I figured, why not have fun with cancer? So, I brought my friend Amber with me to try on wigs. This was right after my initial diagnosis, when the idea of having cancer was still largely theoretical. I had no symptoms, I had received no treatment; I had simply been told that I had this disease and needed to have chemotherapy, which would cause my hair to fall out.
Secrets of a Duchess was the unlikely name of the shop, owned by an eccentric Englishwoman named Judy, who bore a passing resemblance to Dame Edna Everidge, with silver wig, large glasses, and outsized jewelry. Judy, it turned out, was the perfect person to initiate this particular journey into cancerhood. Generous and funny, with a ready laugh, she picked out several wigs, fitted and styled them to my head, and chatted the whole time as though we were long-lost friends.
I took pictures with my smartphone and sent them to G., who weighed in with humorous texts. There was a short pixie cut that made me look like a Korean elf; a long black one that reminded me of a 16th C. French monarch; several varieties of poodle; and a few that made me look like a slipshod hooker. After about an hour, I was torn between a short black wig that looked most like my real hair, and a longer one with blonde-ish streaks that looked like something Tina Turner might have worn in the ‘80s. I wanted to think of myself as Mata Hari, in need of disguise, rather than another middle-aged woman with breast cancer—as if my diagnosis were an opportunity to play dress-up; as if wearing a wig were a whimsical choice, and not a medical consequence.
(My oncologist had actually written a prescription for a “cranial prosthesis,” so that my insurance would pay for it. I pictured an empty space where my skull should have been, a white, plastic replica being lowered over my brain and snapped into place.)
In the end, with Judy and Amber’s blessing, and an assist from G., I decided to buy them both. It was the beginning of the phase in my life when everything I did was prefaced by, “I have cancer, goddammit!” I would be Tina, Mata, and myself. My cancer would contain multitudes!
I can’t remember why, but I couldn’t take the wigs home immediately. Something about washing them, or maybe they needed to be ordered, but it was another week before I could pick them up. In that week, I had my first ever surgery, a port-a-cath implanted in my left chest, just south of my collarbone. It was a small disk of polyurethane, shaped like a miniature whoopee cushion, to be employed as a bull’s eye for IV needles. In the car, on my way to the wig store, I could feel it beneath the bandage, perched under my skin like a strange, lumpy toad. It gave me the heebie-jeebies.
I put on my left blinker, and had just eased into the left lane, when I felt a sickening scrape and saw a white van in my side mirror, briefly conjoined to my left passenger-side door. Stunned, I followed the van up a side street, and parked. Two men came out of a pawnshop to tell me that they’d witnessed the whole thing, and that the van driver had been at fault. “Pulled out of the gas station without looking,” one of them said. “Ran right into you.”
This was a relief. I’m absent-minded anyway, and, since the diagnosis, I had been wandering around in a fog; it could have easily been my fault. Shakily, I got out of the car and made my way up the short hill where the driver of the van had gotten out. He was short and slender, with a delicate face, and was smoking some kind of e-cigarette that looked like a penny whistle. I had never had an accident before, or at least not one involving another car, and I was unsure how to proceed. I thought I’d lead with pity. Pulling aside the collar of my shirt, I exposed my bandage.
“I have breast cancer,” I said. “I start chemotherapy next week.”
The young man eyed me, coolly. “I have sickle cell anemia,” he said.
* * *
I ended up wearing the short wig twice, and the Tina Turner wig not at all. They were itchy and hot, and made me feel, not like a glamorous spy, or a rock-n-roll legend, but like some clownish impostor, a sad, drag queen facsimile.
When it came time, G. got out the clippers and shaved off all my hair. I thought it would be emotional, but I felt surprisingly calm. My baldness in the mirror was stark, it’s true, and certainly strange—I looked like a cross between a Buddhist nun, and a baby chick—but there was also something familiar about it, something canny and essential. As it turns out, I have a well-shaped head.
Sitting in my oncologist’s office for the first time, I was receiving information. Stage IIIa. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma with lymph node involvement. HER-2 positive, ER/PR negative. I would need neo-adjuvant chemotherapy – Taxotere, Carboplatin, Herceptin, and Perjeta, followed by a mastectomy, followed by five weeks of radiation, followed by Herceptin alone for six months.
