The story Hens tells of his struggle with nicotine addiction sometimes makes us laugh, though of course addiction is anything but funny. And he had it bad, real bad. The time he spends detailing his addiction is time he still indulges, for a little while, his obsession with nicotine, a drug which Will Self tells us in the Introduction is like taking an upper and downer at the same time:
"The first few drags after a period of abstinence induced head spin and dry mouth, while a drowsy numbness crept over my extremities. Soon enough this narcotics phase was succeeded by excitation: spit balled in my mouth, my palms itched, my heartbeat accelerated—in my own small and unsophisticated way, staring at the algal scurf on the duck pond, I believed I could achieve something."Maybe only people that know what he is talking about can laugh at that. But Hens picks up where Self leaves off, his short history of relapses an opportunity to forgive himself and to try to understand what happened physically and psychologically—nicotine is psychoactive—to cause and stoke his need. And to laugh in the face of his addiction is a kind of fierce refusal to submit: "I’ll write my way out of my addiction by telling its story."
Addiction stories tell us something about humans, plot points on a neuroscience graph. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a moving monograph of a country doctor suffering from morphine addiction. And I will never forget reading Carolyn Knapp describe her addiction to alcohol, how just the sound of ice against glass would calm her down, as she pictured in her mind a glass, clouded with cold and beaded with sweat. It cheered her up, and took away brain strain. Hens’ addiction was something like that: he enjoyed running into groups of smokers huddled in doorways, imagining that they are smoking on his behalf, for his inner contentment. Sometimes he even nodded to them, until he realized they might think him predatory or odd.
There was a time when everyone seemed to smoke. Hens reminds us what it was like growing up with parents who smoked, in his case chain-smoked in a closed vehicle for hours while he and his brothers clustered in the back seat, wreathed in a dense, noxious cloud. When he reached his destination, he and his brothers would stumble, wooly-headed and thirsty, from the car, exhausted from their journey. Certainly his aunt, who was paid a monthly pension in cigarettes in lieu of cash but who smoked only occasionally, might have had something to do with his parents’, and subsequently his own, cigarette habit.
But his recognition that “my personality is a smoker’s personality” must have come from his early family life, when smoking in secret was a way to both defy his parents and earn their love. How confusing the roots of addiction become when examined closely, and how, ultimately, irrelevant. Whatever the reason, he had to break his love affair with tobacco. He was a connoisseur; tobacco was a hobby, a kind of art, something that gave him pleasure but which became as necessary as eating. He was obsessed, addicted, planning his consumption. His life, his passion for sports, and his lover were suffering.
Every person dealing with addiction experiences it in their own way, and Hens recalls for us several others writers who have explicitly chronicled their nicotine habits, among them Italo Svevo, for whom the last cigarette, which Hens begins to familiarly call “LC,” was always remembered with great intensity and affection, while the relapse cigarette was always the one Hens himself craved: “…the rush of relapsing is a very special gift… a kind of investment that would be paid back five or ten times over.”
Hens recalls a heavy smoker friend of his who could get on an airplane for a flight of eight or more hours and suffer nary a twinge of desire for the length of the flight: “There’s no point in thinking about something that’s forbidden, he says.” That friend would do well in America, I think, while Hens himself, once forbidden to smoke, can think of nothing else.
Apparently studies done on rats at Duke University by Theodore Slotkin
"confirm that the consumption of nicotine during adolescence leads to permanent neurological and functional changes that cannot be reversed. The changed structures are still detectable even after the (addictive) behavior has been stopped, an effect that is especially pronounced in male animals."Hens is philosophical about this, unable to say what he could have done even had he known as an adolescent. He reminds us every couple of paragraphs that he no longer smokes. It is a thought, a chant, a wish, a dream, an aspiration. It is a fact.
The book has a strangely old-fashioned feel, perhaps because smoking is so long out of fashion now in America, and because of an anecdote about Hens spending a summer in Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, “filling a pile of notebooks...in just my underpants…which never became the great postcolonial novel I had intended…” Can Chungking Mansions still exist? But Hens’ writing is a little addictive, too, as when he veers delightfully off topic several times, once to relate a cycling accident which involved him waking up, bandaged, in the “reanimation” department of a strange hospital. It freaked him out, understandably.
For anyone who has ever considered writing about a psychological obstacle, addiction, or other obsession, to rid oneself of it, this is a fine example of how one man has managed to make his life larger, richer, and more meaningful than his scourge.
Two terrific reviews of this title have recently been published, one in The New Yorker, and one in the New York Times.
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