Sunday, June 22, 2014

nervous systems: a review of sandra hunter's losing touch

Lovely cover, lovely book.
Sandra Hunter’s Losing Touch is a quiet book that unfolds as life does—in lonely moments and poignant ones; matters of life and death are written in cups of tea, mechanical beds and long distance phone calls. Nevertheless, Hunter’s first novel began as something of a thriller for me, because something is wrong with protagonist Arjun Kulkani’s leg, and he has good reason to believe it could be a type of motor neuron disease, his family’s genetic curse (British doctors initially dismiss the immigrant’s self-diagnosis, because they believe a disease that’s common in India must be the result of some third-world problem that could not manifest in England).

As a hypochondriac whose fears have, on occasion, proven right, I was filled with dread on Arjun’s behalf. Each chapter is named for a symptom: “Reduced Deep Tendon Reflexes” or “Weakness of the Facial and Tongue Muscles.” Like any slow, degenerative illness, the cruelty of Arjun’s disease is that, in some ways, he is kept alive to witness his own death. This loss of physical self echoes the loss of cultural self he experienced when he immigrated to England (his wife and children strive for Britishness while he fantasizes about women in saris). And that loss of self echoes the trauma he experienced as an abused child, although we learn little about his early years.

He never used to consult any part of himself when he stood or walked or picked up a squash racquet. I’m not myself today. If part of him vanishes, then part of the intrinsic who-he-is also vanishes. Who is left? He listens to his body. He learns how to wait.

Although Hunter is most certainly concerned with these questions of selfhood, what makes Losing Touch unique is the latter part of Arjun’s narrative—the listening and waiting. Hunter alternates between Arjun’s point of view and his wife Sunila’s. Neither is a “likeable” hero. Arjun is prone to anger, and even when he tries to behave lovingly toward his baffling children, he comes across stern and critical, making for some of the novel’s most heartbreaking moments and reminding us that true love is the ability to triumph over our blundering inability to communicate. Sunila can be rigid herself, as well as dogmatic and materialistic.

We all hope that tragedy will bring out the best in us, and the contrast between Arjun’s fantasy and the strained reality of his family life will hit close to home for most readers, I imagine. “And for a moment it’s possible to see it: they are the family with someone who falls down,” Arjun thinks. “Then they pick him up and they all laugh about it, lovingly. And they carry on. Everything is normal again.”

It’s hard to be “normal again” when you never were—when you already felt out of place and broken. And yet this is not the story of Arjun’s desperate downward spiral or his triumph over adversity. It is not the story of a marriage lost and then found, or just lost. Life, Hunter seems to know, is largely a matter of sticking around to see what happens; of surrendering control because you have no other choice, but finding fleeting wisdom, empathy and pleasure in its wake.

Hunter’s background is in short fiction, and each chapter is simultaneously a vignette and a summary. As such, the language is spare and carefully crafted, the epiphanies small and glimmering. The downside of this style is a feeling of waiting for the story to start—but perhaps this is intentional. How much of life do we fritter away worrying about the future or reliving the past?

As I learned during my own rendezvous with illness, the “living in the present” mantra espoused by countless gurus, self-help books and internet memes is, in fact, the only way to avoid being crushed by anxiety and sorrow. I always thought that if I mastered it (which is not to say that I have), I would feel as free and joy-filled as a girl in yogurt ad, driving her convertible and laughing and eating yogurt. But the reward for such Zen-ish triumph is rarely soaring freedom, as Arjun in his humbled body knows. It’s simply living.


Sandra said...

Thank you for a generous and insightful review, Cheryl!

Cheryl said...

Thank you for your generous and insightful book!