As New York evolved over the decades, the subway was the one constant, the very thing that made it possible to repurpose 19th-century factories and warehouses as offices or condominiums, or to reimagine a two-mile spit of land between Manhattan and Queens that once housed a smallpox hospital as a high-tech university hub. When the city is in crisis — financial or emotional — the subway is always a crucial part of the solution. The subway led the city’s recovery from the fiscal calamity of the 1970s. The subway was at the center of the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks. The subway got New York back to work after the most devastating storm in the city’s history just five years ago.
The questions we are facing today are not so different from the ones our predecessors faced 100 years ago. Can the gap between rich and poor be closed, or is it destined to continue to widen? Can we put the future needs of a city and a nation above the narrow, present-day interests of a few? Can we use a portion of the monumental sums of wealth that we are generating to invest in an inclusive and competitive future? The answer to all of these questions is still rumbling beneath New York City.
One day in the nineteen-eighties, a woman went to the hospital for cancer surgery. The procedure was a success, and all of the cancer was removed. In the weeks afterward, though, she felt that something was wrong. She went back to her surgeon, who reassured her that the cancer was gone; she consulted a psychiatrist, who gave her pills for depression. Nothing helped—she grew certain that she was going to die. She met her surgeon a second time. When he told her, once again, that everything was fine, she suddenly blurted out, “The black stuff—you didn’t get the black stuff!” The surgeon’s eyes widened. He remembered that, during the operation, he had idly complained to a colleague about the black mold in his bathroom, which he could not remove no matter what he did. The cancer had been in the woman’s abdomen, and during the operation she had been under general anesthesia; even so, it seemed that the surgeon’s words had lodged in her mind. As soon as she discovered what had happened, her anxiety dissipated.
For me, there is no punctuation mark as versatile and appealing as the em dash. I love the em dash in a way that is difficult to explain, which is, probably, the motivation of this essay. And my love for it is emphasized by the fact that many writers never, or rarely, use it—even disdain it. It is not, so to speak, an essential punctuation mark, the same way commas or periods are essential. You can get along without it and most people do. I don’t remember being taught to use it in elementary, middle, or high school English classes; I’m not even sure I was aware of it then, and I have no clear recollection of when or why I began to rely on it, yet it has become an indispensable component of my writing.
“When Breath Becomes Air,” Paul Kalanithi’s memoir of his final years as he faced lung cancer at age 37, was published posthumously, in 2016, to critical acclaim and commercial success. “The Bright Hour,” Nina Riggs’s memoir of her final years as she faced breast cancer at age 39, was published posthumously, in 2017, to critical acclaim and commercial success. The two books were mentioned together in numerous reviews, lists and conversations.
Perhaps less inevitable was that the late authors’ spouses would end up together, too.
Storytelling is certainly reductive, but its simplifications are the means by which human beings make sense of themselves and of each other. It’s not until the book’s brilliant final act that De Kretser allows the reader to fall in love with a character, Christabel, whose particularity grips and moves, and who achieves the ultimate revenge against the writers who have wounded her, by throwing their novels in the bin.