The Inevitable:
Contemporary Writers Confront Death

Norton, 2011, Coeditor with Bradford Morrow

Excerpt

Birth is not inevitable. Life certainly isn’t. The sole inevitability of existence, the only absolute consequence of being alive, is death. As Jamaica Kincaid succinctly put it, “Inevitable to life is death and not inevitable to death is life.” Or, in J.M. Coetzee’s words, “That, finally, is all it means to be alive: to be able to die.” Whereas once one could frame mortality within the faithful ideology of an afterlife, now many can no longer speak with assurance about the immortality of the soul, the timelessness of art, the consolation of philosophy, or the everlasting reach of heaven. Where does this leave us? How do we face death? What is death and how does it touch upon life?

In posing these questions to twenty contemporary writers, we understood we were asking them to speak about the unspeakable, envision the unseeable. From their brave and eloquent responses, grieving and dancing in the face of the abyss, grew the central argument of the book: here is an early 21st-century attempt to look at death from distinctly different points of view, by writers who see death as a brute biological fact that does not necessarily guarantee some passageway to eternal peace or punishment. Each essay evokes death in its endless guises, and speaks to its author’s unique philosophy on this most difficult of subjects, even as it opens a window for the reader to imagine death alongside the meditating essayist. And while this gathering may center on death, it is ultimately about the existential fact of our ineffable selves, our mortal bodies, death’s fragile “other half”: life itself.

 

Reviews

A collection of extraordinary essays ranging from the life cycles of flies to reflections on a ’70s-era porn film, the “romance of old cemeteries,” and “ghost bikes” as memorials to traffic victims. . . . Often poetic and at times funny or gruesome while exposing raw grief, the writers—Mark Doty, Jonathan Safran, Geoff Dyer, Annie Dillard, to name a few—tackle the subject of death with honesty and courage.” —Publishers Weekly

A remarkably accomplished and buoyantly provocative anthology.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Compiling essays that don’t hold up religion as an absolution of the problems of life, Shields and Morrow invite readers to face those problems directly. [O]ne of this anthology’s strengths is that in featuring so many writers it has a chance of having something for every reader. You’ll find twenty writers here who are … giving sustained attention to this most final subject and thereby offering what might be your best hope for redemption.”—Rain Taxi

“Editors Shields and Morrow have put together a heavy but thoroughly interesting collection of essays in The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death. The level of thinking and, moreover, the level of writing in this collection are excellent. The Inevitable is an engaging book and is, at times, quite serious, and for that reason, I would suggest giving yourself plenty of time to savor the writing, to ruminate over questions posed by the writers. I highly recommend this book.”—Book Browse

“The idea of gathering some of the finest writers of our time sounds like a tricky conceit, the literary equivalent of a ‘concept album.’ But damned if they don’t pull it off, struggling to come to terms with the Distinguished Gentleman awaiting us all, in a series of moving, but not maudlin, reflections on how to mark time before the final reckoning. Overall, the quality of writing in this collection soars.”—Paul Wilner, Obit

“[T]he essays, each one worthy in itself, provide insight and often comfort  from ‘the inevitable.'”—Jane Juska, San Francisco Chronicle

“[T]he late David Foster Wallace: ‘I strongly suspect a big part of [a writer’s] job is to aggravate [the] sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people…’ It’s a tall order, and these excellent essays fill it. [A] thought-provoking anthology.”—Lisa Shea, Elle Magazine

“Starred Review. A wonderfully speculative patchwork quilt on the meaning of life and death.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Though one might expect a funereal pall to have settled over a book about death, these essays are as sharp, surprising, and provocative as they are sad.”—Anne Fadiman

“[P]oignant, heartfelt essays…[S]eriously considered, highly literate analyses…raise the bar for more philosophical readers searching for alternatives to age-old traditions perpetuated in religious dogma.”—Dale Farris, Library Journal

“Either because of the seriousness of the subject, or because of the acumen of the editors, these essays make for a singularly powerful, substantial, and thoughtful collection. A celebration of good writing, under the auspices of the grim reaper.”—Phillip Lopate

“ [A] diversity of views, yet a consistently high level of thought. Their eloquent introduction sets up these pieces, several of them previously published. Suffusing the collection as a whole is the humility expressed by Lynne Tillman at the end of her essay: “Of death, mortals are absolutely ignorant. The dead, fortunately, are beyond caring.” Ultimately, these readings may bring the reader some comfort to realize, perhaps again, that we are all in this together.” —Alan Moores