Review: Lump - Nathan Whitlock
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Published: Dundurn Press, August 2023
My Rating: 1/5 stars
Nathan Whitlocks latest novel is blurbed as “a darkly satirical contemporary story about marriage, motherhood, class, and cancer. Told through multiple perspectives from the people that surround her, we follow the unraveling of a woman’s life after she receives 3 lifechanging pieces of news in a single day: her husband is cheating, she’s pregnant, and that strange lump in her breast is cancerous. Despite that bold set-up, and the fact that I’m not against a good piece of dark comedy, Lump takes the lead as my worst read of 2023 thus far. As a “casual reader” I simply found nothing to enjoy about it. As a cancer-survivor and sensitivity reader on the topic, I actually detested it.
I have many thoughts on this book, so will try to keep this as concise as possible. I think the author had an interesting idea on the story he wanted to tell. My dislike boils down to the way he chose to do so, specifically to three elements: the satire/humor, the characters, and the overarching question of “who is telling this story” that kept nagging me. Let’s break it down:
Let me preface this by saying that I’m not of the opinion that “you don’t joke about cancer”. I’ve personally joked about cancer whilst having (had) cancer, and I believe humor can be a healthy way to work through big life events, if it’s done in good faith. Lump just wasn’t funny to me. Much of its satire relies on very tried and tired tropes of “dunking on privileged upper-middle class folks” and the stereotypes that come with that. All the men are immature pigs that think with an organ located a bit lower than their brain. All the women are shallow and seem to lack a brain all together… Good satire can shine in its ability to hold up a mirror in which we can see ourselves/our situations from a different perspective. Lump presents an angle we’ve seen time and time again, bringing nothing new to the table, and thereby losing its sting.
The characters: going hand in hand with the previous point; almost every character is a detestable stereotype of themselves. It makes it difficult to relate to them, despite sometimes genuinely commiserative circumstances. It also often had me questioning which part of their stereotype was meant to be funny, and which part was the author actually thinking this is the way women talk to each other. Take this gem of a quote from one character, commenting on the other women in her yoga-class.
“Every woman out there looks like a fuck-bot. They all have toddlers with them, but they’re as skinny as rakes. I bet they get C-sections so they don’t get stretched out.”
I honestly cannot tell if this is meant as a joke for the reader to be in on (in which case, it’s a tasteless one), or if this is actually just a thinly veiled bad take by the author… Do their choices seem ridiculous for comedy-sake, or just because their motivations are poorly developed. Cat is the only character equipped with at least some potential, yet she’s strangely underused, despite being the focal point of the story. Her POV makes up less than half of the novel, and we strangely cut away to side characters at vital points in her story, only to skip back to her, far after the important event has taken place off-page. Large parts of Cat’s story feel unresolved and messy because of these jump-cuts. Most notably; her entire character arc is left unresolved in the end because of a similar time-skip.
Who is telling this story? The odd POV-choices led me to an even bigger question however; who’s story is actually being told here, and by who? That all ties in to my ultimate dislike, and reason for rating it a 1-star. As a cancer-survivor, I love to read stories from people to have a story to tell about cancer, and its impacts on a life. Nathan Whitlock didn’t have that. He wanted to tell a story about marriage, privilege etc., and used cancer as a plot-point- a catalyst- in it. There is something inherently disingenuous about a healthy man (with no personal experience with cancer at the time of writing this novel), writing a story about a woman with cancer. Breast-cancer, mind you… To his credit: Whitlock actually addresses this in his foreword. He mentions being diagnosed with cancer himself after writing Lump, and feeling like it was a kind of karmic justice for writing a story that wasn’t his originally. I’m sorry for his experience, and I feel horrible he felt this way about his story looking back. It still doesn’t change the bitter aftertaste the story left in my mouth personally.
I’ve spoken about the use of cancer as a vehicle to add a layer of emotion to a different story, many times before now. It’s a topic I’m sensitive to, as it feels exploitative of something so lifechanging. In many ways, Lump reminded me of a Dutch novel Komt een Vrouw bij de Dokter, in which a man goes on a cheating-spree which he justifies because of his grief over his wife’s recent cancer-diagnosis. It’s one of my most hated books ever, and Lump gave me some of those same feelings of exploitation and emotional manipulation. Overall, I appreciate the attempt and the risks this author took, but I cannot recommend it with a clear conscious.
Many thanks to Dundurn Press for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.