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For the past several days, I’ve been reading the world as a pig might, low and loud, in Amy Schutzer’s Spheres of Disturbance. I’ve waited for my breakfast behind the garage door—looking up so hopefully at the handle; I’ve listened, bewildered, at humans exchanging paper for cloth and other paper— Charlotta, the very pregnant pot bellied pig, is one of the characters with other rotating voices, human voices, in Spheres of Disturbance. Her voice lends levity (and a different, sensory gravity) to a book exploring the decisions families and the ailing make about death–how much agency we each have and should have at the end of our lives, who cares for us and at what price.
Helen, our tenacious central speaker, is in the last stages of an aggressive cancer. She’s told again and again the disease is surmountable, though her body and test results offer little support of such optimism. Helen’s hatched but ultimately unnecessary plan to end her own life is a kind of open secret in our story. “The nightstand holds her medicines. Only she calls them her potions. There is the half-empty glass of water flanked by the pill bottles. Surrounded. Give up. Take me now. Who cares about the order of things?” Schutzer is careful to place us there with Helen, making us feel the wash of time spent in an ailing body.
Sammy, Helen’s daughter and caretaker, remains in denial about her mother’s diagnosis, turning her attention to the dailyness of providing for Helen. The short vignette-like chapters, wind around Sammy and her lover, Avery’s, relationship, their fissured response to Helen’s illness— here, an excerpt from a Sammy chapter: “That’s the AND that Avery is all about. It is a word of give and take and understanding. Sammy starts to cry again. She pushes herself up off the floor onto her knees.Her nose drips. Her toes are still cold. She’ll have to enter the garage soon. And then what? She’ll have to find Avery and tell her, you’re right, my mom is dying. And she’ll have to go to her mom and allow her to die.”
Helen’s family of origin, is another narrative thread, coming back into her life, uninvited, after many years of absence. Joe, another of Helen’s caretakers, figures prominently as her chosen family, reminding us that family is what we say it is.
The big strength of Spheres of Disturbance, (other than the pleasure and height of Schutzer’s language, a lyricism we find when a poet writes a novel) is its network like mode of storytelling—these short chapters achieve a facet like quality—light from different angles, illuminating a stone. The form of the novel illustrates the interconnectivity of Helen’s community, brought together by a garage sale in the course of one day. We watch those who love her rise and fail for Helen, trying in their ways, to support her.
I had a big reaction to this novel. I finished it in the house of a friend and wept openly in front of her basset hound at my feet— for the beauty of it, for the questions it raised in me: when I come to the end of my life, what will I relish, what will I regret, who will care for me? To have children or not to have children? This story, especially for queers (I don’t love this word and lack a better one that means all of us), disturbs our ideas about the end of our lives, about how death goes—it invites us to ask ourselves what we want, for our lives and our deaths.
Spheres of Disturbance
by Amy Schutzer
Paperback, 9780989036115, 277 pp.