Body of Work

In her new novel, Bar­bara Gowdy draws in­spi­ra­tion from pri­vate ag­o­nies

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Me­lanie Lit­tle

In her new novel, Bar­bara Gowdy draws in­spi­ra­tion from pri­vate ag­o­nies

Bar­bara Gowdy is in pain, and she doesn’t know why. Since 2003, the au­thor has suf­fered from chronic, de­bil­i­tat­ing pain in her lower back. “It came on mys­te­ri­ously one day,” she says, “when I was obliged to stand for sev­eral hours.” Af­ter nu­mer­ous MRIS and X-rays and ex­per­i­ments with ev­ery­thing from ozone in­jec­tions to the hal­lu­cino­gen ayahuasca, she is still no closer to a di­ag­no­sis or rem­edy than she was four­teen years ago. It’s no won­der that her new novel, Lit­tle Sis­ter, took a decade to com­plete.

The re­lease of any book by Bar­bara Gowdy qual­i­fies as a lit­er­ary event. She has been nom­i­nated for ev­ery ma­jor fic­tion award in the coun­try, ap­pear­ing twice on the Giller Prize short list. An­dré Alexis, the win­ner of the 2015 Giller, calls her “the best writer of sen­tences of my gen­er­a­tion.” She has earned this rep­u­ta­tion in part for her work as an ex­per­i­menter; across her eight works of fic­tion, she has imag­ined her­self into the bod­ies and minds of ev­ery­thing from an id­iot-sa­vant child to a con­flicted pe­dophile to a tribe of African ele­phants.

Lit­tle Sis­ter takes the in­ven­tive­ness of its pre­de­ces­sors and ups the ante. It is the story of a woman who finds her­self, via an ap­par­ent glitch in the fab­ric of re­al­ity, in­hab­it­ing the body of a stranger. It would be re­duc­tive to con­strue this as a sim­ple reimag­in­ing of Gowdy’s own bod­ily es­trange­ment, not least be­cause her writ­ing is not that cal­cu­lated (“I’m usu­ally only half a sen­tence ahead of my­self,” she claims). Yet there is some­thing ar­rest­ing about an au­thor who, find­ing her­self in con­stant pain, con­jures up a woman who can aban­don her body to en­ter that of an­other.

De­spite Gowdy’s suf­fer­ing, the first thing you no­tice about the au­thor is her poise: how grace­fully she in­hab­its her­self, how con­fi­dently she oc­cu­pies the space her small frame takes up. Her pain makes sit­ting for long pe­ri­ods im­pos­si­ble; so that she may lie down, we con­duct our con­ver­sa­tion on fac­ing couches in her Toronto home. But Gowdy’s way of ly­ing down, at least in the pres­ence of a guest, is distinctly more ele­gant, more lively, than

most peo­ple’s. She spends much of our time to­gether lean­ing for­ward, push­ing a gen­er­ous spread of cashews and yel­low plums closer to me, of­fer­ing up dis­arm­ing in­sights and pitch-per­fect anec­dotes. On the wall above are three del­i­cate pen­cil draw­ings from Michael Snow’s se­ries Walk­ing Woman, that iconic fe­male sil­hou­ette, a fig­ure who is both con­stantly in mo­tion and per­pet­u­ally frozen into her shape.

Gowdy’s ail­ment means she must write in her bed with the use of a re­clin­ing desk. Med­i­ca­tion, which doesn’t ease the pain com­pletely, has led to a frus­trat­ing on­a­gain, off-again cy­cle. “There were drugs I was on where I was just so woolly, and so tired, I couldn’t work,” she says. “It was re­ally ei­ther brain or pain.” With cer­tain pre­scrip­tions — Oxycon­tin and Lyrica — she needed to wean her­self off grad­u­ally. “Once I was off it, I’d write and get back into it, and then the pain would creep back, and I would re­turn to the drug.”

There is a kind of anti-po­etic in­jus­tice to Gowdy’s predica­ment, given the re­mark­able em­pa­thy ex­hib­ited within her art. She is per­haps most widely known for her por­tray­als of ex­treme phys­i­cal oth­er­ness —most fa­mously em­bod­ied in 1992’s We So Sel­dom Look on Love, with its sto­ries of a man with two heads, a girl with four legs, and a woman who is com­pelled to make love to the corpses of young men. Yet in those sto­ries, as in all of her fic­tion, it’s the chal­leng­ing of the so-called moral and men­tal norms of con­scious­ness that is Gowdy’s real con­cern. Even in what she wryly refers to now as “the necrophil­iac story,” she says, “I was try­ing to get past the body and into the mind, into the con­scious­ness. The body is just some­thing we have to deal with, some­thing in the way.”

The irony of Gowdy’s cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is not lost on her. Af­ter four­teen years of ex­plor­ing “all the tools that mod­ern medicine is ca­pa­ble of bring­ing to bear,” she has ac­cepted that the only way to solve the mys­tery of her pain will be through her mind. “It’s funny that it’s hap­pen­ing to me, the need to get deeper into my own brain to fig­ure out what’s go­ing on, when all along I’ve been in­ter­ested in get­ting through other peo­ple’s bod­ies into their minds.”

