November 15, 2012 by Reader's Connection
When I got Robbie the Robot for Christmas, he was positioned in front of the tree and could gaze out robotically over the living room. Each of us boys received a treasure, every year, that we had asked for especially; and these were always on display when we came downstairs. When I was eighteen, though, and asked especially for a copy of Death on the Installment Plan, by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, my mother put it in a shirt box and snuck it up under the tree.
With that in mind, I hesitated before putting Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens, on this year’s list of gift suggestions. Embattled atheist Hitchens, who died last December, was suffering from esophageal cancer when he wrote the pieces that are gathered here. He never retreats from his atheist stance in these pages–indeed, he shines merciless light on those who exalt in the idea that he is being punished by God.
Your first thought might be: Nobody wants that book for a holiday gift. But my wife gave it to me for my birthday, last month, and I can promise that you don’t have to be an atheist to enjoy it. If any souls on your list love good essay writing, they might go for Hitchens, as long as you put some thought into how you present the gift. Don’t just clunk Mortality down next to someone’s pumpkin pie.
Hitchens writes of having migrated to “the sick country,” and he offers a little travelogue:
The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited.
Speaking of sex:
But I wasn’t quite prepared for the way that my razor blade would suddenly go slipping pointlessly down my face, meeting no stubble. Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.) I feel upsettingly denatured. If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice.
If you’ve guessed that not every page can be laced with humor, you’re right. But every page is clear-eyed, and gives some glimpse of a journey that none of us wants to take. I’m grateful, and in awe of this man’s ability to stick to his writing. You know that expression, Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger? Hitchens thought it was a bunch of crap. Though of course he puts that more eloquently.