Abstract: This article lays out how Kalanithi’s international bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist uses the infrastructures of literature to negotiate the infrastructures and the masculinist values of the medical system. The text chronicles how a promising young male neurosurgeon becomes a terminal patient himself. This radical change of perspective is represented in ambivalent terms of embodiment, vulnerability, and relational being, and as a fall from the masculinist grace of medical discursive power. The text presents the medical hospital as a social space that, in its high-tech efficiency, is ill-equipped for the negotiation of the personally and culturally contradictory process of dying that, in late capitalist societies since the 1980s, predominantly takes place in its confines. With its literary means, the text explores a critical perspective on late capitalist societies’ high-tech medical system that is geared towards the control of disease and cost at the expense of a supportive view of life’s end. With its literary address of a neurosurgeon’s experience of dying, When Breath Becomes Air offers an alternative form of knowledge production to currently dominant medical, care, insurance and legal discourses on death, and it advocates an ease of narrowly masculinist notions of control as key to more resonant social relations.
Keywords: literature; medical system; vulnerability; illness; death; masculinity; relationality; resonance