:: Article

The Body Remembers

By Megan Evershed.

Annette Weisser, Mycelium (semiotext(e), 2019)

There’s a moment in Annette Weisser’s novel, Mycelium, in which the protagonist, Noora, pictures “three modes of female productivity—making art, making babies, making a breast tumor—as intertwined.” These three processes have a zero-sum relationship: as one of them expands, “the other two recede.” This see-sawing image of art, babies, and cancer rising and falling in relation to each other aptly demonstrates a transitional dynamic that is central to Weisser’s novel.

Set, for the most part, in Berlin in 2005, Mycelium follows Noora’s diagnosis with breast cancer. “Within seconds, slacker Noora turns into tragic Noora, kissed by death,” Weisser writes. No longer defined as an artist or a woman, Noora’s identity is determined by her diagnosis. “While creative work and reproductive labor might override each other at different times in a woman’s life,” Weisser writes, “cancer’s hyper-productivity, once released, trumps both.”

The equivalency of Noora and her illness can be seen in the way she is received in certain spaces. For instance, after undergoing chemotherapy treatment, she attends the art show of a former lover. “He freaked out when he saw me,” she tells her roommate, Sibel. “Like, how do I dare show up like this, without giving him a fucking warning. Like, I got all the attention, and nobody was even looking at his boring paintings.” In this scene, Noora’s body becomes a point of fascination, a body that takes attention away from art. Cancer, in other words, “trumps” art.

But, further than that, Noora’s body also has the potential to fuel the creation of art. “When S. saw me,” Noora says, “she was like, you have to make work about this. This is such an intense experience. I can tell you that she was jealous!” Noora mocks the fetishization of illness by other artists, but the art world’s appetite for identity-mining also extends to other characters in the novel. As a Turkish woman in Germany, Sibel is pigeonholed by the art world into serving as a representative for immigrants. Although initially interested in sculpting “whimsical objects,” she turns to making “video portraits of Turkish teenagers in Berlin and Istanbul” after she becomes “resign[ed] to the fact that her work got much more attention when it dealt with ‘issues of migration.’”

Appropriately, Weisser’s understanding of the way identity impacts the reception of an artist is also true for the way a person is received in medical institutions. In her memoir, The Undying, Anne Boyer writes, “The system of medicine is, for the sick, a visible scene of action, but beyond it and behind it and beneath it are all the other systems, family race work culture gender money education.” As such, “all of the other systems” also inform what people can access in medical spaces. In the novel, Noora is able to access expensive medication that saves her life because of her financial resources—medication that low-income women probably wouldn’t be able to afford. Class, then, has a profound impact on access to medicine, and is therefore intimately related to how, when, and if we die.

Weisser cements this idea by setting it against reactions to Chernobyl in 1986: “A prepper mentality took hold: People were storing iodine pills, batteries, canned food, condensed milk and bottled water. The very rich built private bunkers underneath their rural mansions.” In the event of nuclear disaster, “the very rich” would be safe in their private, underground spaces, filled with pills, food, drink, and batteries. The rest of the population would, presumably, die above ground.

The mention of Chernobyl and the building of bunkers is dropped into the story as a memory. This is common for Mycelium; the narrative is often reminiscent of a dream-like sequence rather than a stable, traceable trajectory. The point of the novel doesn’t seem to be the development of character or plot. Rather, Weisser is far more concerned with painting a portrait of a woman diagnosed with cancer and how that relates to her environment, to the city that she lives in.

Weisser draws connections between both of these venues—the body and the city—through images and memories of war. In Noora’s case, this is achieved through militarized descriptions of her illness. (Cancer is constantly figured in military language. As Susan Sontag notes in Against Illness as a Metaphor, “There is the ‘fight’ or ‘crusade’ against cancer; cancer is the ‘killer disease’”). For example, Noora imagines her doctor, Dr. Roth, carrying the “emaciated, weightless bodies of the dead and almost-dead” home at night. “Piles of bodies,” Weisser writes. “In the bathtub. Underneath the bed. Sticking out of every available closet space.” These images are images of militarized killing, and, particularly, of Holocaust; in one scene, Noora “looks into the mirror and doesn’t recognize herself at first. Instead she sees: a concentration camp inmate.”

This passage shores up the relationship between cancer as metaphorical warfare and literal, historical warfare. Throughout Mycelium, Weisser frequently alludes to Germany’s violent past. In a conversation with Noora, Sibel comments that, “The 20th century is now as distant as the land of Grimm’s fairy tales,” but Nora replies that “the bodies remember,” and Sibel concedes that “the cities remember, too.”

Simply put, the reverberations of the twentieth century are still felt in early twenty-first century Berlin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Berlin becomes a patchwork of “no-go areas,” places where “soccer hooligans, semi-organized neo-Nazis and militant squatters” prowl. Meanwhile, the “international creative class partie[s] in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.” This segregation remains distinct; that is, until gentrification takes hold of the city. Noora and her boyfriend enjoy “the ever-expanding city” and take trips to “the periphery.” Through these ventures, they are reassured that “gentrification is okay as long as it means driving out neo-Nazis.” Berlin, therefore, remains in flux.

The impact of war and history on Berlin is an ideal mirror image to Weisser’s exploration of illness and art. Both of these discussions point to the conclusion that we are all made up of our histories; both our socioeconomic, personal ‘histories’ or statuses, and also our shared political history. In the same way that broader systems, like gender, race, and class, impact how our art is received or what medical treatments we have access to, the cities we live in are influenced by systems operating within them, such as gentrification and segregation.

Mycelium is rich with ideas; it brings the personal and the political together through prose that is spare and, occasionally, disorienting. This is a novel about one woman’s life, but it’s also a meditation on art, illness, urbanity, and history. Like the fungus mycelium, it branches out in many, many directions.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Evershed is a writer based in New York. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Prospect Magazine, and i-D. She graduated in May 2019 from Columbia University with a BA in English Literature, and is currently interning with a publishing house in New York.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 5th, 2019.