This Living and Immortal Thing by Austin Duffy

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The somewhat neo-Yeatsian, almost mawkish-sounding title chosen for Austin Duffy’s first novel is deceptively triumphalist. While the novel toys with the idea of the soul’s immortality, you’re in for a surprise if you expect a naïve championing of spiritualism in the material age. Although it is certainly a soulful novel with compelling love interest, there is nothing overly sentimental about Austin Duffy’s captivating and original fictional debut.

The plotline unfolds in the cancer ward of a New York hospital. The narrator, an alter ego of Duffy himself, is an oncologist carrying out experiments on mice in the thin hope of discovering a cure. One of the features that makes this novel first-rate fiction is Duffy’s talent for pulling the rug from under the reader’s feet. Nothing is as it initially seems: both the reader and later the narrator are forced to reassess situations that seemed crystal clear.

The novel opens with the narrator’s compassionate description of Henrietta’s treatment. It is only after a while that the red herring is unveiled: Henrietta is actually one of the lab mice into which he injects cancer cells in the aim of testing experimental treatment. If the mice recover, they are put to death. Duffy doesn’t spare the reader any of the grisly details, drawing our sympathy for his victims while retaining our identification with the narrator. It’s a delicate moral balancing act which he manages with skill. The microcosm of the mice serves as an ideal correlative for the larger world of the human patients in the hospital.

When interviewed after winning the Francis Mac Manus short story competition for “Orca”, Duffy pointed out that “writing about illness can be tough. It can be like using too much black paint – you end up killing the story.” Duffy manages to avoid black daubing resourcefully and with great panache through indirection and the quality of his prose.

Duffy’s writing subscribes to what the poet Marianne Moore called “plain American that cats and dogs can read” occasionally illuminating plain-spoken elegance with flashes of metaphorical heightening. Duffy’s use of pathetic fallacy is sparing and forceful. When the narrator steps out of his lab to go home like a battle-weary warrior, for instance, “the clouds were like a million fists pointed at the earth”. A cancer patient in a terminal phase emits “a short, joyless laugh” which is shortly after reflected in the sky as “the heatless sun”. A man who is told that his wife is going to die, stares into space in the direction of “a plant and its naked exposed roots”.

Duffy’s mastery of dialogue is everywhere apparent and the humane humour he is able to glean from the most tragic situations would please Howard Jacobson no end. Another of Duffy’s compelling objective correlatives is his comical description of machinery: “A silent JCB stood exhausted in the middle of the street, its bucket resting on the ground, its teeth sore.” His observations of male behaviour are equally smile-inducing. A man who is devastated by the loss of his dearly-beloved sister still responds to sexual beauty when it passes in front of him: “The wind caught her dress and pressed the light material tightly against her. Uri’s attention descended on her like a small bird of prey coming out of the sky. For a few seconds he stared at her, thinking of nothing else. It really is ridiculous that for us men that never ceases, no matter what the circumstances. You could be running for your life and still your head would turn.”

The narrator’s remarks on national identity are also insightful. Being of Irish descent, Duffy is able to compare America and Ireland with absolute precision and frankness. One of the striking differences he notices is the absence of Downs Syndrome in America, portraying Americans as mercilessly eugenic. He also comments interestingly on social interaction and body language in the two cultural contexts in a manner that is winsomely self-deprecating.

The most surprising gleaning in the novel, its most original and epiphanic instance of squeezing the positive out of the negative, is the idea that cancer is paradoxically a life-force that symbolizes our longing for immortality. It is a well-known fact that cancer cells are terminal, crazed cells that suddenly refuse to die when the surrounding cells tell them to. In language that is both highly technical yet clear and enlivening, Duffy’s narrator ponders the thought that the cells he withdraws from patients have an astounding ability to live on and reproduce without sustenance. It makes one think about the science fictional possibility of turning these ultra-resistant, self-perpetuating cells into entities that could sustain rather than destroy us.

This Living and Immortal Thing is one of the most interesting novels I have read in thirty years – no doubt the start of a very promising literary career.

by Erik Martiny


9781783781676This Living and Immortal Thing by Austin Duffy, Granta, £12.99 (paperback)