SEPTEMBER 19, 2020
A MAN WALKS INTO a doctor’s office. And it’s no joke. He’s 37, seemingly in robust health, happily married, with one child and another on the way. The doctor finds that his lymph glands are swollen in a way that is troubling, and a few weeks later, the man is diagnosed as having lymphoma. Cancer.
In A Kingdom of Tender Colors: A Memoir of Comedy, Survival, and Love, Seth Greenland, the author of five novels — including, most recently, the well-regarded The Hazards of Good Fortune (2018) — writes about this life-quaking diagnosis, his treatment, and his survival.
Greenland, who is also an accomplished comedy writer who has written for film and TV, gives us a 360-degree view of this crisis event that took place some 25 years ago. In this brief period, the experience of existence was heightened because death was close by. We travel backward and forward in time as we learn of the death of Greenland’s mother, his father, his brother-in-law. All this is context for understanding the personal context of Greenland’s illness.
This memoir, so surprising in many ways, is acutely observed, well written, and leavened with humor. For example, Greenland notes: “There were several things that bothered me about being told definitively that I had cancer, the first one being that I had cancer.” Or, in explaining his relation to the faith of his fathers: “For my birth family and me, being Jewish was always more about smoked fish than God.” Or, on having to give a sperm sample: “I can unequivocally state that I am pro-masturbation. This probably disqualifies me for public office in our great nation.”
But this is not a “laughter cures cancer” book. In fact, it defies any expectation of being a cancer survival guide. Instead, more radically, it is a book about finding a way of being. It is existential in the way of Camus’s The Stranger, without the murder and with more jokes. Greenland observes and reports truthfully, telling the story of what happened in a voice that is intelligent, self-aware, and resistant to easy answers. He defies every impulse to make this a moral or even a didactic tale.
Here is how Greenland describes the drive to the hospital to have the biopsy that will determine whether he has cancer:
The car slows for a red light at Columbus Circle before easing to a stop. Then, without warning, we are jolted, knocked, slammed forward.
Another car has crashed into us.
Because — of course.
I’m going to the hospital to find out whether despite feeling perfectly healthy I have cancer which would be like getting rear-ended by another car when we are literally rear-ended by another car.
It turns out that was the omen.
Greenland is told, regarding his lymphoma diagnosis, that it is treatable but not curable. And that it tends to recur. His doctors try to reassure him that “treatable” is good news. Of course, no patient hearing that diagnosis would agree. But it turns out to be true.
Greenland receives chemo treatment, and his cancer goes into remission. But how to prevent a recurrence? That is the question to which his oncologist has no answer, recommending a wait-and-see approach as the best he can offer. “The hardest part of going off chemotherapy,” his doctor tells him, “is not being able to do anything for oneself.”
In this instance, Greenland is a fighter, not a lover. He sets off on a journey into alternative medicine that starts with veganism and includes meditation and prayer, a diamond stud for his left ear, and visits to a small constellation of healers. Greenland’s journey, however, takes a course correction when he signs on with Dr. Nicholas Gonzales, an MD with his own individualized prescriptions for battling cancer (involving hair analysis and something to do with pancreatic enzymes).
For Greenland, Gonzales prescribes organic red meat, carrot juice, vitamins, enzymes, and coffee enemas — several a day. The extreme nature of this course of treatment is what ropes Greenland in as a willing adherent. Although I will leave it to readers to enjoy Greenland’s descriptions of his self-inflicted ministrations, here is a teaser. Susan, his wife, asks of the closed bathroom:
“What’s going on in there?”
“I heard you cursing. Are you all right?”
“That coffee smells really strong.”
“I know. I know — I’m okay. I’ll see you when I’m done.”
Again, to Greenland’s credit, he describes but does not proselytize. His lymphoma, as it turns out, does not recur — at least not at first, not over the next five years or the next 25. And, in success, Greenland is gracious, willing to share credit with all. He doesn’t know if the chemo was solely the reason, or whether Dr. Gonzales’s regimen might have helped. That is not the point.
A Kingdom of Tender Colors is a story of contradictions — although a tale of illness, we know from the start that, more than 25 years later, Greenland is still here. At the start of his odyssey, he is primarily a film and TV writer, successful in that he is making a living at it. He resides in New York City, which he loves, having spent two years in Los Angeles, which he did not like. His wife Susan is a hard-working, successful attorney for a television network. This is all pre-cancer diagnosis.
Post-cancer remission, Greenland and his wife have made Los Angeles their home. Their two children have grown up and been launched into the world. He has written many novels. His wife, who initially resisted anything New Age-y, has jettisoned her legal career and become a leading authority on mindfulness and on the value of meditation for kids in schools, about which she has written two books that have been translated into 10 languages, and in the promotion of which she has traveled the world. And yet, this is not a story of getting from A to B.
At several points in the narrative, Greenland uses the Hollywood trope of describing “the bad version” of a scenario. In terms of his memoir as a whole, the bad version would have been for the author to posit that his cancer was the turning point in his life, the event that set him on his true path, the dividing line between all that he had not achieved and all that he has accomplished since. The point would be that facing his mortality through this near-death experience transformed and enabled his subsequent life. But that is not the story Greenland tells.
Instead, his intention is far more courageous. His memoir is ultimately not about judging or morality or illness or survival. It is not about Western versus alternative medicine. Greenland’s insight is akin to Warren Zevon’s famous dictum to “enjoy every sandwich.” It is about an active state of being. It is about being an active participant in one’s own life, and in one’s own health. It is about putting your ego aside, and it is about the friends and family that are actually one’s life. It is not about religion, or dogma. Yes, take the chemo. But feel free to do more if that’s the discipline you require.
That is the kingdom of tender colors that is the end of Greenland’s journey — a destination he recounts not for us to imitate or adopt, but just to let us know that he has traveled there.