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Book Review: Hitchens' *Mortality*

This is a review I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen of Christopher Hitchens' postumous book about dying of cancer. I loved the Hitch, but I didn't love this book. It's worth reading, like everything of his. But I thought he blinked, a bit. 



Christopher Hitchens, McClelland & Stewart $22.99 Hardcover, 107 pp

Christopher Hitchens' 2010 memoir Hitch-22 is packed with gossip, jokes, confessions, and arguments, with the tenor and tone shifting wildly from ironic to sentimental, crude to sophisticated, learned to juvenile, frequently within the same page or paragraph. But for all the clever turns of phrase, the stiletto reasoning, the unfair erudition, you don't actually discover much about what made the Hitch tick.

In fact, it is only on page 330, well over three fourths of the way through the book, that Hitchens condescends to reveal something of himself. The moment comes in his answers to "The Proust Questionnaire," a form of self-interrogation (and a popular feature from Hitchens' employer, Vanity Fair magazine) that asks you to answer questions like "What is your idea of earthly happiness?" and "what is the quality you most admire in a woman?"

The key moment of self-disclosure comes in the second question, "Where would you like to live?". Hitchens' fully-armed answer: "In a state of conflict or a conflicted state."

From his earliest days as a Trotskyite university radical, Christopher Hitchens was a man who lived to argue, to debate, to fight. The problem is, for an ideological combatant like Hitchens, the end-of-history '90s presented something less than a target-rich environment. As a result, he seem destined to spend his life as a bit of a fringe figure, picking odd little fights with Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa, where the viciousness of the attack seemed completely out of proportion to the alleged crimes.

The attacks of 9/11 changed everything, as the world was launched once again into a state of high-level polarized conflict. The novelist Martin Amis wrote that if 9/11 had to happen, he was glad he was alive to see it, but it was his boyhood chum Christopher Hitchens who immediately signed up as one of the most enthusiastic combatants.

It was the post-9/11 intellectual climate that motivated Hitchens' two big intellectual shifts: the one that made him infamous was his Slurpee-sucker cheerleading of the neocons as they bullied George W. Bush into invading Iraq; the one that made him famous was his relentless assault on all forms of religion that began with his 2008 book God Is Not Great.

And there things might have stayed for a long while, with Hitchens settling comfortably into a highly public role as the scourge of believers everywhere, leavening his anti-jihad jihads with more of the fun little assignments his editor at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, would send him on: get your back waxed, Hitch. Have yourself waterboarded. Write about blowjobs or how women aren't funny.

But suddenly he got metastatic cancer of the esophagus, diagnosed on a book tour, the very day Hitch-22 hit the best-seller list. Suddenly, but surely not unexpectedly, since Hitchens liked to drink and smoke as much as he liked to argue. As he writes in the first essay in this short little book, Mortality: "I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me."

Equally predictable was the way Hitchens set about giving his disease the complete writerly treatment. He begins with a sneer at what he calls "one of the most appealing clichés in our language," namely, that people don't have cancer, they battle it. He then sets about informing the reader that for a cancer patient, "the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water."

Given what follows, this is enormously disingenuous. Mortality consists of seven short chapters about Hitchens' "year of living dyingly," beginning with an essay that tracks his forced march from what he calls the country of the well to the land of malady, and ending with a scattered collection of thoughts, epigrams and quotations that he continued to jot down right up till the end.

Together they might as well be called "Christopher Hitchens versus Cancer," with the increasingly sick Hitch taking on one set of enemies after another. Whether it is the false hope of new therapies, the curse of losing his voice, the thin line between torture and treatment, or the idiotic thesis that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, the tone of the book is relentlessly combative. And because it is Hitchens doing the fighting, it is always smart, insightful and entertaining, with one or two gorgeous turns of phrase on every page.

There is a problem, though, which is that while you learn a lot about what it is like to have terminal cancer, there is very little about deeper theme that is promised in the book's title. Hitchens has little comment on the perverted irony of dying of the same disease that killed his father. There is virtually nothing here about his wife and kids, what his illness means to them and what they mean to him.

He doesn't appear interested in exploring what it is like to face the psychological - and not just intellectual - consequences of his atheism, which is guaranteed extinction. On the questions of his legacy, what people will think of him in a decade, or a century, Hitchens seems unconcerned.

In fact, the reader has to wait until the very end for any trace of mortality as a theme to creep into the book, and in all three examples it is a matter of Hitchens cribbing from other writers. There's a flick at Larkin's poem, Aubade. There is a beautiful quotation from Alan Lightman on how death is the enabler of freedom. And a line from Saul Bellow: "Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything." All three of these references trump anything Hitchens is able to conjure on the subject. Why this is the case is unclear, but Mortality is ultimately defeated by the writer's reluctance to say much at all on the subject at hand. Perhaps it is because Hitchens, the ultimate combatant, could not, right to the last, accept that he had finally found himself in a fight he could not win.

This is too bad, because as big a loss as his death has been for so many of his admirers, there is more to dying than cancer. What came to the Hitch will come to us all, in one form or another.

And for those of us who are less courageous, less stoic, less resolute, in the face of what Larkin devastatingly called "the anaesthetic from which none come round," it would have been nice to have had Hitchens to lead the way, as he did so often when he was alive.