You don’t win or lose a puzzle. You solve it. It is the lodestone of Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s career.
What he has learned in service of his calling is that cancer is a puzzle, not a war. It offers no victors or losers. No battles.
The lesson is as simple as the one he tells in this essay: Searching eagerly for the identity of a leukemia victim in Boston, he was getting nowhere. Tucked into a few pages handed to him by chance in New Delhi was the answer.
The puzzle metaphor could stand for science itself, which, throughout history, has been as much the child of serendipity and a keen, observant eye as the product of a well-kept log.
He was born in India in 1970 to an automobile executive and a schoolteacher. The family was partial to books — Sid spent his childhood reading Bengali novelists, whose works seemed to parallel that of 19th-century English novelists. But he read Auden and Chekhov, too. With an editor aunt, he regularly visited bookstalls on College Street in Calcutta. The very smell was alluring: old volumes, fingered by generations, passed on lovingly for 200 years.
Reading came first. Science, later.
What struck him early on were the storytelling abilities of Darwin, whose tight description of a very long plot — evolution itself — was mesmerizing. He was fascinated, too, by Lewis Thomas, the physician-poet whose landmark book, “The Lives of a Cell,” was a well-wrought fusion of art and science. At Stanford, he wrote his thesis on Thomas. He went on to study medicine at Oxford and Harvard. Today he is an oncologist, lab scientist and professor at Columbia University — married to American sculptor Sarah Sze.
When he tried to write a proposal for what he wanted to do, a sweeping story of cancer from the patients’ point of view, he couldn’t do it. “I tried 30 or so times. But it sounded so arrogant, it paralyzed me.” By finding moments at odd hours — in bed, at rest, “in empty spaces of the day,” he was able to complete the entire book.
“The Emperor of All Maladies” is a brilliant work, winner of the latest Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. By its very concept of reducing something previously thought irreducible into a uniform epic, it teaches us that maladies can be stubborn, yet volatile, like life itself. We may strive to understand cancer in test tubes, but sometimes it is in words that it becomes a living, breathing thing.