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'[sic]: A Memoir' by Joshua Cody

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2011

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Stories about people facing life-threatening diseases are supposed to be inspirational. Either the patient beats the odds and survives, or dies after having earned a finer appreciation of the things that really matter in life.

Not so for Joshua Cody. His memoir, “[sic],’’ “was intended as a riposte to the literature of disease.’’ Cody is a young New York City composer who was nearly killed a few years ago by an aggressive tumor in his neck. As he progressed through treatment, he kept journals of his thoughts, impressions, emotions, and conversations and used the material as the basis for this account. The author doesn’t just hope to jab back at the typical recovery memoir - he wants to smash it to pieces, as he did every glass and plate in his apartment when he feared a recurrence.

Cody has rage, but he also has wry humor, a penchant for free association, and more than a few off-putting pretensions. From the finicky title on down, this was a hard book to like, but it seems as though the author wants it that way.

Or does he? Apologizing for his preoccupation with old poets such as Pound, Eliot, and Auden, he admits, “I’m afraid you’ll think I’m not fashionable. Writers hope readers will like them.’’

It’s all supposed to add up to a postmodern kind of memoir, in which human relations are examined as algebraic equations and a notebook entry ending in frustrated slashes is held up as “my inadvertent contribution to Abstract Expressionism in America.’’ This is brash stuff, and too often maddening.

Much of “[sic]’’ finds the author testing boundaries: recounting a series of desperate, high-strung liaisons, sometimes graphically; sorting through fragments of disturbing memories from his prolonged hospitalization; and indulging himself in the art of Paul Klee, Eastern European cinema, and the Rolling Stones, as his late father, a would-be writer from Wisconsin, had encouraged.

He also shares some fond, if cloying, recollections. “I liked my life,’’ writes Cody, who makes brief mention of the fact that he is a descendant of Buffalo Bill. “I liked my childhood, my parents, my brother, my city, my decade, my era. . . . I liked single malt Scotch, and rainy weather and fireplaces, and . . . how I had put all the Mozart operas on my computer at home in iTunes, and had organized them by year.’’ The section may be a lunge toward normalcy; it might just as well be a wicked parody.

Kafka, he notes, once claimed that everything he wrote was “perfect’’ - “there was ‘style’ already imbued in whatever came out of his pen.’’ It’s tough to suppress the feeling that Cody, too, feels uncomfortably egotistical about everything he jots down. Flitting from one meditation to the next, on love and hope and sex and dreams (the publisher terms the book a “fantasia’’), a good bit of “[sic]’’ is drawn straight from the author’s journals. In fact, he reproduces several pages of his notes, as well as a few of his mother’s.

His health problems fade in and out, but when he lingers, it’s brutal. Chemotherapy and radiation are “as different as night and day, pagans and Christians, Laurel and Hardy,’’ he suggests. “With chemo, you feel the slow drip of poison overtaking your body; everything is slowness, gradations. . . . Radiation, on the other hand, doesn’t work in degrees. You feel nothing. It takes about three seconds. You feel absolutely fine, until the moment when your hair falls out, your skin burns off, you’re too tired to move, you’re throwing up, and this is where the pain medication comes into play.’’

Anyone who’s been there has earned his fantasia. Near the end, Cody is recuperating by a lake in New Hampshire, reading his father’s copy of St. Augustine’s “Confessions.’’ He recalls taking a motorboat out with his father when he was a kid.

The smell of gasoline on a predawn lake, he writes, though clearly bad for the environment, “is nevertheless one of the most beautiful odors in the world.’’ He may just be right.

Author and Boston Globe contributor James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

[SIC]: A Memoir

By Joshua Cody

Norton, 272 pp.,

illustrated, $24.95