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Filtering by Tag: Fall 2014

On Immunity: An Inoculation

Jeffery Shotts, the executive editor at Graywolf Press, calls On Immunity “an inoculation against our fear.” In eloquent prose, well-researched and forceful arguments, and a dazzling exposition of myths and metaphors, Eula Biss, winner of the National Book Critics Award for her work Notes from No Man’s Land, explores an increasingly pressing issue: the act of vaccination against disease. Biss draws on conversations and issues presented by physicians, mothers who share her same fears, and also literary greats such as Bram Stoker, Voltaire, Susan Sontag, and Rachel Carson, to discover the foundation of our cultural fear of vaccinations.

Biss begins with an examination of the myth of Achilles. In this story, Thetis, Achilles’ mother, dips her son by the heel into the River Styx in order to immunize him from harm. And yet, as the story goes, the very act Thetis takes to protect Achilles becomes his greatest weakness.

Throughout the book, Eula Biss presents and dissects, with the precision of a carpenter’s X-Acto knife, our fears of vaccinations. She explains and justifies these fears, and understands them herself, as she experienced them when it was time to decide whether she ought to vaccinate her own child. Her son was born in the midst of the H1N1 pandemic and as a result she became hypersensitive to the matter of protecting her son from infectious disease. This story is as much an exploration of the efficacy of vaccination as it is a mother seeking answers and remedies to her own fears of injecting impurities into the body of her child in the name of immunity.

The author covers many issues surrounding vaccination, and dispels many slanderous rumors, such as when someone of incomparable wisdom like Jenny McCarthy says things like this, even though all the scientific literature on the issue has shown no link between vaccination and autism. Or when so called experts like the inimitable Dr. Bob, author of The Vaccine Book, warns parents “not to share their fears with their neighbors, because if too many people avoid the MMR [vaccine], we’ll likely see the disease increase significantly.” It is precisely this type of thinking that severely damages our collective ability to defend ourselves from disease. (The reader should note that sarcasm was employed in the preceding paragraph.)

This serves as the perfect transition to the most thought provoking concept with which Biss utilizes her precision knife to cut away the misperceptions of vaccination. Her meditations on ‘herd immunity’ were what most drew me into the text. I found myself pondering the implications of this metaphor for days after I finished the book. Biss states that “the Greeks imagined the body politic as an organism, itself alive and part of a greater cosmic organism—both the citizen and the city were bodies within bodies.” She elaborates on this idea further and provides an overwhelmingly convincing argument for vaccination grounded on the metaphor that the individual and the community at large are bound as one, and that the individual has a social responsibility to protect itself from disease and therefore protect others as well.

The natural body meets the body politic in the act of vaccination, where a single needle penetrates both. The capacity of some vaccines to generate a collective immunity superior to the individual immunity produced by those same vaccines suggests that the politic has not only a body, but also an immune system capable of protecting it as a whole. Some of us assume that what is good for the body politic cannot be good for the body natural—that the interests of these bodies must be at odds. But the work of epidemiologists and immunologists and even mathematicians often suggests otherwise.
— Eula Biss


She concludes with a simple yet powerful message: “However we choose to think of the social body, we are each other’s environment. And Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.” 

On Immunity: An Inoculation will be published on September 30th, 2014, by Graywolf Press. All quotations used come from a galley version I received from the publisher and may differ from the final product.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Cover photo generously provided by Coffee House Press

Cover photo generously provided by Coffee House Press

This book has won award, after award, after award. This book has been reviewed, and reviewed, and reviewed. This book is “Joycean.” This book is “unlike anything you’ve ever read”. This book “stands shoulder-to-shoulder with The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, and The Road as a masterpiece." This book… is tragic, haunting, and utterly fantastic.

All the accolades, all the reviews, and all the comparisons, though certainly deserving and accurate, do not even begin to scratch the surface as to why this book is an important addition to the literary landscape. McBride's innovative style captures "the moment just before language becomes formatted thought." The fragmented sentences keep the reader entrenched inside the protagonist's own experience, which at times can be difficult to share. The book is almost entirely devoid of physical and temporal details, adding only that which is immediately presented to the protagonist. And yet, despite the lack of setting, description, and dialogue, the story is captivating and beautiful.

The girl, who remains nameless throughout, is born to an unwed mother. Her brother develops a brain tumor at a very young age. Their father abandoned them. Her grandfather, a staunch Catholic, discovers that his grandchildren are being raised in a "kind of godlessness" and chastises her mother for allowing "evil in this house".
She is beaten as a child.  Her uncle sexually abuses her causing her to define her existence through her sexual encounters. As a result of McBride's unique style, the reader becomes a part of each of these experiences. The pulsating and stunted sentences create the sense that these thoughts, emotions, and terrors are your own. 

Eimear McBride is author of  A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.   Photo credit: Jemma Mickleburgh

Eimear McBride is author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. 
Photo credit: Jemma Mickleburgh

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a masterful literary achievement. The prose goes beyond 'stream of consciousness', almost becoming consciousness itself. Although it is a work of fiction, the universality that McBride writes with fosters the notion that this girl actually exists. And in some sense she does. For all the suffering this girl endures, and by Jove does she suffer, there are hundreds of thousands of women who have endured similar strife. McBride dispels the boundary between fictional character and historical individual. Suffering, on the scale that our protagonist goes through, happens. This realization is one that could be ignored in a typical work of fiction because the reader and the character are often kept at arm's reach through narration and dialogue. McBride, however, has torn down that wall of separation. The reader becomes the character's every thought and emotion. Every moment of fear, panic, laughter, heart break, depression, and fiery hatred is transferred from the squiggles on the page directly into the mind of the reader. 

If you desire to continue your foray into the next episode of 50 Shades of Bleh, by all means, continue. That is your prerogative. But if you so desire to challenge yourself as a reader, to plunge into a world of suffering and to come out on the other side a changed individual, then this is the book for you. Because that is what this book will do.  The beginning requires an adjustment, but as you become acquainted with the style, and allow the words to rush over you like a torrential rain, your outlook on your own existence, as well as the existence of others, will be changed. 
This book is a true piece of art in that it alters the understanding of the observer. It creates an empathetic connection between those otherwise entirely disconnected. Towards the middle, you will find yourself holding your breath as you turn each page to discover what lies beyond. And when the book is finished, and you set it on your nightstand, gasp for air, breathe deep, and be thankful.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride was published in the U.S. by Coffee House Press

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