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Now we are sick

This post has been stagnating for over a week now. Other posts that wait unfinished for so long I just kill because I can’t pick up my thoughts well enough to keep going, but I’m hoping I can weave this together topically. See, I haven’t written here because I’ve been sick and I don’t know why. I had a flu a week (two weeks?) ago and have just been exhausted ever since. No fever, though I have more nightmares than usual, but I spent this weekend taking 3-hour naps and then wanting another one a few hours later. I’m just miserable and completely drained, which I’m sure has been a lot of fun for all the people who have to spend time with me, too.

At any rate, I stayed up a week ago Sunday reading It’s a Bird…, Steven Seagle’s fictionalized account of his personal crisis when offered a job writing Superman. It’s a physically beautiful volume, a comfortable size with fascinating art, but it was the story I’d wanted to read for a long time. In the story at least, Seagle’s family has a history of Huntington’s disease, and so his first tie to Superman is an issue of the comic he and his brother share in a hospital waiting room while the adults confer about his grandmother’s condition. Huntington’s is a family secret he hasn’t discussed with anyone growing up, something he was aware of without understanding at all, and the Superman gig and the news that his father has disappeared bring it to the surface.

Apparently Seagle (again, at least in the story; from here on out I’ll just treat “Seagle” as the fictional character since we have a Steven on the site already, and I’ll deal with Seagle-the-author-guy as needed when he shows up) didn’t learn about Huntington’s when he took biology, which is strange because I know we covered it as early as 7th grade. I was 12 and I was obsessed, because it seemed like such perfect story material. While Seagle says it lacks a celebrity face, there’s Woody Guthrie, whose frailty in his son’s movie Alice’s Restaurant apparently made quite an impression on viewers at the time, if my mother is to be believed. I mention this also because the parent/child relationship is at the core of the tragedy of Huntington’s, so while Woody’s decline is in some ways that of his generation (and Arlo’s drifting and trying to avoid the war is supposed to be characteristic of his decadent, passionate generation) it is also part of a story about what it means to be watching your father die young and painfully while your classmates are doing the same thing half a world away. Huntington’s, as I recall from my long-ago studies, is a real O. Henry disease; by the time you realize you have it at age 40 or so, you’ve already passed it on to your children. It’s practically the only (certainly the only I know) major genetic disease that is dominant rather than recessive, which means that there are no carriers. Either you have it or you don’t. If one of your parents has it, there’s a 50 percent chance you will, too.

Seagle didn’t really play with that aspect of it, didn’t talk about the odds, which seemed, well, odd in a story in which he worries so much about his own chances. He doesn’t tell his girlfriend that there are genetic screenings available now (another messy, tough issue that would make good story fodder) perhaps because he doesn’t know, but also because this is the story of his myopically private anguish. And really that’s what made it interesting. The book is comprised of vignettes, glimpses of Seagle with his girlfriend or with his editor or looking for his father or writing about Superman or the comics versions of the Superman stories he was writing. Seagle’s initial argument in wanting to turn down the Superman gig is that he has nothing to say about this invincible man, but he realizes that Superman works best as a foil for our flaws, as a way to safely understand the limits of our doomed bodies. It’s a Bird…, in addressing this head-on, is probably a more successful Superman story than most I’ve read, which isn’t saying much. It creates a sort of universal appeal because we all (I hope) worry occasionally or often about the secrets our genes and our families hold and what will happen when they get out.

Maybe I was just a receptive audience because I have to do a daily checkup on my mystery ailment to figure out whether things are getting worse (nope) or better (possibly today, I hope). Other people have to worry about cholesterol or tendencies toward cancers. And then there’s the history we know we hold, the times lately I’ve had to assess my ennui: is this normal stress and sadness or a return of the sort of depression from which there seems to be no escape? One part of what makes reading fun is that it’s a way to get out of my body a bit (when the books aren’t too heavy or my arms too tired) without pretending I don’t have one or that it has nothing to do with what’s going on in my head.

What was going on in my head as I read It’s a Bird… was initially disappointment that Seagle (author and character) didn’t seem to have more than superficial insights into Superman, that there were potentially some factual errors I don’t even remember anymore (I’m not sure about a connection between the Nazi-mandated Star of David and Superman’s outfit) but also hope that something more would come of this. It’s not as deep as what I would have wanted, but nothing much seems to be lately (and is this a symptom of laziness and overwork and intellectual stagnation on my part? I think so!) and I’m not the one who got to write it or even wanted to. It’s a beautiful book and a thoughtful one, a story about superheroes that strives for harmony, peace, a calmed self. For all that I enjoyed it and would have liked it even more if I’d waited until this week to buy it in paperback, but that’s not really an option. We do what we choose with the time that we’ve got, and if that means I occasionally buy a hardcover book at full price, so be it. And now I’ll wind some yarn and rest.


  1. Greg Burgas says:

    Rose: Nice post on an excellent book. I have to defend Seagle-the-character, however, because I never heard of Huntington’s in biology class either (we didn’t cover it) and I’ve never seen Alice’s Restaurant. Maybe Seagle should have, since his family was afflicted with it, but remember that for years his family suppressed the knowledge.

    It’s interesting that you relate, in your weakened state (get well soon, by the way!) to Seagle, since it seems in the book that he enjoys his lassitude — it’s a part of his being, and he needs it to survive. Perhaps that’s why he has no more than a superficial insight into Supes — the Big Blue is kind of his opposite. It’s this tension which lends a lot of power to the book, I think.

    — 9 February 2005 at 3:27 am (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    Well, I was sort of torn about how to deal with Seagle-the-character, since things are fictionalized and it’s hard to know how much author-Seagle knows. To me, one of the most compelling parts of the story is the way this person who researches (I assume that’s part of writing, or hope so at least) for a living can keep himself from researching something close to him because it’s too close and too threatening, even though quick research would actually have allayed some of his fears. But this isn’t a story that gets foregrounded at all, and I wish it had. I guess I think much of the book is superficial, but that it works that way and is probably more powerful than if it had gotten more bogged down in self-reflection.

    I’m not sure I relate to Seagle as much as to his worry, if that makes sense. Maybe it’s because I have an ongoing physical condition I have to monitor where it’s my responsibility to notify physicians if I think things are getting worse, but I think most people do some form of this. There are things we carry in our bodies (I’m trying not to restart debate about identity) and because of that we have to find a way to fit them into our heads, not that I really believe in a mind/body duality. I’m interested in the ways people think about being in their bodies especially as it relates to illness, so I appreciated Seagle doing this even if he didn’t go about it quite the same way I might have.

    I also liked the subtle don’t-want-no-schlubs romance, since Seagle (character and author, I hope!) realized the only way to hang onto and be fair to his idealized woman was to treat her honestly and with respect, to open himself up and communicate. It’s nice to see that as a happy ending!

    — 9 February 2005 at 1:33 pm (Permalink)