Our lives are guided by addiction. Depending on the flexibility in your definition of the word, most everything in our lives is tied up in it. Addiction comes in many different flavors — from healthy (fitness, knowledge) to unhealthy (junk food, drinking) — but the effect on the identity is the same. Once we have become accustomed to something, it seems that it has become a part of us. We are unable to easily separate ourselves from that other person, the addict within. Gregor Hens’ new non-fiction work, Nicotine, is an exploration of one particular niche in the addiction dialogue. Hens takes the reader through his personal history, exploring the nuances of one smoker’s life.
As a good writer should, Hens first establishes his foundation. In this case, he begins his book with the clarifying statement: “I’ve smoked well over a hundred thousand cigarettes in my life and each and every one of those cigarettes meant something to me, I even enjoyed a few of them. I’ve smoked OK, great, and terrible cigarettes…”, and he continues for over a page professing his love for the cigarette. So, the writer has established his motivation, his inspiration, his muse, the lowly cigarette, but he also anticipates the blow back from the ‘cancer stick’ hating reader: “I regret nothing. Every cigarette I’ve ever smoked was a good cigarette.” Oddly enough, somewhere mixed up in this love-laced confession, he admits that he quit, and his writing here is just a catharsis.
The way in which Hens explores this addiction is through telling his narrative. This narrative can be both illuminating and downright dull. Some of the personal stories shine a light on his addiction, and some, well, some just seem like the guy wanted to keep on talking. When he describes his first cigarette — “I felt dizzy but it was as if the mild nausea that I’d detected with an almost scientific interest hadn’t seized me, but rather a living entity within me; something… that I could claim as part of myself” — it’s a poetic revelation to the reader, but when he describes his trip to his deceased aunt’s home, it leaves us wondering, “What is the connection here?”
Throughout the book Hens tells us his nicotine-laced story, and the trend continues. Sometimes he blows us up with a well-placed event that gives us some much needed understanding of his relationship to nicotine, and sometimes we get the feeling he needed to fill a space with some words.
Hens’ narrative is important to the book though; it’s the glue that holds the book together. As more of Hens’ life story is unraveled, the reader begins to realize that this is not a Malcolm Gladwell-ian data collection with cute anecdotes leading to a clear philosophy. This is a deeply personal, poetic journey taken by one writer and entirely about said writer. Hens is a smoker through and through. He has never been anything but a smoker, whether before, during, or after his addiction. This book is not a self-help text designed to assist in smoke cessation. This is his attempt at a pointed travel memoir, a confessional tale of one person’s life long interaction with the tobacco leaf. It’s an attempt at a Travels with Charley for the smoking set, you could say. No clear answers are given, and no clear strategies are shared. This is not utilitarian. This is literature.
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As a point of comparison, I re-read David Sedaris’ quitting story, “The Smoking Section” from his collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Sedaris is predominantly a comic writer, so when he goes off on a tangent, the reader just lays in wait for a punchline, a joke, a quirky observation to lighten the mood. Hens has no interest in this. Whereas Sedaris says, “I hated leaving a hole in the smoking world, and so I recruited someone to take my place… but I’m pretty sure that after high school, this girl would have started anyway…” I laughed out loud and nearly choked on my tea. But when Hens says, “Light up if you feel like it… Smoke one for me. I shouldn’t care if you smoke or not. But as you know, I have become a vicarious smoker,” there is not a hint of humor. Hens is dead serious.
That seems to be the point of this endeavor for Hens — sober and serious discourse on what should always be a sober and serious subject: addiction. As he nears the end of his book, Hens glides into his purpose for writing such a piece: “…we can hardly speak of a true autonomy. Addiction is what clearly places this before our eyes. And dealing with addiction is what allows the first, perhaps still timid steps toward some kind of self-management.” So, once again, this is not a guidebook, this is a treatise of why you need to figure it out for yourself. Tell your own narrative. Weigh your own options. As Hens said after resisting the temptation to relapse, “I listened to myself, and I made a decision.” He thinks you should do the same.