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'Dahlia' Finds Humor in Tragedy
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'Dahlia' Finds Humor in Tragedy

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'Dahlia' Finds Humor in Tragedy

'Dahlia' Finds Humor in Tragedy
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Elisa Albert discusses her new novel The Book of Dahlia, which examines a relatively unsympathetic character with cancer.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

You want to like Dahlia Finger, but boy she makes it hard. She's dying of an inoperable brain tumor. Her mother left her family. Her brother, a rabbi, is a cold fish. Dahlia could use somebody's love, but terminal disease has not softened her. She's constantly caustic, unrelievedly lazy and even mocks the love of the one person on this planet who unreservedly loves and supports her, her father Bruce.

Twenty-nine-year-old Dahlia Finger is the compelling, acerbic and very funny character at the center of Elisa Albert's new novel, "The Book of Dahlia." Elisa Albert joins us now from New York City. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. ELISA ALBERT (Author, "The Book of Dahlia"): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Do you know something about terminal disease?

Ms. ALBERT: A little bit by association. My older brother, David, died of a brain tumor when he was 29, 10 years ago.

SIMON: This reflects at least that experience, but you put an entirely different character through it, I'm assuming.

Ms. ALBERT: Yes. I put something like my brother's opposite in this situation. My brother was a very sort of positive, pro-active, productive, wonderful, likeable guy, and I was interested in the way that cancer self-help literature seems to posit the struggle against cancer in particular as a struggle of wills. If you're a good enough person and you try hard enough, you can beat it, and I can't imagine a much more proactive, positive, excellent human being than my brother.

So I wanted to see what would happen, narratively, if I put somebody who was just none of those things in this position, and her fate is her fate from the beginning, but what does it look like when somebody refuses to buck up, as it were?

SIMON: Yeah, as she constantly points out to people, you know, it's not a matter of my will here. I'm sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I've got cancer.

Ms. ALBERT: Right. There's an interesting sort of blaming-the-victim thing that happens as a sort of byproduct of some of the rhetoric that's out there, I think.

SIMON: I want to give people some idea of your comic prose style, which is I think deservedly being lauded, and if I could get you to read a section in which Dahlia Finger muses on those things that she can expect to miss out by dying at the age of 29.

And I will warn people before you read it, there's a reason you're being acclaimed as the new Philip Roth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So if you don't want to hear the new Philip Roth, now's the time to get a cup of coffee and come back in a minute and a half, but I also think you'll enjoy this. If you could read that section.

Ms. ALBERT: Sure. Alongside the obvious, growing old, here is a partial list of things Dahlia wouldn't get to do in this lifetime: go to India, be in a band, be in a good mood sober, have a three-way, give birth, the last of which she's especially pissed about. To die after you've had the chance to reproduce, well on some level that's fair enough.

She compiled that list not so she could spend the however-many-months she had left. This prognosis would differ maybe doctor to doctor, day to day, lie to lie, and her folks would continue to bull(censored) about the possibility of her, quote, making it, to which she says ha.

Running around franticly checking them off so she can die with some measure of satisfaction and dignity, some illusory control over what went down, that would be another book altogether and one that might have a shot at a flipping film option.

This was not a draft for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, though she does wonder what would happen if she wrote to them requesting a three-way. Did they honor those kinds of wishes? Might she find a couple of unemployed porno stars hung like horses, wearing nothing but giant gift bows and cowboy boots on her doorstep, and might they then (bleep) her as though she were healthy, with none of the pity, the God-awful pity?

SIMON: That's quite a section.

Ms. ALBERT: Thank you.

SIMON: She's not doing much with her life at the time this strikes, is she?

Ms. ALBERT: She's not. She's not, although there is this sense that maybe, maybe, she was about to, and maybe she's going to grow up and end this sort of latent adolescence, which…

SIMON: But is she - I mean, she's very cunning, and it seems to me she takes advantage of the father, just in a sense knowing that he will continue to support her if all she says is maybe I'll go to graduate school.

Ms. ALBERT: Mm-hmm. She knows how to play him. She really does. I think sometimes people, when people are wounded or they've suffered, I think sometimes they can become very noble. I think other times, they can become sort of adept at justifying their own selfishness, and I think Dahlia certainly falls into the latter category.

So she - you know, she feels owed in a way. She feels entitled to this one sort of easy aspect of her existence, which is this generosity and this kindness that she gets unreservedly from her father.

SIMON: From her father, yeah. Because her mother left her, she feels she deserves her father's unstinting support for the rest of her life.

Ms. ALBERT: Mm-hmm. I hope that this sense that Dahlia could have been on the cusp of improvement for herself, whatever that might mean, is what lends the novel its pathos and what sort of allows us to feel empathy for the death of somebody who was not that great a person in a lot of ways.

SIMON: The question this raises for a reader is, and I'll tip the answer in my case, I did a lot: How much can you mourn for someone who seems to have misused their life?

Ms. ALBERT: That is the best question, I think, to ask about this book, and I think a good novel is basically a long question that the reader has to answer for him- or herself. I think that the answer to that question is if we're not capable of empathizing with people who have misused or wasted or mucked up their lives, then what good is our empathy, really?

People die all different ways, all different ages, and I don't think - I don't think death confers any nobility necessarily. I think that sometimes life just ends.

SIMON: But going back in the family history, you're looking at Dahlia's mother and father before she ever entered their lives, before their older son, Danny, even entered their lives. It's a nice way, I guess, of asking the daughter to consider her parents as just people.

Ms. ALBERT: I thought a lot about the idea that we are all something of a reflection of who we were to our parents when we were born and what circumstances we were born into and what role we were sort of filling when we came into this life for the people around us and how that affects who we become and what we carry with us, and you know, Dahlia sort of feels like she's doomed, she's always been doomed, this is just confirmation, this horrible diagnosis, this terrible stroke of luck.

SIMON: How do you feel about - and it's of course - the compliments have been lavish, but how do you feel about being called a Jewish writer?

Ms. ALBERT: I am Jewish, and I'm a writer, so I don't find fault with it on a factual level. It's not unlike being called a woman writer. I am a woman, and I am a writer.

SIMON: Well how do you feel about that, too? I mean, does it particularize your fiction in a way?

Ms. ALBERT: I think it's inevitable, but I think it's also kind of stupid. Fiction should, and I hope does in many cases for all of us, aims to universalize the specific. So the more we categorize and the more we sort of narrow down our definitions of what's what in fiction, the more we sort of miss out on an opportunity to place ourselves in someone else's head and someone else's culture, life, universe.

SIMON: You've managed to write - I don't even want to refer to it as a funny book about cancer because honestly, there's nothing funny about cancer, but a book where cancer's at the center of it, and you laugh constantly.

Ms. ALBERT: It didn't - it wasn't a conscious choice to make this a funny book, but when I found myself writing about Dahlia and writing about what she was going through, there it was. There was just no other way for me to examine this situation.

I think pain without laughter or laughter without pain are both sort of insufferable. Independently, pain is too painful, and laughter without any pain underneath it is just kind of pointless to me.

SIMON: Ms. Albert, thanks so much.

Ms. ALBERT: Thank you, Scott. It's really been a pleasure to talk to you.

SIMON: Elisa Albert, joining us from New York. Her new novel is "The Book of Dahlia."

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