In many ways, this is the same book as _In the First Circle_. In both books, plot is mostly tossed out in favor of dozens of slices of life from various people in a collective. It's difficult to identify a common tone of these snapshots, since each character has their own viewpoint and circumstances. A muddled grey maybe? This time the setting is a Soviet cancer ward rather than a Soviet gulag, but the cheerfulness of the stories is about the same.
After reading 750 pages of slice-of-life in _First Circle_, I'm not sure that I needed another 500 pages from _The Cancer Ward_. There are some differences between the books, but they're mostly negative. Both books are semi-auto-biographical, but in _Cancer Ward_ the author's stand in graduates from bit player to main character, and gets a third of the total pages. This is unfortunate since while the author is not bad, he's not really the most interesting character in the book, and his sections veer between seeming somewhat Mary Suish, to taking the piss out of himself. Again, I'm not quite sure what to make of it, whether it is an author who has started to buy into his own fame, an unsparing self portrait, or maybe a self portrait that was meant to be flattering but comes across to modern, enlightened readers such as myself as unflattering. While the author's writing benefits from his lived experiences, he is pretty much a 1950's Russian nationalist with some Tolstoy thrown in, and I don't really know that I need to read his more general musings. Or to put it another way, I do appreciate the experiences he has brought back from the extremes, but don't think he has that much to say about the more everyday parts of life.
There are excellent chapters in this book, and there are themes that it covers that are different from the other gulag novels. And _Cancer Ward_ is a somewhat more optimistic book, in that Stalin has died and past repressions are being rolled back. Still, I can't say that this book produced much in me besides a general feeling of malaise.