A Review of:
The Sickness: A Novel
Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Reviewed by Jessica A. Kent
“Why do we find it so hard to accept that life is pure chance?” So states the overarching philosophy of Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s short novel The Sickness. The Venezuelan poet and novelist slices a portion out of the lives of his characters to present to the reader, centering upon the doctor Andrés Miranda and his father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The diagnosis is known to Dr. Miranda from the novel’s opening, yet the communication of that diagnosis to an otherwise robust and healthy father becomes a weight upon him. How do you tell a loved one they are dying? Dr. Miranda, known for his philosophy of full physician-patient transparency, is now faced with the necessity of being honest. And he hesitates with it.
A patient of Dr. Miranda’s, Ernesto Durán begins sending a series of emails to his doctor detailing a striking yet vague illness he has experienced. Though pronounced as being in excellent physical health, Durán continues to have dizzy spells, seeing Dr. Miranda as the only one able to heal and comfort him. His desire for connection turns into obsession, and it’s Dr. Miranda’s receptionist Karina who begins to reply to his emails, out of fear of escalating threat but also out of empathy. Her contact with Durán – in Dr. Miranda’s name – continues parallel to the storyline of father and son working through diagnosis, treatment, and mortality.
Each character is afflicted with sickness in their own way, and it seems to be Tyszka’s intention to present a nuanced introspection into what “sickness” could be. For Andrés and his father, sickness is in the tangible form of a present cancer, a foreign appearance in the body that deteriorates health and brings death near. For Durán, physical sickness is an illusion, something pantomimed in order to make a connection, albeit unhealthy and codependent. His sickness is not a physical manifestation but a mental one; is it to be deemed inferior to the sickness Andrés Miranda’s father faces? When juxtaposed against a cancer diagnosis, Durán’s hypochondrainism seems offensive, a slap in the face; Durán’s psychosomatic symptoms, mirroring the father’s real symptoms, seem mocking. But is Durán just to be brushed off? Karina’s sickness is harder to pinpoint, but is similar to Durán’s desire for connection and attention. Writing in the voice of Dr. Miranda, Karina is able to capture an authority to her words that she, as a receptionist, never held before, and is able to connect with a man who may just need saving. But Durán’s “sickness” begins to infect Karina; she begins to have dizzy spells, a result of the internalization of a man’s desperate need.
Tyszka, though, never manages to get any further than experimenting at the surface with the roles of sickness in the lives of his characters. An ocean of ink has been used to write about death, mortality, dignity, trauma, and grief; literature will never exhaust the depths of this great theme. By choosing an entry point such as the diagnosis of the father of a doctor, Tyszka is electing to bear the responsibility of literary exploration and excavation. But Tyszka spreads himself too thin on unimportant tertiary characters, and doesn’t give the themes length and breadth. He doesn’t allow his novel to breathe, his scenes to dwell. The characters’ emotions are uni-faceted – tears, which are rarely a first response to loss, seem to be the only response – rather than scraping through all the anger, sorrow, resentment, and panic of impending loss. The father-son relationship is barely fleshed out. Dr. Miranda’s relationship with his own children, who are never even named, is never explored; Dr. Miranda’s wife is flat and only seems to serve one purpose for him. Tyszka’s prose gives the novel a richness and a fluid way into the responses and emotions of the characters, but the third person omniscient narrative choice is too broad. Overall, the narrative is attempting too much, attempting to cover too much ground, too many themes. The sense of the book, then, becomes merely impressionistic.
But the lack of depth is more than just within the narrative. It relates to what Dr. Miranda and his fellow doctors proclaim before each surgery: “Why do we find it so hard to accept that life is pure chance?” This philosophy permeates the novel: The novel’s response to death is purely atheistic. There is the expectation of a permanent ending. Various ideas for how to die with dignity are grasped at but never held. Various texts on illness are quoted to give a diverse view of death, but a firm outlook is never adopted. There is no mention of an afterlife. There is no mention of religion or faith. The class the father attends to learn strategies on coping with death only offers false positivity, empty maxims, and fluff. There is no wrestling to seek out a reason behind suffering, or a sovereign plan behind life’s workings; there is no hope towards heaven or an afterlife. Those who face death run a gamut of emotions, and whatever one’s religious orientation is, rarely does the person facing death staunchly keep to an atheistic view of the universe, dying to nothingness. That real, human struggle towards dying well is missing from The Sickness, as well as any really treatment of grief.
But should a novel ask so much? Should a novel be expected to plumb the depths of grief and detail each movement within the spaces of loss? Can a novel be impressionistic, leaving just a glimpse into situation? Was it Tyszka’s intention to approach death and dying as sterilely as his Dr. Miranda would, compromising human, emotional connection with the reader? Prose and plot are often times enough to draw a reader through, but ultimately the reader must be changed at the emotional level. The reader must come away from a book such as The Sickness knowing more about the mysteries of death, more about the purposes of suffering, more about dying well. But ultimately, as with the fate that awaits these characters, there is nothingness.