The following is excerpted from Russell Banks' latest novel Foregone, about the famed Canadian American leftist documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife, who fled to Canada to avoid serving in Vietnam. Banks is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into 20 languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Common Wealth Award for Literature. He lives in upstate New York and Miami, Florida.
Fife says to Emma, This is more like a biography or a bioflick than a filmed autobiography or interview or whatever the hell it is that we’re making here.
What do you mean?
From page one, we know how a biography is going to end. The subject dies. With an autobiography or interview, you can’t be sure how it’ll turn out. It ends where the author or the fucking interviewer or interviewers want it to end, not where it must.
He has said this sharply, in a hectoring tone, as if angry at his wife. But he’s not angry at Emma. He’s not angry at Malcolm or any of the others, and certainly not Renée. He’s angry at his cancer. His cancer. Not cancer in general. There’s a saying among oncologists: Everyone has his own cancer. As in, Everyone has his own body. No two cancers, no two bodies, are alike.
Emma interrupts him. What? What are you saying, Leo? I don’t understand, darling.
He answers, Fuck, shit, piss. Fuck, shit, piss. He means, I’m pissed off, this is horseshit, I’m fucked. He says, Wait a minute, I’ll get it right. Nick and I, he says. In Amarillo in 1956 and Strafford in 1968. They’re all tangled together, but in a coherent way. Like a double helix, he says. Then somehow the DNA that controls their relations breaks down. Mutates. The coherence disappears.
The damage his metastasizing cancerous cells are doing to his body and brain is keeping him from connecting what he sees and hears in memory to words that can be heard and understood by Emma and filmed by Malcolm and his crew. Everything is coming back to him in an irresistible rush, a tsunami of memories that he’s unable to share. He knows how he must sound to Emma and Malcolm and the others. He sounds like a madman, like one of those homeless schizophrenics wandering the city, murmuring to themselves. But he is not murmuring to himself, he’s talking to his wife, pointedly so, and being filmed while doing it. She hears him, and the others overhear him. The trouble is, he can’t hear or overhear himself.
Why bother trying? Why not just sit here in the wheelchair in silence in the black box and watch and listen to his unfolding memories with no audience, no listener, but himself? He’s nearly dead and gone, anyhow. When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. Who said that? Samuel Johnson? A death sentence about to be carried out concentrates one’s mind, not on the sentence or the world that’s about to disappear, but on itself, on one’s own private, unique consciousness, the flickering light at the center of an expanded universe, a consciousness loosed on the world to do its ugly, omnivorous work, as random as a single malignant cell broken off a cluster of perfect cells that, despite having fathered and mothered a malignancy, continue to express their perfect cell-fate, as if they were not doomed.
Hanged in a fortnight, eh, Dr. Johnson? Fourteen days seems like a decade to Fife’s concentrated mind. More likely he won’t last fortyeight hours. Not consciously, anyhow. His heart may go on beating for a fortnight, but only if it’s wired to a machine. He will be long gone by then.
As a very young child, before he was able to speak of it or knew that anyone else felt or thought the same way, Fife was aware of the contingency of his occurrence on this earth. Almost from the start, he perceived the contingency and randomness even of the earth itself, the lack of any inner necessity for its or his existence. How miraculous and irrelevant his very existence, then. The miracle and irrelevance of reality. For most of the rest of his life he ignored that miraculous irrelevancy, shunted it to the side, as if it belonged to someone else, like a stranger’s vague memory of having once met him on the road.
Until now. Until he’s told that his bones have been invaded by cancer cells that have spread like seeds from a tumor grown from the cells that make up his bladder. Carried by his blood, the seeds planted in his bones sprout into new blooming tumors that send their seeds on to his liver and esophagus and intestines.
First it’s metastatic cancer with an unknown primary. Best guess, the bladder. Then angiogenesis. Counterattack with Cisplatin. Back up the Cisplatin with Adriamycin. Which damages the heart when combined next with a regimen of Paclitaxel. Throw in a few reinforcing doses of Mustargen, causing disabling nausea and extreme weakness and a lowered white blood cell count. The rapidly reproducing noncancerous cells cease reproducing: white blood cells, hair follicles, fingernails, toenails. A return to infancy. A return to the womb. Nature’s way of cleaning house, putting out the trash.