Lit­tle Sis­ter’s Rose is a woman whose relationship with her body is as stale as her relationship with Vic­tor, her dreary me­te­o­rol­o­gist boyfriend. When a suc­ces­sion of freak thun­der­storms hits the city, Rose be­gins to find her­self, for brief but ex­hil­a­rat­ing pe­ri­ods, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing life through the body of an­other woman — a com­plete stranger named Har­riet. Har­riet is Rose’s op­po­site: ki­netic, tightly wound, and presently en­gaged in a pas­sion­ate af­fair. Rose be­gins to crave her “episodes,” long­ing for the feel­ing of en­ter­ing Har­riet’s body, “a quick, ex­quis­ite sen­sa­tion of her skin tight­en­ing and cool­ing and her flesh cling­ing to a vi­brant bony web.”

This be­ing Gowdy coun­try, ev­ery lit­eral step and as­tral leap Rose takes is morally fraught. Rose is aroused by Har­riet’s sex­ual

“Pain—the kind of pain I live with— can ei­ther make you bit­ter, de­pressed, and sui­ci­dal, or it can do the op­po­site.”

en­coun­ters to an ex­tent rarely matched by her own ex­pe­ri­ence. But does hav­ing sex while in Har­riet’s body mean that Rose, too, is hav­ing an af­fair? Does Rose have any right to want to con­trol what Har­riet does with her body, given that she is a kind of co-in­hab­i­tant? She is also roused into greater compassion for those around her—her own mother, who is en­ter­ing the early stages of de­men­tia, and Har­riet her­self. But what are the lim­its, and pit­falls, of em­pa­thy?

Last Septem­ber, two days af­ter Gowdy fin­ished re­view­ing the proofs of Lit­tle Sis­ter, she found an anom­aly in her breast. “I’m sixty-six, so I just was like, ‘Hmm. An­other crease.’” It was her part­ner, the writer Christo­pher Dewd­ney, who pushed her to do a self-exam, and the lump she found was sizable.

“The tim­ing was great,” she says with­out irony. “It was just the next thing in my life, you know? ‘Breast can­cer’s the next thing.’”

On the day of Gowdy’s biopsy, her younger sis­ter, Mary, was with her at Toronto’s Princess Mar­garet Can­cer Cen­tre. Sud­denly, Mary’s brain be­gan to hem­or­rhage. It was an aneurysm, and she was in the in­ten­sive-care unit for eigh­teen days. “She was spout­ing gib­ber­ish — she was crazy. Then she just got bet­ter and went home,” Gowdy says. Be­cause she was so fo­cused on the fate of her sis­ter, her own can­cer didn’t scare her. But more to the point for Gowdy, the very rea­son Mary was able to make such a full re­cov­ery was that she had been able to get oxy­gen within min­utes be­cause she’d been at the hos­pi­tal by Gowdy’s side.

Hear­ing the won­der in her voice as she tells this story, wit­ness­ing her op­ti­mism, I begin to see where the un­ex­pected gen­tle­ness of Lit­tle Sis­ter might be com­ing from. There is tragedy, and there is cer­tainly dark­ness — but it is leav­ened with hope. “Pain — the kind of pain I live with — can ei­ther make you bit­ter, de­pressed, and sui­ci­dal, or it can do the op­po­site. Be­cause I think, God, I’ve got chronic pain, but look at the friends I have. I have a ca­reer. I have ac­cess to drugs,” she says. “The good thing about this book’s tak­ing so long is I changed through those ten years. And the book changed.”

“I think fic­tion can parallel your life,” she says, “even when you’re not writ­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cally — your state of mind, your state of health, the state of the world.”

But she also notes that with Lit­tle Sis­ter, she took par­tic­u­lar care to min­i­mize her pres­ence as au­thor, so that the story “just ex­isted.” “I’ve often thought that writ­ing is like try­ing to re­call a song you re­ally like, try­ing to re­call the chords and the melody,” she says. “This book re­quired a lot of lis­ten­ing to my­self. And any time I in­truded on the song, I took it out.”

Since her can­cer di­ag­no­sis, Gowdy has had a suc­cess­ful lumpec­tomy, and her ra­di­a­tion treat­ments are com­plete. She is now fo­cused on her up­com­ing book tour; for the first time in our con­ver­sa­tion, she looks daunted. Since she can’t sit on a chair and needs to lie down be­fore she spends long pe­ri­ods of time stand­ing, she wor­ries about what she’ll do at lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals, where there are usu­ally three or four read­ers on a bill.

“I said, just throw some pil­lows on the floor back­stage, and I’ll lie down.” Her brow fur­rows; she’s sort­ing out the prob­lem. “You can just use your porch cush­ions or some­thing,” she says — sym­pa­thetic, it seems, to the tight bud­gets of fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers ev­ery­where. Once again, she is putting her­self in the place of the other.

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