31 Days of Stories 2009: Day 23, “Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes

August 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Things You Should Know.

9780060520137Imagine you’re a 38-year-old doctor who has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. How would you react? Would you give in and wait to die or would you fight? Now imagine you’re that woman’s husband. Would you step up with unerring support or would you cut and run? Now imagine that your marriage has been on the rocks for some time leading up to the diagnosis. Would the life-changing advent of a potentially killing disease bring you closer together or push you further apart?

It should go without saying that the situation A.M. Homes sets up in her story “Do Not Disturb” is fraught with all kinds of emotional peril. But Homes has never been one to play it safe in her writing. Here, she ratchets up the stakes even more by making her cancer victim one of the most dislikable characters to appear in recent fiction. The psychological realism of Homes’s story – the pain and fear of a doctor who knows from experience and study precisely how cancer destroys the body – is juxtaposed with an exaggerated intensity that verges on the absurdist. “I have no interest in being human,” she says. As if to prove her assertion, she refuses to hug her husband, demanding, “Why do you keep asking me for things I can’t do, things I can’t give?” When her husband protests, she tells him bluntly: “I need to be married to someone who is like a potted plant, someone who needs nothing.” The hysterectomy that the wife undergoes is a physical hollowing out; the story makes it clear that this experience realizes what has been metaphorically true for some time. “How can you feel nothing?” the husband asks. “‘I am made of steel and wool,’ she replies happily.” The adverb is like an additional twist of the knife in the husband’s – and the reader’s – side.

Homes does not give her married couple proper names, as if to distance them from each other and the reader to the maximum extent possible. She ups the ante further by having the story narrated from the man’s point of view: his wife’s belligerent disaffection is filtered in its entirety through his beleaguered psyche. Although there is nothing in the story to indicate that the husband is an unreliable narrator, it is significant that as readers we are only privy to his interpretation of the events being narrated. It’s axiomatic to the point of cliché to suggest that any relationship has two distinct perspectives, and the truth usually lies somewhere in between them. Yet the wife is such a monster, so unrepentantly angry (both before and after her diagnosis) that she appears at times almost unbelievably exaggerated.

Still, when in the story’s early stages, the husband relates a fight he had with his wife, which climaxes with her assertion, “I was a bitch before I met you and I’ll be a bitch long after you’re gone,” it is difficult for a reader to disagree. Following the cancer diagnosis, the husband avers that he’s “not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer,” but that he doesn’t know “what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch.” His inability to come to a decisive conclusion regarding his fractured marriage is a function of his erroneous belief that a terminal diagnosis brings out the best in a person. In reality, Homes’s story suggests, such a diagnosis merely makes one more of what one already is. The truth of which throws an uncomfortably bright light on this nasty little parable.

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