It was a lot to take in, but I was recording the appointment on my phone, and G. was taking notes, so my mind could wander, and the first clear thought that came forward was this: that I would never finish the novel I had been working on for seven years. I knew this with a sudden clarity and conviction that, even at the time, felt spooky to me—knew it with the force of able prophecy. And it wasn’t because I thought I was going to die, or that I would no longer have the energy to write it, but because, in that moment—in that hospital exam room, beneath the fluorescent lights, with the molded plastic chair hard against me, and the view of the exam table with its spool of white paper, and the Oprah magazine in my lap—just like that, I lost interest in fiction writing.
For some perspective, this was akin to a duck suddenly losing interest in water, or a bloodhound losing interest in sniffing things. From the time I was five years old, I had identified as a storyteller, a maker-upper of tales, creator of improbable narratives, and I had learned early on that the way to not get in trouble for lying, was to write them down and pass them off as make-believe. At twelve, when other girls were fantasizing about boyfriends and prom dresses, I dreamed of having a book published by Alfred A. Knopf, spine emblazoned with the colophon of a borzoi in mid-bounce, creamy, uncut pages printed with words of my own devising. (A dream that came true more than three decades later, when Knopf published my first novel, Secondhand World.)
Add to this the fact that my being a fiction writer had informed my entire life—from my tenure-track job teaching creative writing, to fellowship opportunities, and artist residencies—and you get a sense of what losing interest in fiction writing looked like to me. Cancer might threaten my life, but the idea that I was no longer a fiction writer threatened my sense of purpose, all the stuff I’d put into the container of that life in order to make it mean something.
My first novel had been, like most first novels, semi-autobiographical. It took place in suburban upstate New York in the ‘70s, and was about a Korean-American girl whose rebellion against her immigrant parents played out against a backdrop of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.
For my second novel, though, I had larger ambitions. The Fetishist was a dark comedy about Asian fetishism in the world of classical music, (where every other string musician is a comely Asian woman), and the plot included multiple failed suicides, a kidnapping, two assassination attempts, the Franck Cello Sonata in A major, and fetishism of all kinds. There were three main characters, and the third-person point of view shifted among them, from chapter to chapter, as well as zooming upward into the stratosphere of omniscience for heady pages at a time.
By the time of that initial oncologist’s appointment, I had finished a 300-page rough draft, and was planning to spend the summer revising it. Over the seven years that it had taken me to complete the draft, I had moved from New Hampshire to North Carolina; started a new job; gotten separated and divorced, after 27 years of marriage; bought a house; sent my son to college; received tenure; and fallen in love with G. I had also received two writing grants and six artist residencies, and published a couple novel excerpts. I offer this both as explanation for the amount of time it had taken me already, and as reason for the anxiety I experienced when I knew I would no longer continue. I had invested so much. People expected me to finish. Who was I, if I simply stopped?
Fiction, I tell my students, is the elegant lie that leads to the truth. You can get at something deeper and richer with fiction than you can with straight facts; you can get beneath and beyond things, through to a more direct understanding of the texture and experience of life.
But if fiction leads to truth, the elegant lie first requires careful construction. The whole apparatus of characters, setting, scene, and plot, is a complex edifice, erected piece by piece, like a Jenga tower, in service to the jewel-like ideas to be housed inside. For me, the ideas were the heart of the matter, the kernel truths that the fictional structure supported. In the face of cancer, this painstaking architecture of characters, plots, scenes, and settings felt unwieldy. Writing The Fetishist started to feel like building Versailles to accommodate an oyster. Shouldn’t a shell be shelter enough? Did a mollusk really require a Hall of Mirrors?
Truth suddenly seemed the imperative. Unhoused, unadorned—without folderol, or fanfare. The naked truth. It was like some weird reversal of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where I was the Emperor looking down at myself, horrified by the jacquard silk and scalloped lace, the pearl buttons and powdered wig.
The powdered wig, or the Tina Turner one, it didn’t matter. It was like staring into the mirror, after G. shaved my head. Cancer treatment had made me bald, but my baldness was only the most obvious sign of my vulnerability. My life had changed. Illness gave it an urgency that upstaged the most extravagant imagining. It was terrifying, but it was real, and somehow I knew that it would not do to cover up.