Chloe Lane tackles the moral dilemma at the heart of her novel about assisted dying.
Contains some spoilers from Chloe’s novel, The Swimmers
My first MFA workshop at the University of Florida was with American author and Southern snake enthusiast Padgett Powell. I was nervous. My hands were clammy and they shook. Outside it was hot. Inside, the classroom was extremely air-conditioned and deathly quiet. Powell isn’t one for sudden movements. He let the silence settle so deeply it became awkward, then painful, then embarrassing. He has a gift for commanding a room. Finally he turned to the course syllabus. The first two pages (of thirty-three) were an excerpt from the novel Us! (2007) by University of Florida alumnus Chris Bachelder. The excerpt contained a fictional syllabus for a fictional class with Upton Sinclair titled ‘Advanced Fiction Writing (Or, Literature as a Class Weapon)’.
“In this course students will use journalistic techniques and sexual repression to write socially engaged, morally outraged fiction with unambiguous endings” begins the ‘Course Objectives’. The ‘Policies and Guidelines’ follow: “No firearms allowed in class. I will not accept late novels … I will not accept handwritten novels. Dress appropriately for workshop. Ladies, please, no ‘tube’ tops! If I am assassinated at some point during the semester, carry on with the assigned work … No suburban malaise. No point of view stunts. No fragmentation. No gentle fading of the light…”.
“Learn to play your instrument, then get sexy.”
As we read Powell’s (Sinclair’s [Bachelder’s]) syllabus, Powell chuckled. A few others followed his lead, chuckled too. Then Powell asked a question. He wanted to know what made the line about dressing appropriately for workshop funny? No one spoke. He asked the question again. Someone answered. My memory gets foggy here – it might have been Powell, but I also remember one of the second-year MFAs, Glen, speaking up. Either way, the answer was Bachelder’s use of quotation marks in the line “Ladies, please, no ‘tube’ tops.” Powell wanted us to take note of the added pressure those little marks put on that word and what they might suggest about the man who was writing the syllabus. The out-of-date-ness of the remark, the disgust in his voice – why is he so offended by the image of a lady wearing this garb? What harm has been done to him, re ‘tube’ tops, in the past?
Powell’s syllabus is one of the few printed documents I’ve kept from my MFA. Now it lives on my writing desk in Ōtautahi. I can’t see a person wearing a ‘tube’ top without putting quotation marks around it in my head. But I also remember the real lesson from that class, which was that even in a novel a lot can turn on a word, a piece of punctuation, and that’s why it’s important to get it right. In the words of Debbie Harry (see page eight of Powell’s syllabus), “Learn to play your instrument, then get sexy.”
There were other gems too. Including this, Powell’s words:
“Did it happen? Could it happen? Should it happen? You do not want the first answer to be yes. The second should be a strained maybe. The third answer should be a resounding Yes! Fiction is implausibility rendered plausible by an accuracy of sentiment conveyed by precision of utterance. Fiction must be a doozie, and it must be a gratifying doozie. The doozie quotient must be high: plausibility of account over probability of event. And you must at all cost forestall ‘So what?’”
“Raise the stakes! Raise the stakes again!”
In my novel The Swimmers, the story’s narrator, Erin Moore, returns to the family farm to learn that her mother, who is suffering through the late stages of motor neurone disease, wants to die. Her mother has already enlisted the help of her sister, Erin’s estranged Aunty Wynn, and they have a plan. Once Erin learns this she can’t stand idly by, she must participate. Partly, childishly, because she can’t stand the thought of Aunty Wynn giving her mother something she can’t. Though more significantly, Erin loves her mother more than anyone else and she wants to do everything she can to help fulfil her mother’s final wish. Even if that wish is for a peaceful death in three days’ time.
Did the action in The Swimmers happen? No. My mother is alive and still teaching at an intermediate school in West Auckland. Could it happen? Could a regular Kiwi family help one of their own take their own life? I don’t believe the result of October’s End of Life Choice referendum will alleviate the big pressures of care and responsibility that are built in to this question, though it could alter the how. But in the world of the novel, where assisted dying is still illegal in New Zealand, but the drugs and means to end one’s life peacefully, though not freely accessible, could, depending on how far each party was willing to bend the law, be obtainable? Maybe it could happen. Should it happen though? Yes, it must.
The death in The Swimmers and Erin and Aunty Wynn’s participation in it is the doozie part of the equation. Without it, if I’d opted instead to take the reader to the edge of the act but then looked away, changed tack, the novel could potentially be a moving meditation on family – the ways we struggle to make connections, all the ways we are disappointing, some of the ways we aren’t. Though here I think of the advice I shared every semester with my fiction students, advice someone once shared with me, the line Kurt Vonnegut said first about making awful things happen to your characters so the reader may see what they are made of: “What is at stake?” I repeatedly cried to my undergrads. Then, “Raise the stakes! Raise the stakes again!” The death, and its means, is the awful thing in The Swimmers that allows the reader to see more deeply what Erin and Aunty Wynn are made of.
