When Seattle memoirist Sarah Cannon looked at the face of her husband Matt in the beginning of her new book The Shame of Losing, she didn't recognize him.
A ring of blood lined his ears and fresh drips leaked from his eyes. They talked about brain bleed. They talked about subdural hematoma. They talked about blunt force trauma. I didn't know what any fo it meant. They said he'd be there for a while and there would be surgeries. But they were positive. They said, "He's young and strong." I couldn't see what the professionals saw: a skull crumpled, a blown-out eye, busted eye sockets, and a collapsed nose.
Matt was always a masculine man — he built things with his hands, and he liked to take risks. But after a workplace accident very nearly killed him, Cannon, a young wife and mother, found herself wondering how much of the man she loved was left behind. The face that she fell in love with was not the same, would never be the same even after reconstructive surgery. Matt's brain was damaged and forever changed. Some of his strength was stolen away. His youth and carefree spirit were gone, or at least transformed into something unrecognizable.
Cannon is a candid storyteller, but she courts a kind of prickliness in Losing that feels refreshing from a memoirist. When she recounts her early days with Matt, when they couldn't keep their hands off each other, Cannon writes, "Later, on the nubby green couch at my rental house back by the university, we kissed, and finally did the things I will not be telling you about here."
A memoirist who withholds the truth from her readers, in the year 2018, feels almost like a novelty. The idea that someone could tell you something but doesn't, in the age of Twitter, feels almost transgressive. (It probably doesn't hurt that the sex acts you don't hear about are almost always much hornier than the sex acts you hear about in explicit detail.)
Cannon, admirably, keeps upending her audience's expectation in Losing. She doesn't veer into sentimentality, or make her love story out to be one for the ages. She's honest about her most selfish moments — when she ignores her husband's pain to focus on her own inconvenience, for instance.
Later, upstairs scooping ice cream, Joanna pulled me aside and said, "Matt looks great, except those eyes." A tear wet her cheek. I assumed she was referencing the one stubborn swollen eye. I too feared it would stay that way forever. The one puffy eye made his face look severely lopsided and I wasn't sure how to love a man with a disfigured face. I knew it was wrong, thinking those thoughts, but I couldn't help it. That he had sight at all was remarkable and we should all be grateful.
This is not polite. It's not heroic. This is someone struggling with a reality that she did not sign up for, and trying to be as honest as she can about it.
Losing begins immediately after Matt's accident — Cannon is vague about the why and how of it at first, so that the reader doesn't fixate on the wrong part of the story — and continues in more or less chronological order. But Cannon is very smart about what she does and doesn't reveal to her readers at different points of the story. Halfway through a sentence, a reader might realize that Cannon is revealing something vital about the future of their relationship in the most casual language imaginable.
Cannon keeps confounding expectations throughout. This is not a love story. This is not a medical drama. This is not a story of finding strength in adversity. This is not a TV movie of the week.
So what is Losing? In the end, maybe it's a story about uncertainty. You might say you'll love someone forever, but what happens if that person is suddenly a completely different person? You might try to be the hero everyone expects you to be, but what about all those vicious thoughts that still live inside your brain? Even if you never say them out loud to another living soul, the fact that you're thinking those thoughts still means something, doesn't it?
So much of what Cannon talks about here is the wide gap between expectations and reality. She's shocked when her parents seem less interested in her children — their own grandchildren — than she expected them to be. She takes note when her friends stop expressing their concern about Matt's recovery. She observes when medical professionals seem to fail at their jobs. People say they want to help — just ask, they say, and I'll be there — but their actions indicate the opposite.
Losing lives in that space, and Cannon is drawn to those little failures of polite society to live up to its promise. Her eyes immediately spot the imperfections, and she can't help but point them out.
We think of memoirs as documents of honesty, but the truth is that any time you impose a narrative on top of a life event — particularly a dramatic, life-or-death event — you start lying. You lie to yourself and to the person you're telling the story to. You destroy the moment and remake it into a fabrication of your own making.
With Losing, Cannon is rejecting that kind of superimposition. She's trying to do justice to the reality of the situation while still building a narrative she can live with around it. She's trying to be true to her husband while breaking her vows. She's sharing her story with you while still keeping the integrity of her story intact. Every human contract has a flaw built into it. Cannon is trying to find a way to embrace that flaw, to turn it into a strength, and to find the honesty embedded within the lie. The drama of Losing is in watching her come to terms with that gap and to incorporate it into her story as best she can.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant