Very few protagonists in contemporary adult literature have struggled with diabetes, even though the experience intersects with the timeless themes, like desire, identity, mortality, pain, and even triumph. Furthermore, in an epoch characterized by vigilant self-consciousness, it is surprising that diabetes and its emphasis on monitoring and behavioral norms hasn’t been much tried for its narrative potential.
My first encounter with a novel in which diabetes had an important role was Kathryn Harrison’s Exposure (Random House, 1993), about Ann Rogers, a young woman with an outwardly successful life as a videographer of happy events and marriage to a devoted husband who restores New York City landmarks. Ann also has insulin-dependent diabetes, not very well cared for, and secret addictions to speed and shoplifting. In her childhood, her photographer father made his fame taking pictures of Ann posing naked and playing dead. As a major retrospective of her father’s work gets closer and Ann spirals out of control, her neglect of her diabetes amplifies her destructive, self-erasing behavior.
More introspective than Ann Rogers, the protagonist of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender detective series dwells on his mid-life diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. Wallender’s personal troubles are the continuous narrative of the 10-book series, and it is the crimes that are distinct in each novel. Set in Sweden, a gloom hovers over the stories and Wallender’s thoughts. He worries about his relationship with his daughter Linda, his love affairs or lack of them, his aging body, and the state of humanity. Obsessed with personal failures, as man and detective, Wallender feels shame at his diabetes diagnosis, which is dramatized in The Man Who Smiled (published in English in 2005), fourth in the series. He attributes diabetes entirely to personal behaviors, like drinking and eating. The psychology of denial, as willful self defense, is presented with complexity. The detective both understands and shrugs off responsibility for his health. Knowledge can often be too much to bear.
Karen Hollender, the first-person protagonist of Kurt Andersen’s recent novel, True Believers (Random House, 2012), is comparatively straightforward and open about her insulin-dependent diabetes, which she has had for almost 50 years, since her diagnosis at the age of 17 in mid-1960s Chicago. Unlike either Ann Rogers or Detective Wallender, Karen tests her blood sugar frequently, injects her insulin, keeps her eye on sweets, alcohol, and other carbohydrates, exercises daily, and is an inspiration to her granddaughter’s boyfriend, a young man with Type 1. A high-achieving attorney and legal scholar, Karen seems to be a high-achieving diabetic, too. Her relationship to her diabetes is introduced in a longish passage at the beginning of the narrative; Karen, who talks to the reader in preparation for writing and publishing a memoir, explains, “Responsible diabetics play doctor with themselves all day, every day. The goal is to keep your blood glucose level as close to normal as possible, neither too high (which eventually wrecks your organs) nor so low that you feel unpleasantly or dangerously befuddled.” The adult Karen recalls her mother, in Karen’s youth, exclaiming that a person with diabetes is like Goldilocks in the Three Bears’ house, “always trying to get it just right.”
The transparency about her diabetes – everyone in her life knows about it and stays alert for signs of Karen dipping into hypoglycemia – is in direct contrast to the secret at the heart of the story, which is a serious wrongdoing that Karen and her friends set into motion in 1968 during a time of political unrest in the United States. Although Karen speaks directly to the reader, she keeps the episode cloaked from the reader, as she has from most of the people in her life for 40 years. The plot of the book is Karen’s investigation into her own life and her search for documents, witnesses, and other evidence that will verify the story for the publisher and clarify for Karen a confusing time in her life that has remained hidden from both the public and the people she loves.
I found the portrayal of diabetes in True Believers more affirming than in Exposure or the Wallender detective series. Karen is a smart, articulate narrator, and she describes the daily tasks of diabetes as fully and precisely she does the highs and lows. Most of all, I enjoyed the commentary on low blood glucose and symptoms which can appear as “a snappish mood or vague fear… some meaningless neurochemical squall.” Her granddaughter and daughter keep benevolent watch for her lows; her suspicious friend, Alex, uses them against her, accusing Karen of being “a tad low” and needing “a fizzy drink or something” when she asks him a question that he’d rather dodge.
True Believers author Kurt Andersen was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 32. Although his protagonist, Karen, is a generation older than he (Andersen is in his 50s), I get the sense that he is speaking through her. He wants to tell this story, not just the coming-of-age political story that Karen herself is uncovering, but the story of a mostly adult life with diabetes. While Karen does describe her diagnosis as a girl – the word “pee” figures prominently – the most vivid experiences with diabetes are ones that Andersen may have rendered from his own life. A reader feels, too, the author’s great urge to explain diabetes in a way that sometimes interrupts the scene. When at a dinner Karen’s daughter Greta offers her a homemade sugar-free dessert, Karen tells the reader, “I’m irritated by well-intentioned people who make special accommodations for my diabetes, but they are trying to be nice, so I never say it annoys me.” The narrator is doubly self aware: in the aside to the reader, and in her detachment from her own irritation, enough so that she can understand others’ motivations.
This arch self awareness permeates Karen’s telling of the main story, too. Granted, the conceit of the novel is that the protagonist is engaged in the process of writing a memoir, and the reader is implicated in this process. The author’s need to inform is mixed, sometimes uncomfortably, with the protagonist’s. As a result, I sometimes felt removed from the story, not inside the first-person narrator’s head.
Perhaps this is what Andersen, a skillful cultural commentator, planned for this contemporary novel. Self awareness requires a separateness from the self, an ability to look at one’s self from the outside in, to gather clues and facts objectively, to painstakenly construct a life narrative rather than simply be pulled along by life. This is the story that Karen asserts, and her manner of telling is consistent with her ambition for what her book (Kurt Andersen’s book) will reveal. Disturbed by Ann Rogers and simpatico with Kurt Wallender, with Karen Hollander I stand outside: emotionally detached yet intellectually engaged.