I don’t believe that this book encourages a reader to do anything ... I can’t dictate what is in another’s heart.
Are Erin and Aunty Wynn good people? How you answer this question will depend on your definition of ‘good’. When we meet Erin she has just got out of a relationship with a married man – the man’s wife caught them together, the man and his wife have kids, the man is Erin’s boss, this is not the first time Erin has done something like this, she’s not sorry. Later in the novel we learn Aunty Wynn has a similar kind of affair to her name. She’s not sorry either. On top of this, to acquire the necessary drugs for Erin’s mother, Erin and Aunty Wynn will have to commit blackmail. Yes, the bad stuff starts to pile up. Your personal, moral take on assisted dying will also hold a lot of sway here.
But reaching the end point of the novel doesn’t cost Erin and Aunty Wynn nothing. A lot is asked of them in return. They are forced to give up things they hold dear, and they will carry this other very heavy thing around with them for the rest of their lives. Their actions also demand kindness, bravery and unflinching generosity. If I’ve done my job correctly, by the end of this story you should see some of what these two women are really made of. And hopefully I’ve also forestalled the final question in Powell’s advice: “So what?”
So if the novel needs the death, then how do I, the author, figure the ethics of writing about a subject such as this? And not just circle gently around this subject, but lay it out, logistics and all, in such detail? But rather than this, the question I asked myself every day when I sat down to write was, Have I rendered this story plausible by an accuracy of sentiment conveyed by precision of utterance? Writing with such detail was the best way I could see to make this story believable. If the reader doesn’t buy that Erin and Aunty Wynn could have done these things in this way, if it all seems unlikely or confusing, then the race is over before it has begun.
Now that the novel is written and out in the world I’ve had a bit of: “This is very sensitive subject matter,” and “Are you concerned about what people will do with this information?” I don’t believe that this book encourages a reader to do anything more than any other piece of literature that touches on some of these things: the long, tough road of terminal illness; saying goodbye and letting go of the ones we love; how good it can feel to swim in the sea; what the smell of an old bungalow can do to us; trying to be brave; trying to be sorry; being brave; being sorry. I can’t dictate what is in another’s heart. I can only show some of what is in my heart, and what I put in the hearts of my characters. My personal take on assisted dying, and how I may vote in October’s referendum, is much less relevant than how Erin accepts her mother’s choice, and how far she is willing to go to honour that choice.
The novel’s grief isn’t the assisted dying ... it’s all of the other stuff
In her essay ‘Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction’ (The New York Review of Books, October 2019), Zadie Smith quotes a poem by Emily Dickinson:
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes—
I wonder if It weighs like Mine—
Or has an Easier size.
The essay is an argument for stepping outside our lanes and writing characters that are not ‘like us’ as long as we do it with interest and compassion, and while knowing that there is no ‘correct’ answer, whichever way you look at it: “For though the other may not know us perfectly or even well, the hard truth is we do not always know ourselves perfectly or well.” What I would like to lean on here is how Smith weighs her griefs against those of a character’s as a measure of what fiction can give:
What do I have in common with Olive Kitteridge, a salty old white woman who has spent her entire life in Maine? And yet, as it turns out, her griefs are like my own. Not all of them. It’s not a perfect mapping of self onto book … But some of Olive’s grief weighed like mine.
This gets a little at how I feel about The Swimmers being out in the world. Yes, this is a story about assisted dying – that’s where the novel gets its action. But this is also a story about the obligations we have to those we care about, how much we’re willing to give of ourselves to make others happy, the things we do and don’t do, some of the ways we can hurt and love. This is the way I see it: the novel’s grief isn’t the assisted dying part of the equation; it’s all of the other stuff. Maybe the other stuff is the real doozie quotient. And as an author, all I can hope for is that some of Erin’s and Aunty Wynn’s griefs have a similar weight to the griefs of some of the book’s readers.
I thought about Powell when I began writing this piece because of the things he gave to me that helped me write The Swimmers. He introduced me to William Trevor, Isak Dinesen, and Turgenev. He opened up about some of his publishing experiences and mistakes. I learned a lot about snakes and pit bulls – less relevant to this book, but still appreciated. He showed me some of the ways I could play my instrument better. At the end of his first workshop, after the last rules of engagement had been covered, he leaned back in his chair, and with a warm and steady gaze that met every set of student eyes he said, “The primary aim is to write some lively shit.” First impressions can be strange and slippery. Keep reading. Sometimes the payoff is worth it.
The Swimmers is published by Victoria University Press
Feature image: Chloe Lane (photo: Victoria Palombit)
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.