Love and Fatigue in America

 

 

 

“Roger King’s disturbing, delightful odyssey encompasses many subjects—love, loss, health, illness, disconnection, and most of all, the modern American psyche: its roots and its rootlessness. A profound and wonderfully original book.”

—JOAN WICKERSHAM, author of The Suicide Index

 

“What does it mean to live in between? Not only between geographical locations, but between health and illness, commitment and freedom, love and loss? In this wry and subtle autobiographical novel, Roger King maps the territory of his inner life onto the American continent.
The genre-crossing result is, like the work of W.G. Sebald, surprising and dazzling.”

—ANDREA BARRETT, Winner of the National Book Award

 
 
 
 
 

“When invited to teach at a university in Spokane, Washington, the unnamed British narrator of King’s (Horizontal Hotel) extraordinary autobiographical novel heads eagerly toward the promise of the American West. However, after collapsing in the gym and being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome–comprising “a rag-tag gang of misfit symptoms”–he and his loyal dog Arthur find themselves untethered, drifting across the country searching for somewhere to settle. His travels take him from doctor to ineffective doctor, from hospitable hosts to anonymous motels, and from bed to couch and back again as he struggles to find, at 40, who he is and what he’s become. Although his romantic relationships fail, he does enjoy moments of startling tenderness: the undemanding love of Mary and her young daughter Zoe, who linger long in his heart; the flickering kindness of waitresses; and the unexpected intimacy granted him at a lingerie shop. What finally offers solace and meaning here is not to be found in biology or fate–although the narrator often feels crushed beneath both–but compassion. Throughout his domestic happiness in New Mexico, the dizzying energy of youth and sex in San Francisco, and the peace of a cabin in small town Massachusetts, the narrator’s exhaustion never infects the writing. The narrative expertly cobbles together unexpected moments of poetry; meditations on illness, war, and ambition; and vignettes, which–like the narrator himself–alternately admit devastating failures and sing with triumph.”

PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY (STARRED), March 2012

 
 
 

Roger King’s conflation of fiction, memoir and poetry opens with his nameless first-person narrator (presumably King himself) circling above the “isolated city” of Spokane, Washington, its tallest buildings “unconvincing” and Potemkin-like. It is 1991, and the itinerant narrator has left London to take up a creative writing post at a small university in the hope that it will bring about “the accelerated forgetting offered by distance”. What must be so urgently forgotten will be revealed later to one of the many vulnerable individuals he meets during his stay in Spokane – and indeed elsewhere, since the setting soon shifts to New Mexico, then California, and finally to dog-friendly motels that dot the circuitous eastward path he takes towards Massachusetts.

There are, however, some things that cannot be outrun by miles or memory: the mysterious and debilitating illness known variously as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). Its sudden and inexplicable onset takes place in a Spokane gym. “A madman has seized the controls”, King writes, always in the present tense; the disease is anthropomorphized in this way throughout, as though it were “something with its own intelligence”. Consequently, CFS evolves into an autonomous force that shapes King’s novel in terms of both events and execution. His fictional proxy cannot invest the requisite energy in work and relationships, and the comfortable life he enjoyed in health becomes a day-today struggle to carry out the most mundane tasks. He leaves places he otherwise might have stayed, befriends people he otherwise might have ignored, and vice versa. His chosen tense for Love and Fatigue in America is a conceit for the difficulty he has in creating new memories, each moment a fleeting apparition that depends on the whim of his exhausted brain for future recollection.

King fashions a rich, compelling and often wry narrative out of a set of circumstances that could quite easily fatigue the reader’s interest or sympathy. Pithily but not selfpitifully, he captures “the labor of being sick in America”, the psychology and stigma of disease, as well as the essences of places and personalities (one man “peppers his talk with little challenges to maintain the upper hand”) in the foreign land he now calls home.”

—E.J. IANNELLI, in the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

 
 
 

Soon after the narrator of this moving autobiographical novel, a teacher from England, arrives in Spokane, he is stricken by an illness that attacks his mind and body in equal measure. He is largely confined to beds and couches, and the smallest tasks become monumental efforts. It turns out that he has chronic fatigue syndrome. Friends and colleagues react with coldness and skepticism. Sympathy comes mainly from “women with deep, secret hurts.” As the disease drives the narrator from city to city, woman to woman, and doctor to doctor, it brings into relief many of America’s follies and excesses, most notably our healthcare system, which King portrays as antiquated, bureaucratic, and inhumane. After more than fifteen years, American brings the narrator “no aspiration realized, nor a largeness of life fitting to its open spaces, but the nascent ability to be satisfied with less.

—THE NEW YORKER

 
 
 

At the start of Roger King’s remarkable autobiographical novel, Love and Fatigue in America, his unnamed narrator is at the top of his game. He’s just signed a contract for another book, BBC wants him to produce a screenplay, he has a promising girlfriend and a new job teaching at a college in Spokane, Wash. He’s 43 years old, well-traveled, educated, British, attractive to women and opportunity alike. He’s also headed for a fall from which he never quite regains the full extent of his powers.
 
