SWIMMING IN A SEA OF DEATH
By David Rieff
Simon & Schuster, 179 pages, $21
There’s something obscene about sitting at a desk, in a chair that corrects the posture, sipping warm, sugary tea, yawning or scratching, barely aware of the fug of felt life, all the while getting ready to give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a book that records a mother’s desperate losing battle against disease and her son’s numb grief when she dies. I am in the realm of the living, foolishly taking it for granted as most of us do; David Rieff has been immersed in death ever since the day nearly four years ago when his mother, Susan Sontag, was diagnosed with a rare, particularly lethal cancer of the blood. Who am I to pass judgment on her mortal struggle, on his howl of pain?
But here it is, a book, a memoir: Swimming in a Sea of Death—it’s out in the world now. No longer just an oozing wound Mr. Rieff felt compelled to poke at in the privacy of his office (imagine him sitting there day after day, reliving the anguished stages of an unquiet death), it has become a cultural artifact, a document that tells us something about Susan Sontag, about David Rieff—and, of course, about ourselves.
At the end of March 2004, Sontag was told by a leukemia specialist that she had myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS); the doctor informed her, and Mr. Rieff, who was with her, that the disease was essentially incurable. (It may have been brought on by the radiation and chemotherapy Sontag had endured after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in the mid-70’s and uterine sarcoma in the late 90’s.) She decided to seek radical—and agonizing—treatment for her MDS: a bone marrow transplant that was performed in Seattle and failed. She died, age 71, on Dec. 28, 2004, just nine months after the diagnosis.
Mr. Rieff’s memoir is tightly focused on those nine months. We never meet Susan Sontag healthy or happy; instead we watch her fight with impressive tenacity against her death sentence. She was always unable, Mr. Rieff tells us, to reconcile herself to the fact of mortality. “She loved living,” he writes. “If I had to choose one word to describe her way of being in the world it would be ‘avidity.’ There was nothing she did not want to see or do or try to know.” Afraid of death, she refused, even when she was firmly in its grip, to accept it.
She was desperate, bitterly unhappy, angry—we’re told (twice) that she “oscillated” between manic intensity and “bedraggled somnolence” or “hollowed-out somnolence.” We watch her take her last breaths.
Though in some ways profoundly intimate, it’s a portrait curiously lacking in detail. We never get a good look at her. That could be because Mr. Rieff has no talent for description, and it could also be a matter of scruple. At one point he alludes to Annie Leibovitz’s “carnival images of celebrity death”—the grotesque, widely distributed photographs of his mother in extremis, which he terms a posthumous humiliation.
Susan Sontag, in her son’s telling, is a force of will, an attitude—almost an abstraction.
We learn nothing about Sontag the thinker and very little about Sontag the writer. (Very occasionally, Mr. Rieff quotes from her journals to dazzling effect: Her brilliance is immediately apparent.) You could finish Swimming in a Sea of Death without realizing that she was the author of Against Interpretation (1966) or On Photography (1977). The word “camp” is never mentioned, nor the city of Sarajevo, nor 9/11. We’re told that she wrote Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989)—but we’re given only the sketchiest idea of what she had to say; Mr. Rieff doesn’t quote from either one.
DAVID RIEFF PRESENTS himself as a journalist. (We hear nothing about his work on foreign policy, or indeed anything about his varied career—for instance, that he was his mother’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) As far as you could tell from Swimming in a Sea of Death, he’s just a magazine writer with a deceased mother and a overload of “survivor’s guilt.” No colleagues, no friends, no relatives except his mother (his father, who was married to Sontag for just seven years in the 1950’s, is mentioned only once, in passing): This is a bare stage with two principal actors—mother and son—the one looming over the other. (The supporting cast is made up of a pair of physicians: the good doctor who holds out hope and the bad doctor who does not.)
The mother’s eminence is a given. She has an entourage, she commands respect, but even if you’re a fan of Sontag—the only public intellectual of our time with a celebrity sheen—you may still be baffled by the reverential awe she inspires, especially in Mr. Rieff.
He effaces himself, insisting explicitly and implicitly that his mother’s importance dwarfs his own. He writes, “[T]o say that my mother both enjoyed and made better use of the world than I have ever done or will do is simply a statement of fact.” (I don’t see how that can be construed as “a statement of fact,” and I don’t believe for a minute that it’s in any way simple.)
He writes, “Had I been a better person, doubtless I would have had at least a somewhat more intelligent apprehension about what I should have done [i.e. for his mother]. But even to put my own failings at the center of this is a species of vanity.” It’s hard not to supply an addendum: And what if Susan Sontag had been a “better person”? Would she perhaps have made it easier for her son to be helpful? He tells us that in the last decade of her life, his relations with his mother were “often strained and at times very difficult.”
His survivor’s guilt and his grief are inextricably entwined, and at the very end of the book he admits that they breed in him “bogus saintliness” and “masochism.” He also, it seems to me, reveals in himself a seam of passive aggression.
“She was entitled to die her own death,” Mr. Rieff tells us—but of course this memoir is his version of her death: He’s the author; he owns it. And at the very end, after 150-odd pages of insisting on his mother’s greatness and his own inept insignificance, he turns the tables: “If, as I believe, she had imagined herself special, my mother’s last illness cruelly exposed the frailty of that conceit.”
SWIMMING IN A Sea of Death is raw in the sense that Mr. Rieff is still mourning for his beloved mother. It’s also raw in the sense of unfinished: sloppy, uneven, repetitive, boring in patches. Some of it is very badly written, with mixed metaphors competing for space with appalling clichés (“[H]er mood cratered, then lightened, then cratered again …. [I]t was an emotional roller-coaster ride”).
But there are also a handful of tremendously moving passages, especially in the last 50 pages—passages that strip away the identity of Sus
an Sontag and David Rieff and leave us with the essentials: a dying mother, a grieving son. In one impressive paragraph, he describes the woeful impotence of anyone called upon to console the dying. “Looking back,” he writes, “I wonder if there is any silence worse than the silence of the sick room. It is the silence of that horror-stricken intuition that in a cancer ward … the real and the catastrophic are often one and the same.”
Mr. Rieff says he deliberately decided not to take notes during his mother’s final illness. He also waited a year or so before beginning to write. But the delay hasn’t brought resolution or clarity (“There is no ‘closure’ on offer for the death of someone you love”). And it apparently hasn’t revealed to him the source of his excruciating guilt—to call it “survivor’s guilt” is merely to put it beyond scrutiny.
Of course, this book will be measured against The Year of Magical Thinking, which Joan Didion wrote almost immediately after the sudden death of her husband, while her only daughter was in the hospital, critically ill. Ms. Didion’s book—no surprise—is both more urgent and more artful than Mr. Rieff’s. What’s best about Swimming in a Sea of Death is its unquestionable honesty: Even at its most troubling, even where the suppressions are most glaring, it’s manifestly sincere.
To his credit, David Rieff is more of a son than a writer.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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