To Die Alone: ​​On Coco Picard’s “The Healing Circle”

HOPE, WHEN HELD past the point of reason, is liable to be transformed into a certain kind of absurdity. Over the course of The Healing Circle — the latest novel from writer, artist, and curator Coco Picard — a woman and her loved ones walk the narrow line between hope and delusion as she battles cancer.

The Healing Circle follows Ursula, or, as the story’s anonymous narrator calls her, Mother, on her journey to beat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Ursula’s journey is not centered on chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation. With the support of the Goop-esque Healing Circle, a group of affluent California women, Ursula dedicates herself to pursue alternative healing methods. The list of attempted remedies is endless — Ursula and the Healing Circle look for a cure in urine-dipped celestial charts, yoga, investigations of past lives, and pole-dancing classes. For a while, these endeavors serve as entertaining distractions, but over time, their ineffectiveness proves unbearable. At last, frustrated by the futility of these alternative therapies in improving her condition, Ursula heads to Germany to receive a so-called “miracle cure” that rouses skepticism from her children and unnerves even the most devoted Healing Circle participants. Undeterred, and brimming with quiet desperation and resignation, Ursula makes the trip to Munich.

Alone in a hospital room, Ursula spends her days fending off a bothersome “wood-nymph nurse” whose name she can never quite remember, or adjusting the angle of her hospital bed while gazing out the window at the woods beyond the hospital. Separated from her friends and children in California by thousands of miles, Ursula tries to remain hopeful during calls to her children, who are pessimistic about Ursula’s odds.

The timeline of The Healing Circle is a winding one. Unbound by chronological order, the story jumps back and forth in time. Each chapter is a vignette in a different time and place from the one preceding it, providing another piece to the puzzle. Fragments of Ursula’s experiences with the Healing Circle during her mission for a cure are intertwined with other memories — Ursula’s childhood in Argentina, moments spent with her own children, and days spent with brother Virgil. Despite the nonlinear narrative, throughout Ursula’s many flashbacks, the steady drumbeat of Ursula’s present-moment experience in the hospital provides a throughline to orient the story and give the plot momentum. Picard’s gentle prose is unexpectedly forceful in impact, and there’s a constancy to it that also helps to ground the novel against the unsteadiness of its plot. Traumatic divorces, deaths, and midnight escapes alike are expressed coolly, and succinctly, with no chapter of the novel stretching on for more than three pages.

In her writing, Picard never shies away from the absurd, nor does she ever fail to give nonhuman characters their moment to shine: in her 2017 graphic novel, Chronicles of Fortune, Picard dives into the bizarre, profound nature of everyday life — her protagonist, a superhero with a bad case of ennui, goes on adventures with the story’s colorful deuteragonists, who include a mountain, a stove, and a moth. So it is no surprise when Ursula strikes a friendship with an aloe plant, whom she names Madame Blavatsky. Ursula forms a strange bond with Madame Blavatsky, who remains by her side through the duration of her hospital stay. As Ursula’s physical condition fluctuates, so too does Madame Blavatsky’s, who drops and grows new arms faster than Ursula can count them. Through limb-droppings and repottings, Madame Blavatsky continues to grow. Nature persists, while Ursula looks on, unable to perform basic bodily functions.

In the book’s acknowledgments, Picard describes The Healing Circle as a work of psychedelic fiction. The word “psychedelic” doesn’t quite describe the novel’s prose, which remains quite stolid through the text’s most hallucinatory moments. Even the oddest interactions with Madame Blavatsky somehow still feel normal when expressed through Picard’s temperate writing. However, there is something inherently hallucinogenic about holding a conversation with a plant, and many of Ursula’s experiences do indeed have a psychedelic tinge to them: her relationship with Madame Blavatsky, the myriad hallucinogenic drugs she tries with the Healing Circle, and an ever- present general haziness that only gets worse as she grows sicker and sicker. Adding to the trippiness of The Healing Circle is the fact that the plot jumps back and forth through time, eschewing a straight chronological line for a swirling tie-dye spiral instead. The Healing Circle adopts a quieter sort of psychedelia, one that manifests in unassuming everyday moments.

Ursula pursues the miracle cure against the wishes of her oncologist, family, and eventually the Healing Circle. At first, Ursula seems genuinely hopeful that her condition will improve, correcting those around her who say “if’” instead of “when” in conversations regarding her remission. Over time, however, her hope fades, replaced by a self-aware impractical stubbornness that acts as a hollow relief against the weight of acknowledgment. Picard delves deeply into the idea of ​​faith throughout The Healing Circle, forcing doubt and Adamance to war with one another time and time again as Ursula slowly comes to recognize the severity of not just her illness but, through accusatory, tearful calls with her children, the depth of her isolation. There’s a moment when a self-pity clash with self-preservation, and it becomes clear that while a part of Ursula has come to Munich to get better, a part of her has also come to Munich to die alone, far away from everyone she has ever known.

The Healing Circle wrests together many opposing themes — generosity versus selflessness, authenticity versus spuriousness, acceptance versus denial — in a bleak sort of humor that leaves you with a tight knot in your stomach. The sickness of a loved one calls for compassion, yet that compassion often coexists with a narcissistic feeling of despair and misplaced anger, a feeling of how could you do this to me? Picard explores this dynamic through Ursula’s relationship with her children — as Ursula lays dying, her children frequently bemoan the loss of their inheritance, which they believe their mother has squandered on a sham cure. Ursula’s social media–obsessed daughter Bunny desperately jockeys to get a job working for the Kardashians; her son George runs off with her ex-nurse after he is unable to complete his dissertation. She tries to convince everyone that everything will be okay. As Ursula and her loved ones fail to keep their emotions hidden, Madame Blavatsky remains refreshingly inscrutable. Amid what is ultimately a painful story, Picard scatters a number of these moments, ridiculous in their mundanity and profoundly resonant in their accuracy.

The ultimate message of The Healing Circle is that death is inescapable, no matter how many remedies we pursue, no matter how strangely hard we struggle to survive, and no matter how defiantly we rebuke its inevitability. This insight is nothing new. However, Picard explores this age-old truth in a fresh light, with a subtle tongue-in-cheek wit that recontextualizes the magnitude of death by always holding it towards the periphery. Ursula spends the entirety of The Healing Circle Inching towards death, and yet her dying is never exactly the central action of the novel. She lives both in the background and the foreground of her own story, for as she gets sicker and sicker, the world still turns most predictably — her loved ones are always making ill-fated decisions, the politicians are always bringing the world to the brink of war, and the Kardashians are always Kardashian-ing. An abundance of flashbacks occupies almost as much of the story as the present moment does, drawing attention away from Ursula’s condition. Picard steps back from a cultural fixation on death and broadens the scope, giving her story the freedom to direct its attention elsewhere when needed. Even the actual moment of Ursula’s death is only implied at the end of the book, underscoring the fact that the event itself is not to be prioritized.

The Healing Circle asks, with a wry smile, what it means to live, what it means to die. The question is never directly responded to, but towards the end of Ursula’s life, an answer is suggested. Ursula reminisces on a day spent on the Atlantic City Boardwalk with her brother and remembers taking in the sight of the rippling ocean: “The view is endless. Anything might happen now.”

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Babi Oloko hails from New Jersey and received her BA in history and literature as well as art history from Harvard University in December 2021. She writes art reviews, personal essays, and fiction for various digital publications, and hopes to write a fantasy book centering Black voices.

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