Could there be a more timely topic, both for Biss herself and for our country? It’s timely for Biss because she is exploring these issues at the same time she is a new mother – an unimaginable task. And Biss manages this self-awareness nicely, describing a phone call to her husband about a crib mattress or encounters with doctors she questions. She is, simultaneously, on the inside and outside of this topic.
With frequent allusions to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which I now want to re-read) and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (I just found Sontag’s book On Photography, so that’ll be first), Biss explores the balance between the individual and society that all of us face. Do we have the right to make decisions that may endanger others? Is the government obliged to protect us from ourselves?
And Biss notes the metaphors as well and how they invade our everyday understanding of other issues. We battle disease. Immigrants become a kind of virus to be countered. What is a wall or security fence other than a kind of inoculation, an attempt to keep out that which we think will cause us trouble, when that trouble, Biss points out, is already within us? I was particularly interested in Biss’ connection between how we speak of virus in medical terms and in terms of what we dread when it comes to our computers.
It’s easy to forget, with all of the talk of vaccines, that Biss is a tremendous writer. There’s not a wasted word here. Each short piece is artfully constructed. They are not chapters or even separate essays. It took me an absurdly long time that there were no titles for the sections. Biss’ writing is a kind of verbal Jenga game. You can and should not remove one word.
I admit I was wondering about the largely absent husband here. The mattress conversation is, I think, one of his two mentions here. Certainly, there is much to be explored about the idea of a baby as a kind of invasion of the body as well as society’s expectations of the mother. But the issue of autism, among others, has been suggested by some to have a link to the father’s age at the time of conception. We all have things that we may carry and pass along to our children.
I would also like to have read Biss’ thoughts on the film Safe (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63NPIiCl3zo), a movie that I’ve seen many time. I find it haunting and true. We are afraid, and this fear makes us impoverished. Biss calls on us to remember that “we are each other’s environment [and that] immunity is a shared space – a garden we tend together.”
Incidentally, if you haven’t read Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land, you need to. Now. (http://www.eulabiss.net/books.html#notes)