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Is it wrong to wish this book were funnier? After he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in June 2010, D.C.-based essayist Christopher Hitchens wrote a series of columns for Vanity Fair that attacked the disease from a host of angles—medical, intellectual, and (of course) atheistic. Spread out across months, the pieces allowed readers to kid themselves that Hitchens was getting the better of the monster, that his wit and spirit held steady. His presence in the magazine’s pages was so stately that his death last December felt sudden, as if he were in a car accident.
Compressing those columns into one slim volume, Mortality clarifies how much his 18-month stint in what he called Tumortown drained him. He took cancer seriously in his first dispatch, but his posture was so casual it hardly even qualified as defiance: “The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.” By his final essay he’s so exhausted that he won’t make the easy joke about nurses saying he might feel a little prick, and a poem about chemical warfare weighs heavily on his mind. The book closes with a few pages of notebook scraps that feel, grimly, like final gasps.
As with him, so with all of us, the thinness and trajectory of Mortality seems to say. But one thing that stays consistent throughout these essays is Hitchens’ contempt for all sorts of piety, the godly kind first and foremost. Learning he’s being prayed for, he condemns prayer as futile and takes some easy swipes at the bottom-feeders who celebrated what they deemed his path to hell. “Please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries,” he intones. That line reveals a willful intellectual shallowness—Hitchens knew prayer isn’t merely God’s request line. But it’s the kind of utterance you admired in Hitchens, proof that to the end he remained a master of the artful “fuck you.” Unfortunately for him, cancer wasn’t just another lame interlocutor on a C-SPAN panel. The disease won the argument, and its greatest insult to him was that it did so while remaining rudely silent.
There’s a subtler change in how he metaphorizes his experience. Early on he’s “dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.” After months of treatment, though, he’s a dumb machine, “dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.” Hitchens likely would have admired the potency of the shift, even if there’s nothing in Mortality that confesses to it. Among those scraps in the back is a note by John Diamond, a cancer-struck British journalist. Hitchens appreciated Diamond’s persistently “perky” tone but knew it for the lie it was: “A stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end.” Mortality has no such issues.