The man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Not a bear or even a bird. Nothing but him.
It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked. Get wet and you die, he often reminded himself. The temperature was nearly minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and it felt far colder because of the wind, which sometimes whipped icy particles into a blinding cloud, making him so disoriented that he toppled over, his bones rattling against the ground.
The man, whose name was Henry Worsley, consulted a G.P.S. device to determine precisely where he was. According to his coördinates, he was on the Titan Dome, an ice formation near the South Pole that rises more than ten thousand feet above sea level. Sixty-two days earlier, on November 13, 2015, he’d set out from the coast of Antarctica, hoping to achieve what his hero, Ernest Shackleton, had failed to do a century earlier: to trek on foot from one side of the continent to the other. The journey, which would pass through the South Pole, was more than a thousand miles, and would traverse what is arguably the most brutal environment in the world. And, whereas Shackleton had been part of a large expedition, Worsley, who was fifty-five, was crossing alone and unsupported: no food caches had been deposited along the route to help him forestall starvation, and he had to haul all his provisions on a sled, without the assistance of dogs or a sail. Nobody had attempted this feat before.
In retrospect, the months before held plenty of signs. The unusually hot spring night outside Rosa’s Pizzeria when I couldn’t finish my slice because the cheese kept stringing down my throat. Or my little sister’s twenty-third birthday dinner at an overpriced steakhouse when a bite of crab cake stuck, the crispy breadcrumbs scraping along that tender column. I knew I wasn’t choking—this was nothing like the wad of yellow rice that lodged halfway down at El Sombrero in college years before. That had been a plug, suctioned to the full circumference of my windpipe: a sudden and alien absence of air. This was stubborn grit in my esophagus.
The crab cakes were just the appetizer. When my entrée came, I nearly refused to eat. I can’t remember now what I ordered except that it had sounded simultaneously rich and refreshing, like chicken roasted in a lemon-herb cream sauce. But when placed in front of me, the dish looked the furthest thing from appetizing. My food looked dangerous.
Less than a month later, I would be unable to swallow solid food at all.
Larry is using his own body, and his ongoing struggle with Crohn’s, as an experiment. He keeps precise measures of his body’s input (what he eats and drinks) and output (the energy he burns and what he excretes—and yes, that is precisely what it sounds like). He undergoes periodic MRIs, has his blood and stool analyzed frequently, submits to annual colonoscopies, and has had his DNA sequenced. Among the things Calit2 does with all these data is create a stunning, regularly updated three-dimensional image of his insides, which he calls “Transparent Larry.” His colleague Jürgen Schulze projects it inside “The Cave,” a virtual-reality room that literally places the viewer inside the picture. Larry can not only chart the changes taking place inside his body; he can actually see them.
As a result, he arguably knows more about his own inner workings than anyone else ever has. His goal, as he puts it, is for each of us to become “the CEO of our own body.”
I write in praise of difficulty in writing—specifically difficulty in the novel form. Why? Well, not least because of the Modernist direction my own fiction has taken since I began my Umbrella Trilogy seven years ago—but also because I believe that in the contemporary era, with the novel under assault from digital text and other more compelling narrative forms, only soi-disant “difficulty” can preserve the form’s unique capability to both describe the contours of our brave new world, and enfold the reader in them. What has struck me about the reception of my own works—and those of others of the “new difficult” school of writing such as Eimear McBride—is that while critics may praise them, they feel compelled to place a health warning on our texts: “difficult,” with the minatory subtext—an echo, perhaps, of Der Steppenwolf—that “this book is not for everybody.”
The novel — told in chapters through the voices and letters of the main characters, whose regrets seep between the lines — unfolds seamlessly and naturally for the unsuspecting reader, whose perspectives on life and marriage, responsibility and survival, the challenges that break us and the ones that make us strong, are about to be disturbed, if not subverted. It asks the “Big Questions” that loom in the middle of the night when our squabbles have grown into hardened grievances and life has given us a backhanded slap, suddenly sending everything spinning out of our control and shaping it into something we never envisioned or imagined: What is marriage? What comprises a long-term relationship? How do two people weather the storms — or even trickier, how do three? What is fidelity? Responsibility? Commitment? How inescapable are the factors of race and the State, of history? How powerful is the sway of a white woman’s word over a black man’s life, and over the lives of all those he holds dear? It’s all there in this slyly intricate novel that explores not just the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and culture, but also the tenuous, unavoidable intricacies of family — intimate, extended, and newly discovered.