If You Have Kids, Prepare To Shed Them Now . . .

So we read Christopher Hitchens' Hitch-22 for book club last month. It was my choice, this being right after Hitchens died, so I used him as a theme (the other possible choices were a Martin Amis book — not this one — and an Ian McEwan book, those writers being two of Hitchens' favorites).

I think it's funny to respond to his writing by saying whether I "liked" it or not — I can imagine him not wanting to respond to writing like it's a pop song you "like" or "don't like." Which is to say, "I liked it." (Or, "What did you think?" "It was good." "Anything else?" "No. It was good.")

Not everyone "liked" it as much — Goober thought he was too pompous and celebrated the fact that he put it down after 400 pages. All of us couldn't believe that he read all the way to page 400 and refused to read the last 22 pages. Goober shrugged, "It felt pretty good, actually."

Maybe it's just because the last seven weeks have been an endless string of sleep-deprived days and our newborn is such a feature of our lives, but I was pretty surprised that Hitchens talked so little about his family. I was convinced he wasn't going to at all, but he sort of addresses it in the fifteenth chapter (not until page 330), when he basically says that he was a shitty father. It's kind of brutal to read him talk about it: "There are days when it gives my inexpressible pain, and I know that such days of remorse also lie in my future." The language sounds like how cancer victim talks about daily pains and aches; it's interesting to think that when he wrote this he was probably living with the cancer that killed him only a year or two later.

You start to wonder about his family because so much of the book focuses on his colleagues — whole chapters about Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said — and nothing about, say, his wife. I don't even know her name — I think it's Carol, but I'm not positive — I don't believe we were ever formally introduced over the course of the 422 pages.

I shouldn't say "colleagues" because Hitchens counted them all as "friends." He had so many friends — Susan Sontag, James Fenton, half of the boldface names listed in the index — that you start to second-guess your own choice in friends. Should I be camping with Charlie Rose? Did I miss out not inviting Nick Kristof to our holiday party? But by the end of the book you don't get a sense that he had friends outside of the supercharged intellectual atmosphere in which he worked.

Sure, all of us have work friends, but something's amiss when you devote more of your memoir to Paul Wolfowitz than your own brother. Nothing against Paul Wolfowitz, but your own brother, you know? Not to mention your wife and daughter — who is still only hazily sketched out — at least I think he has a daughter.

That said, you're probably not reading Christopher Hitchens to hear about his family — which is to say, obviously most people are going to be more curious about Martin Amis getting a handjob than other stuff — but the thing becomes a little strange after a while.

(Post-script Google: So I'm just now seeing this and this, both of which put a lot of his family life in perspective.)

Of course there was an arc to the book — simply stated, Hitchens' "break" with "the Left" and how that happened — and there was a motif he returned to, what he called "keeping two sets of books." And maybe one's kids aren't easily shoehorned into a "two sets of book" motif. So in some ways it's refreshing to read a memoir that's not too "personal," but the feeling you get over the course of the book that there isn't a personal part of Hitchens — I can't believe that's true, or that that's the impression he'd want to leave people. At some point when talking about how the Left lost him, he derides the concept that the "personal is political," but Hitch-22 sort of tweaks that somewhat in that there's no "personal" to speak of. It's at least notable, if not kind of — like I keep saying — strange.

There's something to this book that's painful in parts. The "remorse" about being a bad dad (that's as opposed to "regret," which he thinks should be reserved for something you haven't actually done). The other part is the dramatic irony imbued in the book — you know that he's dying (or in fact dead) while the writer himself had no idea; at the same time, he often talks about his death (and in fact uses it as a lens to open the book). (He addresses his cancer in a preface to the paperback version.) One moment comes when he talks about his dad dying of esophageal cancer, which is the same kind he contracted. You read that and you're kind of like, dude . . .

There is one point in Hitch-22 where the fourth wall breaks down. It comes at the end of the chapter on Iraq, which is one of the issues that set him apart later in his career. As such, it's an obvious thing to write about — people want to know, right? — but it's not until he brings up the story of the guy who volunteered to serve in Iraq in part because of Hitchens' writing where the personal and political intersect. So much of his career seems so suited to debate club — if not an actual debate then topics that don't seem to go beyond the intellectual bubble he mastered — that it's notable when this soldier's death penetrates all that and Hitchens is forced to own up to his role. The moment is pretty devastating (wasn't I just making fun of this word the other day?), and only slightly compromised by his tell-don't-show warning that "if you have tears, prepare to shed them now . . ."

To go back to the kids — there's another part where he talks about how having children sets the stage for your own funeral. I can't actually find the exact part, but the idea is that children are the first inkling of your own mortality. Maybe that's why he didn't want to think about them! I think I understand what he's getting at — Animal made me consider what I see as a sort of through line for my family history. But death? Seems a little severe, no?

Of course, once he said that it bummed me out. It reminds me of a friend back in high school who liked Jim Morrison enough to read his book of poetry. I couldn't abide Jim Morrison's poetry, so I made him show me one poem that didn't read like high school English class. He pointed to the one Jim Morrison wrote about his cock, something about the death of his cock, followed by a short defense of the sex-death simulacrum. And I was just kind of like, "Sex and death? Huh?"

Which is to say, leave it to Hitchens to make me start to see how I'm getting ready to die. Dick.

Posted: February 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.