“It is at dusk the most interesting things occur, for that is when simple differences fade away,” the narrator in Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead says. “I could live in everlasting dusk.”
It’s early in the novel, a death has occurred, the narrator—and therefore the reader—isn’t sure how to feel about it. The dead man, one of the narrator’s few neighbors in a Polish remoteness, was rough and cruel in life, not very mourn-able in death. And yet the body turned to stiffened matter calls forth something keen and halting, and so at the end of a long day of tasks and activity and police chatter, the narrator stills herself and stands quietly in the cold, watching. She admires how the sunset changes the landscape, Venus as evening star a lone wish cast into the not-quite-night. The reader pauses at this chapter’s end, pulled into a memory of the way dusks have always calmed her down, too.
I am late to this book, I know, but I am happy to have found it now, as I sit in “a Temple of Pluto,” preparing to leave my breasts on the altar, fixating on the thunder and rainstorms of these late October days in Nebraska, the ash leaves falling yellow like abandoned Venuses, cast-off stars, my attention on weather and weather apps, and when will the cold finally be here to stay. As Tokarczuk writes: “It’s easier to cope with a snowstorm than a death.”
Forgive the melodrama, because I am not going to die. On the FMLA paperwork, my surgical oncologist estimates a good chance at recovery by the beginning of next May, as Jupiter and Neptune arrive, big and drippy, at the nadir of my birth chart. Tokarczuk’s narrator is an astrologer, tracking the planets with ephemirides and a bald joy that I recognize in myself, even now weeping with relief that in some ways I knew what was coming for me when I saw the transits for this year laid out against my own stars.
The recovery is predicated on the loss of the breasts though, and the drug therapies after, and it is alternatively “funny” and nauseating to me that I have spent my entire adult life in sports bras, hiding my breasts from sight, horrified by the hint of a lumpy contour, courting thinness that didn’t quite come naturally to me. The breasts, though. I say as if they are not mine, as if I wouldn’t miss them, but when I think about having the surgery without reconstruction—going aesthetically flat, its called, in cancer’s slant language of gender and beauty—I balk. When I ask the plastic surgeon about “going flat,” she balks, loses her sheen of bland competence for a second or two. It would be a shame, she says, after a beat. With the potential for nipple-sparing surgery and breasts like yours and your young age, it would, cosmetically, be a shame.
I have a bad habit of assuming that every woman who is a doctor must also have read the illness narratives that I have read and so must also have the same ideas about how not to speak to a person in pain. When this assumption comes up against its inevitable falsehood, I find it difficult to say anything other syllabic gratitudes I don’t mean like “oh” like “OK” like “thank you for explaining this to me.”
This plastic surgeon is not much older than me—she comes recommended both by my cancer surgeon, saying, warmly, “we’ve built up our practices together,” and the other woman I know who had my type of cancer, agreeing over text message, “she’s intense but she’s the best.” I dream intensely of my breasts, flattened into leather squares at a tanning shop in the woods, drowned by waves, autonomous and wailing, caught in a pincer’s grip, unable to scream.
“What happens when America disappears into war, or worse yet, continues exporting its end-of-the-world everywhere, and I’ve got these implants that will need revisions, and updates, and more surgeries down the line, and the reason I die is because I was too much of a whipping girl to beauty, because I chose to line my chest with silicone that ties me to a system of exploitation-as-healthcare we know is dying, we know should be as good as gone?”
In panicked moments, I ask versions of this question to my husband, to my mother, to my friends in a Discord chat. The answers vary, all of them kind, none of them good; the question isn’t good, nor the situation. It’s plain that I am either catastrophizing, or not enough.
“I’d rather write about anything else,” Anne Boyer writes in her breast cancer memoir, a book that overwhelms the categories of gender, cancer, beauty, memoir, a writing that is both particular and dusk-like as it laments over the material sins of neoliberal regimes, capitalist medicine, corporate greed. Boyer writes of how cancer brings her own body right up to the edge of stiffened matter, and in language’s failure to capture the particularity of her individual pain, she finds the beginnings of an ability to speak from and for the “we,” the language of dusk: “We move in and out of each other’s holes or make new ones. We cut each other open, leave wasted bits of DNA around, leave shards of evolutionary codices discarded in our lovers and our mothers and our children.”
Later, Boyer identifies the mission of her use of the first-person plural: “A reminder of our un-oneness is at least one counterpurpose of literature. This is why I tried to write down pain’s leaky democracies, the shared vistas of the terribly felt.”
And so the shame is not, I think, about forgoing a good chance at sparing my nipples and remaining symmetrically close to beauty so much as it is that I am, at present, too weak to forgo this chance at all. Reconstruction, in this moment, feels like an attempt to shore up pain’s leaky democracies; there is something in me that knows aesthetically flat the right thing to do, for my health, for my politics, in this world. But there is something particular, and greater for its particularity, that flinches away from the flatness I’ve pretended at all these years. It’s too much to reconcile, so I sit at a window and try to fade into the weather.
At stormy dusk, the yellow leaves wind up and down the neighborhood street like a snow globe, and I think about my neighbors, and their private pains: the cops stalking one of them, another in the ER after a tussle with a raccoon, a third with covid even after his booster. All these impossible stories, and Tokarczuk’s story I’m reading at night, to take me out of mine, and to keep me in it, too, and so says our narrator: “As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the Plateau I realized that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.”
Yes. And yes, I am afraid of writing through my own sorrows, allowing for witness not only to pain but to weakness, to individual moral fiber twisted and bent, confusing a reader’s ability to mourn with and for me, until an afterward in which I am no longer, in which the narrator concludes, after the busy dealings with death, in the syllabics of not-quite gratitude like “OK” like “oh” like “oh well,” and “Oh, well.”