Even the best comic writers have had difficulty being taken seriously. Tragedy always wins more prizes and generates more serious literary analysis—though possibly fewer readers. This has not always been so: in the nineteenth century an important novel was expected to end happily for its central characters, though often after a certain amount of suffering and moral improvement. Today, though, even a gifted comic novelist like Cathleen Schine does not get the respect and admiration she deserves.
This is true even though Schine has been favored in so many ways by the muse of comedy, and is able to write in a wide variety of genres, with happy consequences both for herself and for her readers. She has also occasionally attracted the attention of the muse of farce, whom I picture not as a graceful young woman like her cousin Thalia, but as an overweight, oversexed, giggling adolescent with curly red hair, dirty bare feet, and robes that are always falling off. Pharsa has been a brilliant inspiration to theater and film, but she can damage or even destroy a novel. Under her influence Schine has now and then exaggerated characters and situations to the point where, though some readers laugh with pleasure, others cease to suspend their disbelief.
Schine’s first novel, Alice in Bed (1983), might be called a modern black comedy. In spite of its title, it is not about sex, but is the story of a year actually spent in bed, first in a hospital and then in a rehabilitation center, by a nineteen-year-old girl. According to the author, it is close to autobiography. While a student at Barnard, Schine was given too much cortisone and developed a side effect now known as aseptic necrosis of the hips. (As she explained in a 1995 interview, “basically that means they get inflamed and disintegrate.”)
We usually know what to expect from narratives of illness: accounts of pain, anxiety, and treatment, sometimes ending in a miracle cure, sometimes in a stoical resignation to disability and/or death. Often we hear of the assistance provided by supernatural forces and/or saintly humans, and of how the narrator gained greater wisdom as a result of his or her experiences. In some cases, as Barbara Ehrenreich has shown in her brilliant recent exposé, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009), it is suggested not only that an unwavering upbeat attitude will help us through dark times, but that it has become almost obligatory to treat disease and pain as a life-enhancing experience. As Ehrenreich points out, this is hard on the sick, but useful to medical professionals, who cannot help but be relieved when patients complain as little as possible and blame themselves when they feel depressed or in despair.
Schine does not fall into this miserable, self-accusing trap. Alice in Bed is a serious novel …