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Review: Christopher Hitchens stays contrarian in 'Mortality'

The late author reports more than he reflects in writing about his dying days.

September 02, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Christopher Hitchens on May 22, 2010, in Australia.
Christopher Hitchens on May 22, 2010, in Australia. (John Donegan / Getty Images )


Christopher Hitchens
Twelve: 104 pp., $22.99

For all that literature is an art of self-exposure, writers tend to back away from impending death. The shelf of firsthand looks at what Janet Hobhouse called "this dying business" is a short one — Hobhouse's searing posthumous novel "The Furies"; Raymond Carver's final collection of poetry, "A New Path to the Waterfall"; John Updike's "Endpoint and Other Poems."

I'm not sure why this is, exactly, other than that dying is a lot of work. I'm not trying to be glib here, just to suggest that in the face of annihilation, things get elemental quickly, leaving little room for the luxury of writing it all out. As T.S. Eliot observes, in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid."

Those lines of Eliot's appear in Christopher Hitchens' "Mortality," the latest addition to the library of the dying — although to read it on such terms exclusively is to miss the point. That's because "Mortality" is not so much reflection as reportage, a set of dispatches from "Tumortown," where the author found himself exiled in mid-2010.

Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer in December 2011, sets the scene in the first sentences: "I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement." For Hitchens, this felt very much like a "deportation … from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady," a sensation made more pronounced by the fact that he was stricken while on tour for his memoir "Hitch-22." He was 61.

All that makes for a peculiar set of tensions, which have as much to do with Hitchens as they do with death. Unlike Carver or even Updike, he reveled in his status as a larger-than-life figure, a character in his own drama, so to speak.

A prodigious smoker and drinker ("In one way, I suppose," he acknowledges, "I have been 'in denial' for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light"), Hitchens was also an outspoken contrarian who would not willingly walk away from a fight. He was never — not even in these pages, first composed for Vanity Fair during the final 19 months of his life — particularly emotional, preferring to rely on rhetoric instead.

Yet if that gives "Mortality" a certain clear-headed aversion to the banal, it also keeps us at a distance, even when Hitchens is speaking from the heart. Here he is on the disappointment triggered by his diagnosis: "I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I'd worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read — if not indeed to write — the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity."

This is an important moment in "Mortality," not least for what it says about Hitchens' priorities. How can we not be moved by his lament for the decade he is losing even as we notice the oddly impersonal nature of his regrets? I'm not suggesting that Hitchens didn't suffer on a personal level, although it's striking to see his children's prospective weddings equated with an obituary for the pope. But what's telling about such a passage is its almost willful abnegation of the private, the idea that he is not going to let us in. Again and again, Hitchens steers away from feeling and toward argument, whether he is discussing atheism (the subject of his 2007 book "God Is Not Great") or the rigors of medical treatment, which he equates with torture in both a physical and a psychological sense.

Sure, Hitchens writes about his pain, just as he addresses the mix of anticipation and frustration that comes from being at the edge of cancer research. Still, when it comes to his feelings of loss or longing, he remains almost deliberately disengaged. Referring to an experimental protocol for which he didn't qualify, he tells us matter-of-factly, "Other similar trials are under review by the Food and Drug Administration, but I am in a bit of a hurry, and I can't forget the feeling of flatness that I experienced when I received the news."

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