October 22, 2018

Books: Pot-smoking antihero proves cathartic for her creator

Twenty-nine-year-old Dahlia Finger, the antihero of Elisa Albert’s debut novel, “The Book of Dahlia,” has an inoperable brain tumor and an attitude.

Before her diagnosis, Dahlia spent her days smoking pot, watching cheesy movies and eating toaster pastries in the Venice, Calif., bungalow her father bought her. She lazily considered getting a life, although she was convinced that life sucks. After learning she has cancer she confronts her mortality — between medical marijuana bong hits — with the assistance of a “self-help” book, “It’s Up To You: The Cancer To-Do List.” (Her diagnosis, she is convinced, is “negativity.”)

She also scrutinizes her past for causes of her cancer, including her absent, selfish Israeli mother, her well-meaning but ineffectual father, her cruel older brother (a clergyman she nicknames Rabbi Douchebag), and her own propensity for grudge-holding, as if “the wrongs had piled up, a clusterf— of wrong. In her brain.”

The 29-year-old Albert, who has earned mostly laudatory reviews for her irreverent fiction about disaffected Jews, didn’t want Dahlia to experience a cliched kind of redemption.

“I resisted the temptation to make her too likeable,” said Albert, who grew up on the Westside.

“I didn’t want her apologizing for herself in any extended way, because we don’t do that in our private thoughts. I didn’t want to minimize the extent of her private rage and hurt to make her more palatable to John Q. Reader.”

Rather, Albert said, “the narrative is pointing a finger, in the form of Ms. Finger, at the limits of our empathy, at the shortcomings of those who are supposed to protect and guide us, and at the culture of shallow, relentless positivity.”

Dahlia is Albert’s latest not-so-nice Jewish character in distress. The protagonists in her short-story collection, “How This Night is Different,” include a teenager perplexed by her own boredom during a youth trip to Auschwitz, a mother who realizes her marriage is “so over” during an inebriated haze at a bat mitzvah, a hipster bewildered by her promiscuous best friend’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism and a woman who worries about her Passover yeast infection. In the collection’s final story, written in the form of a mock letter to Philip Roth, Albert claims to be a “lobotomized Philip Roth writing chick-lit.”

The sardonic tone of her work is often matched by the dire circumstances of her characters.

“When things seem bleakest, the decisions we make — wittingly or unwittingly — define us,” Albert said. “I check in with characters at precisely those moments, because that’s when things happen, when people turn things around … or don’t.”

“The Book of Dahlia” is, in a way, a response to such a time in Albert’s life. When she was in her mid-teens, her oldest brother, David, then working toward his doctorate in astrophysics at Tufts University, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor (his response was upbeat, which, in part, led Albert to “create Dahlia in all her negative glory, a reaction against just how positive and strong he was”).

At the time, Albert said, she was already depressed: Her parents’ marriage had been in the process of a slow (if amicable) unraveling, her father had spent long periods away on business, and Albert saw herself as a social misfit and “chronic underachiever” at Harvard-Westlake School, Los Angeles Hebrew High School and Camp Ramah. Her Jewish activities were mandatory and alienating: “I just didn’t seem to be capable of being what I was supposed to be in those settings — which was amenable to the party line and really excited about growing up and marrying somebody Jewish,” she said. “And while camp purported to be about Jewish identity, it was actually about who had slept with whom, as in any social context.”

Albert eventually found camaraderie and a calling in the creative writing program at Brandeis University; all the while she watched her brother undergo treatment and remission and, finally, a cancer relapse. He was 29 when he died in hospice care at home in Los Angeles in 1998.

“I was 19 and completely unequipped to process or deal with his death,” she recalled. “Writing this book was a way of belatedly trying to address the specter of those events. As I was barreling toward the age David was when he died, I thought it was necessary to revisit this thing and think about what it means to be a 29-year-old dying of a brain tumor.”

A few years ago, Albert began amassing “piles of books” on death and dying, which in turn helped her create the fictional Dahlia. Especially helpful was Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor,” which describes cancer, in Western literature, as “the kind of disease that evil, jerky people get … which makes them ugly and dark and fold in on themselves as they die.”

Albert also read “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy’s novella about a man whose family refuses to acknowledge his illness.

“He’s wasting away, and the thing that pains him more than the fact he’s dying is that others around him won’t be straight with him about it,” she said. “All he wants is someone to sit with him and hold his hand and level with him: ‘You’re dying, you’re facing this, it’s going to happen.'”

“I was interested in these ideas, and in the theme as reflected through my own experience with my brother,” she said. “One of the clear memories I have, of the time, is saying to my parents, ‘You know, David’s going to die, of course,’ and they were furious with me. It was like, ‘How dare you suggest this,’ which was an obvious reality to me but couldn’t be articulated or expressed somehow. Of course I don’t begrudge my parents anything they did; they really did the best they could. But a terminal brain tumor is a terminal brain tumor. I can remember having that reality denied and tucking it away in my mind in order to come back to it later.”

Albert continued to be profoundly affected by her brother’s death. While enrolled in the master’s writing program at Columbia University, she met a childhood acquaintance whose brother also had died young — and rushed into a whirlwind courtship.