[Sagging Meniscus; 2022]
Some of the most interesting books defy categories. Even so, we tend to classify writing as predictably as goods in a supermarket. Essay, memoir, and philosophy, like fresh vegetables, dairy, and frozen foods, all have their designated aisles. This makes it easier to find what we’re looking for.
Neither Weak Nor Obtuse by Jake Goldsmith, however, reminds us of the pitfalls of such categories. We might not always know what we’re looking for, or what we really need. Or worse, we’re averting our gaze from something important. Goldsmith’s book, in seven chapters with a foreword by William Fear, is philosophical but not academic, highly personal while avoiding the usual tropes of memoir. In a preface, Goldsmith announces explicitly to the reader:
This is me and what I think. I intended it to act as an epitaph. The stereotype of elders writing their memoirs suits me; it just comes to me a lot sooner.
Goldsmith is a young British writer with cystic fibrosis, a chronic illness for which there is no known cure. He is the founder of the Barbellion Prize for the furtherance of ill and disabled voices in writing.
I first encountered Goldsmith in “From Royal Papworth Hospital,” an arresting essay in an American literary magazine. Later, he published another bracing essay, “Disabled Thoughts.” Most of Neither Weak Nor Obtuse is a revised version of writing from Goldsmith’s early twenties, and it is marked by urgency.
I have the persistent weight of illness stunting my time to speak. . . . This work is a show of my growth, of what I love, and some diagnosis as to why I would love those particular things.
In charting his personal growth, he also makes a lucid case for disability literature in general. Some of the most vital rudiments of the human condition, he argues, involve sickness and disability. No one escapes, no one is physically invulnerable, we are all prisoners of a cruel chronicity. This book is an answer to generations of inherited and unexamined prejudice, to erasure, to
the conceit that rendering life through the lens of disability is reductive, rather than experiencing life with a more essential primary theme. Obviously this does not mean that sick or disabled people are now soothsayers or immediately more knowing of the truth, and I hold no room at all for fetishisation of self-flagellating glorification.
The above quotation is representative: Goldsmith mixes affirmation with self-questioning. About his own physical suffering, he is fairly circumspect. Specific references to his symptoms and treatments are infrequent, but when they do occur, they are powerful, He describes a terrible scene with a cruel old woman who discounts his pain. Regular courses of IV antibiotics and other medications are balanced with the prospect of risky surgeries. A more conventional memoir would share in more detail the quotidian misery of cystic fibrosis, but Goldsmith attempts a delicate balancing act. He writes, “I don’t want to be suffocated with sympathy. At the same time, I deserve some level of sympathy and recognition for what is actually going on with me.”
As a result, Goldsmith is wary of the clichés of uplift, of competitive suffering (is X affliction worse than Y affliction?), and of models that are naively “remedial.” He suggests that you can’t argue your way out of illness with the power of positive thinking. He is a voracious reader, demonstrated by a significant portion of Neither Weak Nor Obtuse that is an account of his influences. He quotes the ancients and mentions an affinity for Orwell, but most of his favorites are continental: Aron, Arendt, Weil, and especially, Camus, whose sense of moral purpose in the face of dire absurdity resonates deeply with the author.
Some of Goldsmith’s forays into philosophy were not always clear to me, particularly in the earlier sections; he can be abstract and occasionally, formal. Fortunately, however, like Camus, he returns to the fundamentals of lived experience. He writes movingly of problems of friendship and love:
I have been rejected after intimacies through fear, cowardice, worry or a meek concern for doing me harm. You speak of what you are and you could lose everybody. . . . You are a reminder to happy couples, the blissful, to those with sustainable dreams . . . that it could all crumple and crumble into naught.
Simple and precious gratifications of everyday life, like getting an ice cream, can also be tinged with bitterness. He describes these moments as a quandary of a chronically ill life, hard to share with those not in his situation: “I was always divorced from basic events, without ever having been married in the first place.”
Stylistically, and putting aside the more abstract passages, Goldsmith’s prose is often astringent. At its best, there’s an aphoristic quality, a no-bullshit bite. Here are a few examples, quoted out of context:
You write to yourself in the mirror of others.
The subject of real morality is still left, eventually, to the pious. And that does us a disservice.
When people read too much into things, there is a kind of loss due to the addition.
Neither Weak Nor Obtuse is full of musings that I spontaneously highlighted. These are not facile “thoughts to live by” but rather thoughts to make you question how you live, or reconsider what you say. What do we do with our borrowed time? How have I (forget the convenient “we”) neglected or even rejected my ill colleagues, friends, and loved ones, compounding their suffering with solitude?
At the beginning of this review, I raised the problem of categories. Goldsmith himself speculates that he might be a kind of “pamphleteer.” He doesn’t explain what exactly he intends by that term—it appears more as an aside—but it’s an interesting remark.
Nowadays, the pamphlet is unfashionable in the publishing world; for many readers, the form is unfamiliar. But there is no reason why our literary supermarket should be tiny, or for that matter, ahistorical: Jonathan Swift was a pamphleteer, and Orwell, in his struggle to find a publisher for Animal Farm, seriously considered issuing the book as a pamphlet.
In any event, Neither Weak Nor Obtuse doesn’t require a label or a category. But it deserves our ear, as Jake Goldsmith is a voice to be reckoned with.
Charles Holdefer is an American writer based in Brussels. His next novel, Don’t Look at Me, will be published in October 2022. Visit Charles at www.charlesholdefer.com.
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