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Writers on Writers: Helene Wecker feels Kara Levy's chronic pain

Helene Wecker | May 30, 2013 | Story Profiles

Kara Levy has a cold. She’s both amused and annoyed by this. “It states in my Crohn’s contract that I’m never to get a seasonal illness of any kind,” she jokes as we sit in her sun-filled apartment in the Mission, sucking on cough drops. “Crohn’s” is Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal disorder that Levy was diagnosed with at the age of nine. If you’re not familiar with the ailment, take your worst memory of food poisoning and then reimagine it as a lifestyle.

For over a decade, Levy has been using her familiarity with illness to power her writing, a series of no-holds-barred examinations of what it’s like to be sick in a world where health is the norm. In these tales, Levy puts aside the typical, often mawkish narrative of illness—the redemptive journey, the blessing in disguise—and creates another: illness as an awkward fact on the ground, a weight that can warp lives and relationships, straining them with the truth of what can’t be shared.

“I’m interested in where we draw the line between what it means to be sick and what it means to be well,” she tells me. “Who decides where that line is? What can we give each other that medicine sometimes can’t give us? And what are the choices that we make after our bodies make choices for us, ones that we wouldn’t necessarily choose?”

Levy has been a steady presence on the San Francisco writing scene since 2006, when she moved here for a Steinbeck fellowship at San JosĂ© State University. Before that, she lived in New York City, where she earned her MFA at Columbia University. In recent years, she’s been quietly racking up accolades: Her stories have been published in magazines like the Alaska Quarterly Review, TriQuarterly, and the Mississippi Review; in 2008, she was a winner of Narrative’s 30 Below contest; and for the last four years, she’s been the San Francisco editor of the online literary journal Joyland.

Given Levy’s subject matter, it might come as a surprise how hilarious her writing is. Her humor—quirky and dyspeptic, a little Lorrie Moore, a little Sam Lipsyte—reveals itself in absurd situations and skewer-sharp observations. In her short story “Transplant,” a character’s freckles are described as “an avalanche of specks on the left side, blank white canvas on the right, as though one cheek had been shellacked with flypaper and left near an abandoned picnic.” In “Tyrannosaurus Rex,” a young woman with an unnamed malady interrupts Christmas dinner to accuse her brother of trying to steal her teeth, which she has been keeping in a plastic bag.

“When I first started writing, I thought that humor was separate from serious writing,” Levy says. “And the obvious implication was that the serious thing was more valuable.” Now, she uses humor to bridge the distance between the reader and the story. “If you think of anything that’s funny, it’ll have an inherent sadness in it, or anger. And to tell a story about illness without including humor doesn’t always do justice to the full experience. Because it really is funny sometimes, in the worst, most horrible way you can imagine.”

This isn’t to say that Levy only laughs at her subjects. Her stories are full of a critical love: You can imagine her shaking her head, an understanding but exasperated mother, as her characters steer themselves toward bad decisions and doomed affairs. And Levy can bite, too. In “Tony,” a quick and fablelike story, the protagonist builds a robot (the Tony of the title) to administer her injections after her fiancĂ© goes AWOL. (It’s implied that he can’t handle her ill health.) In “Tyrannosaurus Rex,” the narrator—the aforementioned teeth-stealing brother—reports bitterly, “I will tell you something about the sick. They are ruthless.... Their weapon is the guilt we feel for being healthy. It makes them untouchable and limitless, like gods.”

And then there are the physical details, the truth of what happens behind the hospital curtain and the bathroom door. This isn’t comfortable material, and over the years it’s garnered Levy a certain amount of push-back. “Editors have said to me, ‘We really love this story, and we wish that it were about something other than illness.’ Or ‘We love your work, we love your voice—do you have anything that’s not about illness?’ There’s an idea that readers don’t want to encounter difficult things. But I don’t think it’s responsible of me to write about illness and make it look beautiful and nothing else. Illness is not Camille, fluttering away on her chaise lounge, delicately expiring in a wisp of smoke. It’s upchucking, blood and guts, and sweat. It’s the way you would absolutely not want to portray yourself, if you had a choice.”

Page Two: On Levy's first novel, "The Believers"

Recently, Levy has expanded her writing CV again, in both length and depth. Her newly finished novel, The Believers, is the story of Andy Klein, a former journalist with Crohn’s disease. A recent arrival in a quaint college town—courtesy of his wife, a newly minted professor—Andy spends his days on the couch, drinking Ensure and waiting for the surgery that will remove parts of his gastrointestinal system. Then, mostly by accident, he falls into the company of a cape-wearing, unicycle-riding medieval studies student and amateur “healer” named Francis of Assisi Collins. Lonely and a little desperate, the usually skeptical Andy soon agrees to accompany Francis on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—at the end of which, Francis assures Andy, they’ll be granted a vision of how to cure Andy’s incurable Crohn’s.

Levy herself was a medieval studies major at Swarthmore College, and she fills this modern-day picaresque with details that reveal an intense intimacy with her subjects. She’s fascinated by reenactor culture and by the popularity of venues like Medieval Times and Renaissance fairs. And then, of course, there is the character with Crohn’s. Of Andy, she says, “There’s something appealing about writing a book that has someone with Crohn’s disease at its center. To ask, ‘Could someone with Crohn’s be the hero of the story?’ and to have the answer be yes.”

It’s not as though Levy doesn’t have a ready audience. As many as 700,000 Americans may have Crohn’s, and it’s just one of countless diseases that the fl esh is heir to. Add to that all the bystanders aff ected by serious illness—caregivers and doctors, family and friends and enemies—and the circle expands ever outward. You might view Levy's work as a sort of Lonely Planet guide to the Kingdom of Infirmity, a place we’ll all be visiting sooner or later.

Looked at in this way, the squeamishness of editors can seem absurd. But our culture has always been quick to sugarcoat the realities of sickness (pink ribbons, teddy bears) or else hide them away entirely. For all that Levy’s stories are universal, by telling them in her own searing, inimitable style, she’s revealed herself as a pioneer.

Helene Wecker’s first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was published in April by HarperCollins. A Chicago-area native, she now makes her home in Pleasanton.

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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco

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