normally bear to tread in a memoir. The healthcare industry’s role within capitalism, as Boyer writes about it, will be familiar to those who’ve been harmed by it—those with no wealth, those who work to live, and those who have experienced the byzantium of illness and healthcare firsthand.
She also gets into specificities of her illness and its treatment, breast cancer myths and pinkwashing, shifting relationships with friends and with one’s own body, self advocacy—and how these are all shaped by a capitalist health system—and much more, in a way that makes the reader feel a mixture of bravery and terror. Through these intersecting narratives, the book offers a complex map towards an understanding of what Boyer calls “the undying”—a collective state of being that is not the same as the heroic and singular “survivor,” but rather more like a common group of those tasked with the labor of continuing to live after parts of themselves have died.
“No matter how much they just can’t, the exhausted, if they are living, continue to,” she writes. “They continue to, like everyone who does until they don’t anymore, but they continue to more miserably than those who are not exhausted yet.” It is a challenging, instructive text in this period of mass illness and isolation, when it is hard to imagine a future, though we must.