Thursday, June 1, 2017

Online Book Club Reading Notes: The Easy Way Out (Steven Amsterdam)

The brand spanking new Online Book Club that I'm a part of convened for the very first time last night, with six out of the seven members able to make the chat.

It was a fantastic experience for me, and I hope for them. I love nothing better than a good dissection of a book, preferably with intelligent people who've read it, but physical book clubs have proven prohibitively challenging for me in the last 15 years, due to child-rearing / health / distance constraints.

Being able to participate in a wide-ranging and complex discussion *at my own desk* while my kids slept / prepared for bed was exactly what I needed, and I'm just annoyed that I didn't think of it years ago.

As a group, we've decided to use the Miles Franklin longlist as our guide, at least initially; we were all keen to read new Australian fiction and this seemed like a good place to find some. For our inaugural session, we settled on Steven Amsterdam's The Easy Way Out, a novel about assisted dying - partly because two of our members are nurses, and we thought the subject matter of the book could make for some interesting discussions.

The Easy Way Out is the story of Evan, a nurse who, as the book opens, has just commenced employment in a pilot program at Generically Named Made Up Hospital as a "dying assistant". The book's premise is that assisted dying has been legalised within strictly controlled circumstances, and that the hospital is rolling out one of the first such programs.

Evan is, as protagonists go, remarkably flat in his affect, and not particularly likeable at any time. (Some of our group members warmed up to him by the very end of the book, but the majority of us didn't). He has trouble with, ironically, both boundaries and attachment; his difficulty observing the hospital's protocols around the assisted deaths is counterpointed to his drifting, emotionally distant interactions with people in his private life. In particular, we were all at least annoyed, if not repulsed, by his apparent disinterest in the effect his actions have on his long-suffering partners, Lon and Simon - at least two of us (me being one!) were firmly of the view that Lon and Simon were much too good for Evan. The fact that they keep loving him and wanting him despite his apparent inability to really reciprocate is both a tender note in the book and a frustration.

The book provides ample explanation for why he is as he is - Evan suffered an extravagantly damaging childhood with his feckless, although very amusing and likeable, mother Viv. His father committed (unackowledged) suicide when Evan was 10, leading to a dislocated, always-moving, fractured youth for him. Indeed, the "damaging-childhood-inadequate-adulthood" motif is so strongly emphasised, it becomes one of several areas in which the book over-eggs itself. This heavy-handedness does not help the flow of the story, although it is easy to see how (and why) the author made the narrative choices he did. Evan's remarkable emotional flatness is hard to understand otherwise, and his actions almost inexplicable.

The narrative of the book weaves Evan's experiences working in the hospital program, and later, working with the illegal covert Jaspers group who assist at deaths that don't qualify for the hospital program's stringent conditions, with his personal crises. Viv, Evan's vibrant, selfish, but affectionate mother, has Parkinson's Disease, and is declining at a rate of knots - at the book's opening, she has not long relocated to a nursing home, and is chafing against it. Evan's relationship with Viv seems oddly muted for much of the book, but on the basis that actions speak louder than words, it's evident that Viv is the one person for whom he does feel something profound, and accepts his interconnectedness with her. He never abandons his responsibility to Viv, even at the end (no spoilers, but the end is either a let-down or a transformation, depending on who you ask).

On the whole, we felt as a group that the treatment of assisted dying as an issue was handled very clinically and not very completely. One of our group has worked as a palliative care nurse, and felt that there were many nuances and dimensions that the book missed or chose not to deal with (we did wonder if this was intentional though - was Amsterdam, himself a palliative care nurse, trying to make a point about how legalised assisted dying could change the way palliative care is delivered?)

The hospital program, and its manager Nettie, seemed distasteful in a way that we found hard to pin down, but when Evan moves on to working illegally with the Jaspers, our repugnance was much stronger - the unregulated deaths seemed, to all of us, like suicides with someone there to watch, and at least two of those who died would have been ineligible for "controlled" assisted dying for sound reasons. We also struggled with the issue of payment - the Jaspers are given "donations" by their clients, but there is a smell of mercenariness to the way this was handled that sat very uneasily with us.

Overall, we ended up giving the book 6-7/10 - averaging, it'd be 6.5. We thought it had some interesting ideas and posed some good ethical questions, but didn't really stick the landing in terms of exploring the full gamut of its own plot.

Did it perhaps start to go there at the end? Maybe it did. One of our members wrote, "I wonder if in the end, the author wanted to show that when death seems the logical option, it still may not be the most meaningful one", and I think that perhaps sums it up best of all.  Where the book succeeds, it succeeds on ethical philosophy grounds; where it fails, it fails because it vastly underplays the emotional content of human lives and deaths, and all that implies. At the end of the day, it's an interesting book, not a lovable one. I'd recommend it, with some reservations, but do I think it should win the Miles Franklin? No.

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