The narrator’s troubles start with a fever and bout of dizziness at the gym. He can barely get himself home. Eventual diagnosis: myalgic encephalopathy — ME disease, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s one of those invisible illnesses, like MS, that can engender impatience and disbelief rather than compassion or nurturing behavior from others. If he weren’t so incapacitated, perhaps he, too, would question what had so thoroughly overcome him.
In the years covered in this book, the narrator leaves Spokane, moves to New Mexico, then on to San Francisco to teach again. When he leaves that position, it is with a “catastrophic leave of absence.” A subsequent road trip, conducted at very low ebb (he calls it “careful husbandry of my energy”), takes him on a roundabout tour of the United States. Eventually he makes a home in a small town in Western Massachusetts, five miles from a college, where he slowly finds a life for himself.

A life is something this narrator is always looking for before he comes to understand the following: “You must wait for it to come to you.” You cannot seize it, you cannot hurry it. This technique, he says, is also good for befriending dogs and children.

Though illness shapes Love and Fatigue in America, it is far from the only matter King examines. King is smart and funny. His unnamed narrator, not quite likable at first, grows on you in part because of his amusing observations about everything American from the pathetic state of health care to the way men cannot allow themselves to care for others to the surprising number of women he meets who have been subjected to violence, often by military men. King’s British background makes his examination of American culture especially interesting in contrast.

This is not a traditional novel. King sometimes makes lists, often very funny, one of which — all the medicines his character has taken — he tells us we don’t really have to read. “The Things They Say” is a list of people’s responses to his illness, such as: “In the old days, we couldn’t afford to be ill.” “If people help you, it will only make you helpless.” “Just snap out of it.”

He also presents ideas expressed in free verse. In “Luck” he talks about all the good that has come his way and, still, he says, he’s found things about which he complained. Thus, he apologizes. By the time he pauses to examine his good fortune, however, he’s far from lucky. One million people have ME disease in America and he’s one of them.

He spends a good deal of the next decade on his back — in beds or on couches, in “energy-saver mode.” In New Mexico, he describes his life as “a bed at its center, a distant view, love surrounding.” This, it turns out, is a brilliant perspective from which to view and write about life.

The book is not traditional for other reasons. Love and Fatigue in America is an autobiographical novel, with King’s own experience with ME disease at the core. King’s neurological disease, with its disruption of memory, assures a certain re-imagination of events. Also, he changes names and allows his unnamed protagonist to serve as a filter through which the re-imagination occurs. King says that examination of brain activity by scientists reveals that the act of recall and the act of imagining are virtually indistinguishable.

King and his protagonist settle in America. “I liked America for the yes,” he writes. This can-do mentality is no doubt especially attractive to someone slowly recovering from a devastating illness.

Concluding chapters seem hurried when compared with the first three-quarters of the book. It’s understandable, since there’s probably a limit to readers’ patience. Yet, great reckonings unfurl in mere paragraphs. On the other hand, we are ready. The narrator is lucky once again. He is able to make some sense out of the life he lives on low ebb.

From the small town in which he’s staked his homestead, the narrator sees an America in decline, an America engaged in divisive activities not unlike what brought him to his own sick bed. Yet, as he looks around at the yoga, health foods, meditation and green initiatives, he says, “the ills of America are creating their own immune response.”

—RAE FRANCOEUR, GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE 

 
 
 

“I am currently reading a novel about what it’s like to navigate the world while coping with a chronic illness. (In the author’s case, the illness is Chronic Fatigue, but those with Lyme and other chronic conditions will find that it eloquently captures many aspects of our experience which we often struggle to put into words.) It’s an extraordinary book and I’m mesmerized by its content, meticulously, inevitably comparing the author’s experience with my own. But even more than its content, I’m studying its form. It is teaching me about the possibility of a continuing creative life at a time when my capacity for sustained thought and creative effort seems to have dwindled away. It is deeply instructive and I am, as I write, practicing…The novel is called Love and Fatigue in America. It’s by Roger King. It’s coming out in March. And it’s awfully good.”

ANDREW PETERSON, THE NEXT TEN MINUTES, February 2012

 
 
 

“Few writers dare to try the scope of Roger King, from the intensely personal to the universal, and even fewer succeed. But King does. Love and Fatigue in America manages to offer three rewarding narratives at once in a book that is equally novel and memoir. He has done something astonishing.”

—HELEN BENEDICT, author of Sand Queen

 

Arthur as a puppy in New Mexico

 

Roger King’s new autobiographical novel records an Englishman’s decade-long journey through his newly adopted country in the company of a mystifying illness and a charismatic dog named Arthur.

When he receives an unexpected invitation from an unfamiliar American university, the unnamed narrator embraces it as a triumphant new beginning. Instead, on arrival, he is stricken with a persistent inability to stand up or think straight, and things quickly go wrong. Diagnosed with ME disease—chronic fatigue syndrome—he moves restlessly from state to state, woman to woman, and eccentric doctor to eccentric doctor, in a decade-long search for a love and a life suited to his new condition. The journey is simultaneously brave, absurd, and instructive.

Finding himself prostrate on beds and couches from Los Alamos to Albany, he hears the intimate stories offered by those he encounters—their histories, hurts and hopes—and from these fragments an unsentimental map emerges of the inner life of a nation. Disability has shifted his interest in America from measuring its opportunities to taking the measure of its humanity. Forced to consider for himself the meaning of a healthy life and how best to nurture it, he incidentally delivers a report on the health of a country.

By turn insightful, comic, affecting and profound, Roger King’s Love and Fatigue in America briskly compresses an illness, a nation, and an era through masterly blending of literary forms. In a work that defies categorization, and never loses its pace or poise, the debilitated narrator is, ironically, the most lively and fully awake figure in the book.