Not Yet is a memoir in which Wayson Choy pays careful attention to signs, recalling the advice of his elders in Paper Shadows, his earlier memoir about his childhood in Vancouver's Chinatown.
The signs in Not Yet begin as physiological ones ("a sudden acidic tingling - a burning sensation ... a hacking fit"), symptoms, in fact, of his brush with death when, in 2001, he suffered a combined asthma-heart attack in Toronto.
Much of the memoir pays scrupulous, clinical attention to the facts of mortality, circling the rituals of medical sedation, surgery and intensive care.
Everything from tubes and catheters, syringes and needles, opiates and chemicals, to life-saving monitors and induced sedation is part of his repertoire of signs. In his 20s, he believed that he would never be afraid of dying or that he would die painlessly. But now, in his 60s, he has a vision of Cervantes's Father Death, along with other hallucinations, a consequence of ICU psychosis.
He almost dies twice, for his heart fails him a second time, four years after the 2001 multiple cardiac events. Consequently, Choy seems to be writing against uncertainty and for his life. His representation of illness and recovery is as sensitively and sensuously rendered as immigrant experience was in Paper Shadows and in his first novel, The Jade Peony , with the same degree of candour, humour and authenticity - perhaps because he reaches back to his childhood repertoire of Chinese myths and cultural references.
Choy's storytelling craft enables his book to transcend the illness and suffering he endured and to become a virtual journal of his fighting through the soul's darkness to light. He discovers what Susan Sontag's artist-as-exemplary-sufferer discovers: "the use of suffering in the economy of art - conceived of not as an end to suffering, but as the ultimate way of acting on suffering."
His isolation because of his near-death experience leads him to imaginative ways of acting on his suffering. The squeak of his metal gurney turns into his mother's voice (when he was 5) urging him to be a brave soldier. His half-dreams balloon into cartoon nightmares of towering Gates of Life, overlooking "a huge stone temple, its giant pillars carved with fire-breathing serpents, creatures resurrected from the stories spun by Chinatown elders."
And near the end of his memoir, when two friends present him with the gift of a bracelet with two horned dragons locked together, this becomes for him "an explicit warning of interesting times ahead." And indeed, not long after, he suffers a massive heart attack that requires quadruple bypass surgery.
Not Yet is transformed by these signs into a story of heroic transcendence of uncertainty. Though Choy hears in the beeps of his hospital machinery the voices of his ancestors warning him that, without a wife, he will one day die alone, he discovers he has strong bonds of community and extended family with men and women, young and old, who stay by his side, whether he is in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
They include Karl, Marie and their daughter, Kate (Choy's goddaughter), who share a lucky house with him: craggy-faced Gary (wearing a Viking beard), his wife, Jean, and their daughter (a nurse); Jake and Alice, who provide "sheltering generosity"; two young medical attendants who arouse his homoerotic feelings; and the director and cinematographer on the documentary film about Confucius, for which Choy (in physical recovery from his first major medical ordeal) does the narration on location in China.
In his memoir, Choy is able to modulate his point of view, merging past and present deftly, as in this passage:
Through amplified lashes, like a squinting alien, I glimpsed Jean and Gary.They were standing beside me, huddled together, Jean in tears. Gentle, bearded Gary held on to her. Gary reached out and touched my forehead.
I was not alone!
Family's here, I thought, and suddenly an expanse of bright green lawn opened up before my mind's eye, sweeping me back thirty-six years. I am waiting for Gary's approach. He strides towards where I am sitting; he is twenty-five once more, tanned and limber, looking rugged in his army shorts. His craggy face, his beard, remind me of a marauding Viking. Someone's lucky catch, I think.
Though this passage lacks the dramatic and comic texture of the Buddhist exorcism ritual in Vancouver (when Choy tried to rid himself of two ghostly presences), it has a candour that exposes Choy's soul as a writer. Through all the nagging fears of death, he shows empathy and the spontaneous imaginings and passions of an anomalous, vulnerable being. Weighty with documentary detail, yet buoyed by fancy and the author's optimism in the integrity of his own self (with faults intact), Not Yet ends with yet another sign - this one, happily, evidence that Wayson Choy is the same person he was before almost dying, twice.
If it is true (as he writes in Paper Shadows) that "one's life should always be read twice, once for experience, then once again for astonishment," Choy's Not Yet is a double reading of his own as-yet-incomplete life. It is a pleasure to have his continuing presence (haunted, though it is by the weight of the past and his own physical frailties) in our community of storytellers.
Keith Garebian is an award-winning writer of non-fiction and poetry.