A week after her forty-first birthday, the acclaimed poet Anne Boyer was diagnosed with highly aggressive triple-negative breast cancer. The catastrophic illness was both a crisis and an initiation into new ideas about mortality and the gendered politics of illness. The Undying explores the experience of illness as mediated by digital screens, weaving in ancient Roman dream diarists, cancer hoaxers and fetishists, cancer vloggers, corporate lies, John Donne, pro-pain 'dolorists,' the ecological costs of chemotherapy, and the many little murders of capitalism.
The pink ribbon, that ubiquitous emblem of breast cancer awareness, has long been an object of controversy and derision, but the poet and essayist Anne Boyer doesn’t just pull it loose, unfastening its dainty loop; she feeds it through a shredder and lights it on fire, incinerating its remains ... extraordinary and furious ... [Boyer's] story, told with searing specificity, is just one narrative thread in a book that reflects on the possibility—or necessity—of finding common cause in individual suffering.
... a rousing hybrid of memoir and manifesto ... It's...incandescent rage that animates The Undying, and situates it alongside current literature on feminist anger...as well as recent illness memoirs...critical of a medical establishment that frequently refuses to take women's concerns seriously and punishes non-compliance ... Not long ago, publishers assumed readers wanted whitewashed, upbeat stories about breast cancer, and the market was flooded with cutesy, cringe-inducing titles, like Big CLittle Ta-Ta, Let Me Get This Off My Chest and Killer Boobs. Boyer's intervention into this genre feels like crossing the Rubicon ... This is memoir as anti-capitalist indictment, as biting cultural criticism, as vengeance. It suggests a new era in the politics of breast cancer, one that might look less like corporate sponsored marathons every October and more like the radical, confrontational AIDS activism of the 1980s. Arriving the year before an election that could set healthcare and disability policy for decades, The Undying warns us of the human costs of any system that prioritizes profit over lives.
... not so much a cancer memoir as it is a flag burning. It is a work fueled by rage — against cancer, sure, but also against culture, and against the world which made her sick. It is an interrogation of everything that is difficult to look at directly ... Like Sontag at her best, Boyer is able to shed light on a darkness where most don’t dare to tread ... Her prose cracks and sparks, perhaps like only a poet’s can ... each page feels unmatched in its urgency, especially when she is ruminating on the writings of Aristedes and the 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne. Boyer is a library, and her ability to not just argue with canonical authors most of us fell asleep learning about, but to do so with an intellectual alacrity that makes those authors feel dreadfully important, is stunning ... The essays in The Undying are dizzying in their heights and angles. Boyer throws everything at the wall ... Boyer does not for a moment pull a punch, whether it be for cancer fetishists, vloggers, the sickbed, or for the systemic violence of capitalism that creates banal statistics ... The deep ambivalence Boyer feels for her engagement with her subjects drives the book forward in a way that is refreshingly grounded ... Anne Boyer carefully balances autobiography and theoretical argument with an action-forward method of engagement that shows intellectuals can have a place in our world. The Undying is a masterwork of uncompromising essays that proves an author can write stylishly about difficult subjects, with difficult citation, while encouraging real engagement. There are few authors that can pull off what Boyer has done in The Undying, and fewer still that would be willing to try. By its end, the rage that fueled Boyer is rightfully, inevitably felt by her reader, and as such might radicalize us to ask the question: what do we do now with this rage?