Sunday, June 25, 2017

When love and neuroscience collide: on Oliver Sacks, Bill Hayes and Insomniac City

[Did this review for Scroll]

Near the end of Bill Hayes’s memoir Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, a celebrated neurologist and writer contemplates the bowl of blueberries he is eating for breakfast. “Each one gives a quantum of pleasure,” says Oliver Sacks, behaving like an excited child and a pedantic man of science at the same time, “if pleasure can be quantified”.

It is one of many such playful moments in a narrative that is – among other things – about the meeting of the emotional life and the rational one. Embracing one’s deepest feelings while also coolly analyzing them, as if from a remove, is something most writers do – it comes with the territory. But it seems to happen much more in this book, and little wonder, given the protagonists and their personal situations. In that blueberry passage, Sacks is afflicted with the cancer that will end his life just a month or so later. Hayes, his friend and lover, is with him, and they are making the most of the time they have left.

A few years before this, Hayes had to deal with another life-changing trauma. He opens his narrative with the sudden death of his partner Steve, and a subsequent shift from San Francisco to New York. Developing an initially wary relationship with this new city and the people who inhabit or flit through it, he also found love with Sacks – who was in his mid-seventies at the time and who, despite having spent a lifetime studying the workings of the human mind, had never been in a full-fledged romantic relationship before.

All this comes to us through short chapters, vignettes and fragments of journal entries, interspersed with images: mainly photos Hayes himself took on the streets of NYC, but also some remarkable exceptions, such as a drawing of his eye done by a 95-year-old woman who befriends him. Through his anecdotes – brief encounters during the subway commute; a conversation with a man lugging about carts filled with empty cans and bottles for sale; an impromptu meeting at a party that he gate-crashes – New York becomes a vital, breathing presence in the book, embodying the dynamic metropolis where people temporarily find themselves in each other’s orbits before going their separate ways.

On a very different scale of intensity, the Hayes-Sacks relationship could also be seen as two orbits coinciding for a relatively short period: after all, it encompassed “only” the final six years of Sacks’s long life. But it would be impossible to quantify this pleasure, or the relationship’s importance to both men. “I felt like Odysseus reaching shore,” Hayes writes near the end, a dramatic but apt analogy: Sacks, and the city, serve first as lifeboats for him, and then mother-ships guiding him back to land.

And of course, it works in the other direction too. “It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life,” Sacks wrote in his own lovely memoir On the Move, published shortly before his death, “This changed when Billy and I fell in love […] the habits of a lifetime’s solitude, and a sort of implicit selfishness and self-absorption, had to change. New needs, new fears enter one’s life – the need for another, the fear of abandonment. […] We have a tranquil, many-dimensional sharing of lives – a great and unexpected gift in my old age, after a lifetime of keeping at a distance.”


While enjoying Insomniac City very much, I don’t know if the book would have held my interest in the same way if it weren’t partly about the last years of a writer I have long admired. Sacks’s marvelous contributions to popular-science writing include the collected case studies in books like Musicophilia, An Anthropologist on Mars, and The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat to the childhood memoir Uncle Tungsten. All these are, to varying degrees, autobiographical, dealing as they do with his life and his work (which, to him, was his life). But the Sacks we get in Hayes’s book is in some ways more intriguing, since this is the very personal gaze of someone who grew to know and love him in his final years.

Here is the respected scientist as a shy social outsider, but also at heart a little boy who is eager to keep discovering and understanding new things – including something as “irrational” as love, whose mechanics can’t be worked out on a chart, nor its essence distilled in the laboratory. He wears swimming goggles when Hayes teaches him to open a bottle of champagne for the first time. He knows little about pop-culture (asking “What is Michael Jackson?” when the singer dies), yet develops a poignant and unexpected friendship with the musician Bjork (and Hayes has a lovely description of a New Year’s Eve dinner at Bjork’s house in Reykjavik, fireworks going off, the whole experience “like being safely in the middle of a very happy war”). A more fleeting but equally improbable connection is formed with the model and actress Lauren Hutton, who turns out to be “intensely curious” like Sacks himself, despite their superficial differences and very different lifestyles.

The book’s structure – weaving Hayes’s experiences of New York City with constant reminders of Sacks’s presence in his life – was for me perfectly encapsulated in a chapter where the author watches youngsters skateboarding and gets a crash course in skateboard mechanics from a sharp kid. Even in this vivid little aside about a city, its people and what it is like to see and listen to someone for the first time, there is a guest appearance by Sacks who gets to be the savant and the wonderstruck observer at the same time; watching kids performing seemingly impossible parabolas at the skateboard park, he describes it as a living geometry – “they may not have read Euclid, but they know it all”.

Given that loss and grief haunt its pages, it is a minor astonishment how uplifting Insomniac City is. It is about savouring little moments while the world keeps throwing larger disappointments our way; about the terror and liberation of leaving things, including parts of yourself, behind; about sharing apple pieces while soaking in a warm tub, or breaking the rules in small ways such as adding artificial sweetener to wine for taste. About sharing someone else’s life, even if only for a short while. You might be embarrassed by the raw emotion in Hayes’s journal excerpts, some of which is corny (I: “What else can I do for you?” O: “Exist”) or mundane, or both (In the middle of the night: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” O whispers), but surely that’s part of the point, in a book about finding wonder and comfort in everyday things – even when you’re living in a very big and intimidating city.

 [Bill Hayes's website, including his photography, is here]

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