Friday, November 15, 2013


nin - happiness in slavery by robertjgunn

About five years ago, early on in my writing program, I found myself desperately in need of inspiration, motivation and validation. I felt like no one in my workshop even understood what I was trying to write, let alone having any useful input on the results of my efforts; I felt like the stories being praised were skin pieces about romantic trysts in Europe when I wanted to write something more intimate and epic; I felt like my urbanized philosophical struggle was alien to my provincial peers. So one day I said, Fuck it. I know there's something out there for me.

What followed was a long day spent sifting through the fiction section of the local second-hand bookstore. I wasn't looking for names I recognized, because big names only pandered to the very literary circle-jerk I was railing against. I wanted something weird, cool, and independent, something that spoke to my personal inclinations as a punk/rebel/black sheep who was going to write his fucking bullshit no matter what the workshop suggested. And so I walked out with a little black book called "Zed," a blind buy if there ever was one, a book that I quite honestly figured was self-published and might inspire me to self-publish my own stuff.

As it turned out, it wasn't quite a consignment self-publication; it was a small-press novel that had actually received quite a bit of acclaim. Still, it was a weird little book, a sort of dystopian gothic sci-fi metaphor about survivalism, and it spoke to me in a way few books have. It seemed to scream out angst and it resonated as an impressionistic projection of something that I, at that very moment in my life, identified with emotionally. I'm not sure it would mean as much to me now, but for a blind buy during a particularly frustrated and alienated period of my life, it couldn't have been a better investment. After I read it, I googled its author, expecting to find it had come out of some post-adolescent metal chick who shared some of the same insecurities as myself. But what I found was a little unexpected. I found a blog that was a literal cry for help - not in some abstract psychological sense, but in the literal "I am dying" sense. As it turns out, Elizabeth McClung was a local lesbian with a fetish for Japanese anime and a terminal illness. I began to follow her blog with regularity, no longer as a fan of the novel but as a perverse voyeur.
Narrator: Hold on, I'll tell you; we'll split up the week, okay? You take lymphoma, and tuberculosis...
Marla: You take tuberculosis. My smoking doesn't go over at all.
Narrator: Okay, good, fine. Testicular cancer should be no contest, I think.
Marla: Well, technically, I have more of a right to be there than you. You still have your balls.
Narrator: You're kidding.
Marla: I don't know... am I?
Narrator: No, no! What do you want?
Marla: I'll take the parasites.
Narrator: You can't have both the parasites, but while you take the blood parasites...
Marla: I want brain parasites.
Narrator: I'll take the blood parasites. But I'm gonna take the organic brain dementia, okay?
Marla: I want that.
Narrator: You can't have the whole brain, that's...
Marla:: So far you have four, I only have two!
Narrator: Okay. Take both the parasites. They're yours. Now we both have three... 
After a while, I grew bored of the anime and felt uncomfortable rubbernecking. On some level, I think I began to question whether she was actually dying, with the way the specifics of her condition were so vague and the physical pain began to bleed into the existential. Whatever it was, whether boredom or cowardice or simply an inability to face down that level of misery, I gradually gravitated away from her blog and back towards my own interests.

At the time, I didn't realize there's a cottage industry of this sort of thing, people taking to the internet to record their last months, days, hours. And it hits close to home. McClung was a local writer. I'd never heard of Eva Markvoort until I read her obituary in 2010, which mentioned a documentary about a livejournal account called 65 RedRoses. I discovered that she was from Vancouver, but had attended the same university at the same time as I had. I'm not sure what her major was. Most likely we never shared a class. Perhaps we were enrolled in the same first-year lecture but she was too anonymous (or likely, too absent) to notice. It doesn't matter. I heard her accent on the documentary and I knew her. I'm sitting there listening to a dying girl talk about her small earthly pleasures and all I can think is: who does that sound like? The unique twang to her voice, Canadian in its upbeat tone but also a little BC hickish; it's the same accent that after seven years on the island I'm beginning to adopt, an accent that locals protest to me they don't have. And it's a reminder that sometimes sounding a certain way isn't a mark of otherness but actually an anchor to a time, place and sense of identity.

Eva had Cystic Fibrosis. So did most of her friends profiled in the film, and after a while of looking all these people up it becomes a depressing stream of online eulogies. And I realize that damn, these people are younger than me! Same goes for Laura Rothenberg, who wrote my first encounter with Cystic Fibrosis, a book that stumped me in my teenage years, back when death was an amorphous idealized thing that terrified me in its meaninglessness. Apparently she was 18 or 20 when she found motivation to write the book that I still, at 27, haven't yet. I have a James Dean poster on my wall, but do I really carpe diem? Does anyone? Rothenberg died at 22, an age when I was just discovering the world I thought I'd built around myself was a house of cards. If I were ever to find that motivation to sit down and focus, I imagine a brick wall coming at me at a thousand miles an hour would ironically be an enormous aid, but at 22 I still wasn't ready to live yet, let alone die.

On some level writing about this is cathartic. It reminds me of the close calls, the bad decisions or potential bad decisions which could have changed my life: getting into a car with a drunk on a fatal stretch of road; watching a close friend drunkenly climb onto a 14th-floor railing; hearing about an acquaintance falling off a building to his death. But I'm still here to think those through. These girls lived their whole lives with the guillotine, while we throw ours away willingly. It's enough to make you wonder.

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