All creation starts as a single cell of energy that explodes with a bang and becomes the universe. Cancer starts the same way: a single differentiated rogue cell breeds a tumor that metastasizes and sets to eating the body and eventually devours and displaces it. It’s the same with consciousness. It starts at birth as a single erupting cell of awareness that swiftly multiplies and starts eating the world, until you become the world. That must be how it feels to be an infant human being, a newborn human baby. You are the universe. An utterly dysfunctional state that, in order to function as a self-sufficient organism, has to start differentiating itself from the world, the way one’s organs one by one take on their unique shapes and functions, until cell-fate equals self fate.Equals self-hate? That’s the cancer cell, the malignancy metastasizing.
For the first time since he was little more than an infant, just as it is about to come to an end, Fife is amazed by the miracle of his own existence. He’s about to merge with whatever will exist after his death, to become a part of whatever there is without him. Everything he knows, everything he remembers, everything he did and didn’t do, in a matter of days or possibly hours will disappear, as if he never existed. His work, his films, will perhaps linger after him for a few years, but soon they’ll be forgotten, too. Other people’s memories of him will hang around for a while, of course, for a few months, anyhow, and maybe, for Emma, even years. But not his own memories. The second his cancerous body shuts his brain down, his memories will be vaporized. is first glimpse of the larger world beyond him, his first awareness that he was only a tiny cellular part of that world, filled him with an unsayable solitude and a terrible fear that he could instantly be absorbed by that larger world. When a child discovers that he is not his mother, and worse, his mother is not the entirety of the universe, he perceives the utter absurdity and meaninglessness of his separation from the world. This is how Fife saw himself when he first saw himself. Then for a lifetime, until now, seventy-seven years later, he hid that sight from himself.
Now that early vision of absurdity and meaninglessness has returned with awful, inescapable clarity. With it has come an irresistible longing for the endgame merger that so terrifies him, a longing for an end of consciousness of contingency and separation from the great unknown, from the allover, from the undifferentiated universe. Though it shakes him to his deepest level of feeling, at the same time he longs for it to come quickly and take him. It’s the only conceivable way to end the terror.
All the years between his infancy and now, Fife has known that he is human, that all human beings are mortal, and that therefore he is mortal, too. It’s only logical, right? An irrefutable syllogism. Yet until now he has been unable to apply it to himself, to Leonard Fife, to this particular human being. He has been unable to imagine a world in which Leonard Fife, this particular human being, does not exist as a separate, differentiated part, a free-floating rogue cell broken away from the perfect, coherently structured and functioning universe, sailing freely among the galaxies, somehow managing to avoid being yanked into orbit by the gravity of a star or a planet until at last he plunges into fiery dissolution. Until now. He sees himself dropping out of the darkness faster and faster toward the light. He has only hours, minutes, seconds to live—to remain separated from the light.
Beyond the terror of dying, he wants the pain to end, the awful, relentless, drugged pain caused by his cancer’s insatiable appetite for his body. And yet he does not want it to stop, any more than he wants his memories to stop. The pain and his memories—regardless of how fuddled and distorted they have been made by the drugs that are supposed to wage war against his cancer and mask his pain—are the only evidence he has to prove that he has not yet died. His pain and his memories confirm his ongoing existence. He needs no one to witness his pain. No one can. But his memories cannot exist unless they are heard and overheard.
He has told Emma that he is confessing his abandonments and betrayals. That’s not quite true. He’s saying his memories, is all. As if on his knees at the side of his bed, he’s saying his prayers to the only God that he believes in. Except that there is no God he believes in. There is only Emma. Who irritates him. Angers him, because of her inability to understand what he’s saying, as if he’s praying in Aramaic or some other dead language. So it’s not just his cancer that he’s angry at. It’s Emma, too. He’s angry because of her alliance with Malcolm and the others, who persist in lying to themselves and to him, despite the obvious, undeniable truth that he is dying and cannot be saved. Every night before she leaves him for her own bedroom, she touches his forehead with her cool, dry fingertips and asks him how he feels, and he says, has said it for weeks, Worse. Worse than the last time you asked.
