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The Fatigue Artist


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About the Author

Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Lynne Sharon Schwartz grew up in Brooklyn, New York,
in the 1950s, in a middle-class family. Her father was a tax
lawyer, her mother a homemaker. Strongly influenced by
her immigrant grandparents, Schwartz had a large, extended
family with strong traditions and European values. As a child, she remembers noticing the details of
things -- conversations, emotion, faces. By age seven, she
was a writer, her themes were often philosophical and
moral. I wrote one about how the world came into
being, she says. And it was a kind of a deist vision of
God who was...a kind scientist....I wasn't a genius or anything,
I mean, I wrote like a seven-year old. But I thought
about things. And my parents were wonderful. They
encouraged me. With a Bachelor's degree from Barnard and a Master's
degree from Bryn Mawr, Schwartz completed her course
work for a Doctorate in comparative literature, when her
life changed direction. She says, I was just about to write
my thesis, in 1972, and I couldn't face it; every topic I
thought of was no good, and every time I went down in
the NYU stacks I'd just get sick. Then suddenly it dawned
on me: I was a little over thirty, and if I was going to
write, I'd better write. I had thought it would happen -- I
would wake up one day and be a writer -- but I didn't do
it. That has a lot to do with the way women are brought
up: you expect that things will happen to you, not that
you should go and pursue them. So I dropped the Ph.D.,
went home, and wrote. For many years she wrote short stories, and in 1972
was approached by an editor who suggested she string a
series of shorts stories together into a longer novel. The
result was her brilliantly acclaimed first novel, Rough
, an intimate psychological portrait of a marriage in
trouble. Perhaps because of her family background, as well as
her years of studying European literature, Schwartz feels
an affinity to 19th-century writers. Marcel Proust and
Henry James are her literary idols and she was also influenced
by the poets, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Keats. The way they use language has remained in my ear, she
says, and in my writing I try to keep a sense of the stages
the language has passed through, and the way poets use
it. She acknowledges that she is going against the current
literary trend with its spare style but isn't particularly
concerned about the criticism. She says, I can't write
that way because I simply don't see life that way. For me,
every gesture, every sentence, every interaction is taught
with meaning, with layers of complexity, and I can't write
as if that weren't true. The Fatigue Artist is Schwartz's fifth novel, and her
most autobiographical. In 1991, after a period of great
stress, she found herself sick with Chronic Fatigue
Syndrome. For three or four months, she lay in bed with
only the strength to talk on the phone. In many ways, the
calls were life sustaining, and as she gradually felt better.
She began to write down the anecdotes and stories her
friends told her, as well as her own observations of what
was going on around her in the contemporary world.
Determined to use what life had to offer, she turned the
illness into a witty and humorous novel of introspection
and healing. When I noticed all these...things happening
around me, I kept thinking, I'll use it, I'll use it, she says.
It's not going to be a waste of time. I have a friend, a
very old, close friend, and whenever we're going through
anything difficult, we say to each other, 'Why worry?
Why? Some day all of this will become literature.' Lynne Sharon Schwartz currently lives in New York
City with her husband and has taught writing and literature
at Columbia, Boston, and Rice universities and at the
Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. She has
received numerous awards, and has been given grants for
her fiction by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation
and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her newest
book, Ruined by Reading, will be published in May. OTHER WORKS BY LYNNE SHARON SCHWARTZ:

  • Rough Strife

  • Balancing Acts

  • Disturbances in the Field

  • Leaving Brooklyn

  • A Lynne Sharon Schwartz Reader: Selected Prose and Poetry

  • The Melting Pot and Other Subversive Stories

  • Aquatinted with the Night

Reading Group Discussion Points Other Books With Reading Group Guides


In the months after her husband's violent death, narrator Laura, 40, comes down with chronic fatigue syndrome, a little understood illness of the immune system. The disease prompts Laura to meditate on her companionable but loveless marriage, her affairs with a philandering actor and a staid lawyer and her pursuit of self-discipline through the study of tai chi. Schwartz (Leaving Brooklyn) considers the notion of illness as performance art and suggests that nobly suffering disease can become akin to a life's work; she also makes implicit comparisons to the psychic and physical ills afflicting society. One doctor observes that Laura's illness is the result of ``modern life''‘``The environment's messed up, the air, the food.'' An alternative medical diagnosis, based on the Chinese concept of chi, is not much more helpful, suggesting that Laura's organs are in an ``unbalanced condition'' but will improve as toxins leave her body. The narrative suffers from a surfeit of peripheral characters who fail to move the story forward or draw the narrator out of her self-absorption. Realism, too, takes a back seat here: In real life, a middle-class New Yorker with a vague chronic illness might also see a therapist, haggle with health insurance companies and worry about loss of income. Laura, a novelist of medium repute, is free from all such material concerns. These faults notwithstanding, one follows Laura's introspection and her gradual recovery with real interest. Schwartz's painstaking, literary prose and her sensitive exploration of the themes of illness and healing create a resonant picture of a woman confronting the chaos of contemporary life with humor and intelligence. Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club alternates. (June)

In another warm, poignant novel from the author of Disturbances in the Field (LJ 8/83), Laura, a fortysomething writer living alone in New York City, is trying to cope with the brutal killing of her husband when she is besieged by Chronic Fatigue Virus. Constantly exhausted, Laura struggles with her failing body; her relationship with her current boyfriend, Tim; and her long-standing obsessive affair with an actor named Quinn. Laura's illness becomes a metaphor for the human condition and for the troubles of a generation beset by the specter of AIDS. As Laura searches for a cure for her virus, she rejects traditional Western medicine and explores acupuncture and holistic Chinese medicine with a healer called The Witch. As Laura examines her past, her life is exposed to the reader in this novel, which is both heart-wrenching and comic. Recommended for most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/95.]‘Stephanie Furtsch, Purchase, Free Lib., N.Y.

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