Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment
2nd Sep 2015
Originally published in 2009, Heroic Measures quickly hit paydirt when selected for literary queenmaker Oprah Winfrey’s annual summer reading list. Jill Ciment’s fourth novel – followed by Act of God in March 2015 – it is now rereleased in the wake of 5 Flights Up, a charming film adaptation starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as aging New Yorkers Ruth and Alex Cohen. Set in the East Village in 2004, this is the story of a city still raw from 9/11 while simultaneously cresting an economic boom. Over the course of one long winter’s weekend, the seventy-something Cohens debate cashing in with the sale of their five-floor walk-up, bought for a pittance in the 1950s. Though loathe to leave their beloved neighbourhood – and even less keen to have to change pharmacy – the quoted modern price-tag of their apartment, just shy of one million dollars, evokes too-tempting visions for these children of immigration and Depression: ‘Fred Estaire dancing in top hat and tails’, or – more to the point – a functioning elevator.
In the novel’s third and most affecting arc, the Cohens’ elderly dachshund Dorothy takes an emergency trip to the veterinary hospital where she soon believes Death wears white scrubs and a stethoscope. Meanwhile, the city is captivated by a possible act of terrorism when an abandoned petrol truck chokes the Midtown Tunnel. As helicopters hover overhead, traffic grinds to a standstill, realtors offer superstitious advice to their clients, and strangers at open houses gather together around television sets to see the drama unfold play by play. Our relationship with the media has changed exponentially in the last decade. Born with the launch of CNN in 1980, the 24-hour news cycle truly came of age with the events of September 11th, when cinematic images were broadcast in real time to a global audience unable to tear its eyes away. Where once we would seek our news out in designated spaces – broadsheets, cinema halls, scheduled slots in tv programming – our days were now soundtracked by a rolling, looping stream of images and soundbites intercut with meandering “eye-witness” and “expert” interviews. This paved the way for how our news finds us now: the online osmosis of social media and click-bait links. Here Ciment really captures the essential not-waving-but-drowning nature of cable news programming: the anchor’s desperation to fill the air with something-anything vaguely relevant to the story, the graphics thrown together during ad breaks, the sense that the steps are being built only as we climb the staircase. Indeed Ruth’s favourite pastime is watching her neighbours’ comings and goings on the foyer camera. The society of the spectacle is well and truly in play.
My little old dog: / A heart-beat / At my feet. –Edith Wharton, ‘Lyrical Epigrams’
In the novel’s third and most affecting arc, the Cohens’ elderly dachshund Dorothy takes an emergency trip to the veterinary hospital where she soon believes Death wears white scrubs and a stethoscope. Though the concept of a canine protagonist sounds vaguely mawkish, Dottie is imbued with an intelligence and vulnerability that will sting at the heart of any dog lover. In Alex’s arms, she sighs ‘long, deep exhalations of such contentment he ached to join in, to give voice to his own exhaustion and yearnings.’ When the vet tries to stimulate her numb back paws, ‘she feels pressure, though she’s not sure if the pressure is in her feet or in her desire to please.’ Ciment also poignantly describes the dog’s role within the family: a catalyst for change within a long-lived marriage, a point of emotional connection for siblings who long-ago ran out of talking points.
Ultimately, Heroic Measures is a novel of twenty-first century anxiety and timeless fear; of trying to find meaning and moral certainty in the chaos; of the ever-increasing tension between comfort and desire as our years pass; of how we soothe ourselves and our loved ones during moments of pain and in times of distress.