You’ll feel better in the morning, she says, making a promise that neither she nor anyone else can keep.
Only if I don’t wake, he answers.
Malcolm is the same. Diana, Vincent, and Sloan, too. They want a talking corpse for their film, a career-maker for Malcolm and Diana, who haven’t been able to get a film financed for six or eight years now, and a real job for the intern, Sloan, and a cinematography prize for Vincent, and lots of CBC work for all of them in the near future. They tell him how great he looks. Lying in their gummy teeth, big smiles on their faces. He knows what he looks like. Not great by a long shot. Since they last saw him in the hospital, he’s lost nearly half his body mass. His gray skin hangs loosely off his bones and skull, his arms and hands are like splintered kindling, his teeth are yellowed and loose, his tongue and lips covered with a chalky paste.
Yet they keep insisting that he looks great. Diana suggests that he just needs to eat more, forgetting that he’s fed through a plastic tube bypassing his disintegrated esophagus directly into his stomach.
Why bother to correct the idiots? Just agree.
Sloan, when she reattaches his mic after it’s slipped off the placket of his shirt, pats him on the shoulder as if to say, Good dog, good dog, all the while holding her breath because of the odor of urine and feces clinging to his clothing and body. She is so youthful and fertile and clean, so strong and flexible! He loathes her fecundity and her beauty. She has a perfect pain-free body, and all he has is a stinking, rotting carcass.
Vincent tells him that the camera loves him, lit from overhead by the Godox Speedlight, with nothing but darkness surrounding him. He looks like some kind of guru or ancient magician. Like Merlin. Otherworldly, he says. You’re a fucking high priest, Leo.
Yeah, Fife answers. A fucking high priest officiating at his own funeral.
Stop lying to me, he says. Stop lying to yourselves. He knows the truth, and he’s not afraid of it. No, that’s not true. He’s terrified of it. It’s got him by the throat, and it’s strangling him, and he’s too weak to resist. Their lies don’t help him resist. All the lies do is strengthen the grip of the truth on his throat and make it harder for him to breathe.
Only Renée refuses to lie to herself or to him. She knows he’s a dying man who cannot be cured or saved by any measures, no matter how extreme. She knows and admits to herself and to him that, yes, she is a healthy, strong, beautiful organism, and he is all but dead, weak and hairless as a newborn baby, and ugly. Very ugly. To keep his pain only partially numbed without putting him into a coma, she methodically delivers his medicine according to schedule and prescribed dosage. To prevent microbial and bacterial infection, so that he will be killed by his cancer and not sepsis, she washes his ass and catheterized prick and the other holes in his skin. To hydrate and nourish him, she keeps the IVs filled, prolonging the agony until his lungs finally overflow with phlegm and he drowns or the effort to breathe becomes too much for his heart to handle and it stops sending blood to his brain and the few dim remaining neural lights in his cerebral cortex go out one by one, and it’s over at last.
Renée is the only person left who does not lie to him or to herself. Before her, the last to stop lying were his doctors at the hospital, Schultz the oncologist and McKenna the surgeon, both men in their early forties, overachieving medical jocks, engineers who view their patients not as people to be saved but as problems to be solved, equations to be worked out, contests to be won. When it’s clear that the contest cannot be won, that one side of the equal sign cannot be made to balance the other, that the problem, due to the way it was originally proposed, is unsolvable, they abandon the patient.
That’s when Fife stopped hating his doctors. They lost interest completely, simply ceased coming to his room, turned him over to the administrators and the floor nurses, who from then on did what they could to make him comfortable. Which quickly became impossible. He will never be comfortable again.
Fife told Emma that he does not want to die in the hospital, please get him out of here and home, so he can die there instead. She insists that he stay in the hospital for another week, she does not think she can properly care for him herself, so he relents. One week becomes two, until it’s clear even to her that the doctors have washed their hands of him. The hospital is crowded, and the administrators would like to give his bed to a patient they might be able to cure, a problem they can solve. Emma meets with them and agrees to bring her husband home. She will hire a nurse to care for him during the days, and she will care for him at night herself, changing his bedpan and catheter, washing him, making sure his IVs are refilled until the nurse arrives in the morning. She rents a hospital bed for him, moves their marital bed into her office, and turns their bedroom and home into a hospice center.
When he is transferred from hospital to home, Emma rides in the ambulance with him. I feel better today than I’ve felt in a month, Fife tells her as they whisk down Sherbrooke. See if they’ll switch on the siren, he says. Let’s make a big deal out of my escape from the hospital. Announce it to the world.
Emma leans toward the front seat and asks the driver to turn on the siren. My husband wants the entire city of Montreal to know that he’s going home.
The driver grunts, Uh-uh, and says in French, We cannot do that. We cannot use the siren except when we take someone to Emergency. This is not an emergency.
Fife shouts, Of course it’s an emergency! I’m a dying man, and the only thing that will keep me alive is the comfort and familiarity and peacefulness of my home! I didn’t want to die in a hospital, and I damn sure don’t want to die in an ambulance stuck in traffic on Sherbrooke at rush hour. So turn on the fucking siren!
The driver sighs, glances at his helper in the passenger seat, and shrugs, Why not?
The whoop-whoop-whoop of the siren first thrills Fife and then soothes him. He takes Emma’s hand in his and squeezes it. The noise has pushed all the rage and fear out of his head, and in their absence, the pain goes. It’s better than any drug. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, he says, if we could just keep going on and on like this, stopping only to get gas and sandwiches for you and these two nice attendants, crossing the continent back and forth from one coast to the other with the siren wailing? Until finally, just before he dies, they park the ambulance and wheel him from the ambulance in a dolly and settle him under a tree, and he looks up through the newly budded branches at the sky somewhere in Nova Scotia or out in BC, and he dies there. What a way to go, eh?
You’re not going to die, she says.
Oh, fuck you, Emma! Shut the siren off, he says to the driver. And the driver complies, and the ambulance is silent the rest of the way home.
Vincent says to Malcolm, Okay, we’re ready.
Malcolm asks Fife if he’s able to continue. He’s not too tired, is he? They can take a break if he likes. They can come back tomorrow and continue then. Still got a lot of ground to cover, he says, a lot of questions to ask. Although, to be honest, you’re doing all the answering without my asking any questions, he says. It’s like I’m a camera is all. What’s that famous Christopher Isherwood line? I am a camera. I am a camera with its shutter open, passive, recording, not thinking, blahblah-blah. Fife knows the line, he used to quote it in class. Someday all this will be developed, printed, fixed. Something like that.
Pure bullshit, Fife says. Another fucking lie. He doesn’t think even Isherwood himself believed it.
Really? Did you believe it back then when you used to quote it to us? Malcolm asks. You getting this, Vincent? I didn’t do the clapper yet. Leonard Fife interview. Montreal, April 1, 2018, he says and claps his hands in front of the camera lens.
Yeah, I’m shooting. I got it, the Isherwood bit.
Fife says, I can keep going. Until I can’t anymore. You’ll know when I can’t, because I’ll be dead. I plan to die on-camera and make you famous, Malcolm.
Don’t even think that. Jesus! All right, then. So what about the Isherwood I-am-a-camera line that Fife says is bullshit? Did he believe it back then, when he was quoting it to his film students at Concordia?
No, of course not. He was trying to get the young filmmakers to stop seeing what they wanted to see, which is almost always only what they think the audience wants to see. Which Fife is sure will happen here when Malcolm and Diana sit down with all this footage and make their film from it. They’ll see what they want to see, and it’ll be what they think their audience wants to see.
And what is that?
Oh, Malcolm, believe me, they’ll want to watch me die.
Excerpted from Foregone by Russell Banks, with the permission of Ecco Press. Copyright © 2021 by Russell Banks.