Norton, 2011, Bradford Morrow co-editor
David Shields and Bradford Morrow
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.
Family naturally serves as a touchstone in many of these essays. David Gates’s “Death Watch” is ostensibly an evocation of the deaths of his mother, stepmother, and especially his father, but it is at least as much a searing self-portrait of a dead man walking: “I can’t make sense of this story, but I see now that it’s been the only one I’ve ever told.” In a similar way, Robert Clark makes both a literal and figurative search for his dead sister, Charles Dickens’s childhood home, and the religious ecstasy of Thomas Aquinas even as he searches for the past, the sources of his art, and the ground of his faith that consists of searching, yearning, and missing: “I would like God to make me present to Himself, and to her [his sister], and to everything I thought was lost or missing.” After her husband’s unexpected death, Joyce Carol Oates is forced to
re-envision her life while contemplating that of her partner, work through the acutely painful process of suddenly being a widow, alone in a house filled with the memories and artifacts of a decades-long marriage. In “The Siege,” Oates confronts the loneliness and guilt of the survivor, while learning how to get through days and nights irrevocably altered by death.
Several essays eulogize mothers in particular; in our beginning is our end. The first half of Kyoko Mori’s “Between the Forest and the Well” evokes her mother’s suicide and evolves into a necessary meditation about the author herself, alone and childless, thinking about death.
“Sometime in my forties,” she writes, “I came to admit the truth: The main problem with death isn’t dying but being dead. Much as I’m afraid of the process, the result is unimaginably worse. I am afraid of death because I believe in nothing.” And yet, Mori’s conclusion is stunning,
invigorating: “My decision-making practice is the opposite of memento mori…. I try to choose as though I would have to live forever with the consequences, not as though I might die tomorrow…. In my reverse memento mori, I’ve learned to cheat death, if only in imagination
and metaphor.” In “A Solemn Pleasure,” Melissa Pritchard evokes imagery of landscapes and graveyards far from home while addressing the recent death and cremation of her mother. “She was ash in my home now,” she writes, “powdered and tamped into a hideous shoe-polish brown box, weighing little more than a feather.” Kevin Baker’s “Invitation to the Dance” describes the process by which he finds out that his mother has Huntington’s Disease and then that he has inherited the gene for the disease: “I thought about how giddy I would have been feeling if the results had been negative. I felt like blurting out the news to anyone I encountered: I just found out I will get a fatal disease. But I didn’t. . . . What I really wanted was to live like I always did, taking little care of myself, wasting time worrying over politics, or how the Yankees were doing, or even the banality of other people’s opinions. I wanted my trivialities.”
Many of these essays, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s and Christopher Sorrentino’s, are highly pointillistic—death as content apparently pushing form toward a sort of scattering. In
“Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” Foer proposes a new way of punctuating dialogue to denote unspoken aspects and meanings in conversations within a family that has suffered forty-two heart attacks, while examining the family legacy marked by tragic losses in the concentration camps of World War II. In Sorrentino’s essay, the author makes an argument that digital proliferation—the attempt to leave a record of ourselves not so much in art as in various web presences—avails not as far as death is concerned. “Public mourning says, I am sad,” he writes. “Now show me the film.” Having made this case, he proceeds to offer a moving tribute to his recently deceased father, the writer Gilbert Sorrentino, weaving polemical with personal thoughts.
Several essays resolve the issue of the difficulty of writing about death by coming at the subject from several angles simultaneously, working toward the subject of death through collage or in triptychs. (Why triptychs? Birth, life, death, perhaps?) Diane Ackerman mourns the loss of a beloved friend in an intimate, moving passage that floats between two linguistic flights touching upon mortality and eternity. Greg Bottoms’s “Grace Street” is a gracefully understated triptych as well: three apparently unconnected scenes from his life fifteen years ago, when he was living in a down-and-out section of Richmond, all death-haunted. In “Cezanne’s Colors,” Brenda Hillman writes about the deaths of three loved ones in an essay that gestures more overtly toward the mystical than most of the other essays in the book do: “The diagnosis for everyone is death, yet even in times of thinking about the afterlife, I’ve thought of being part of an endless system of metaphors.” Imagining consciousness as being like a bursting-with-life park near her house, in which the cycle of life and death endlessly flow, she concludes that existing knowingly within that vivid world is sufficient.
Striking an altogether different tone, Lance Olsen’s “Lessness”—a collage of personal anecdotes, quotations, and aphorisms—evokes the irony of humankind’s condition and the ways in which our “deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation, but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.” His essay is also full of gallows humor: “My wife’s grandmother refused to be buried, insisting on being entombed in a mausoleum instead because, she said, she didn’t want to get dirty.” Robin Hemley, in his “Field Notes for the Graveyard Enthusiast,” offers yet another response to the inevitable by developing a taxonomy of known and unknown graveyards, but the taxonomy dissolves. “All the dead become anonymous in time,” he concludes, embracing the eventual disappearance of every individual. “My gravestone will be blank.”
While the theme of death is the obvious commonality here, we believe these essays display a remarkable range of differing voices. Sallie Tisdale, in her entomologically inspired
“The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies,” uses the Dipteral order of insects as a metaphor for death, evoking the transience of their brief adult lives and the repulsion and attraction she feels toward them. She talks about “decay as a kind of perfect” and wants to be able to stare at death without succumbing to it—being “in the fire” and still living one’s life. Peter Straub, in “Inside Story, shares with us one of his most cherished and defining secret childhood moments, a near-fatal accident that colored his entire life as a writer and a man, the roiling depths of which come into focus on his analyst’s couch. Lynne Tillman’s “The Final Plot” is an unblinking meditation on language and death. It addresses the subject from the point of view that death is the one subject no writer can address autobiographically, that the experience is nourished by the deaths of others, concluding “Of death, mortals are absolutely ignorant. The dead, fortunately, are beyond
caring.” In “Bijou,” Mark Doty describes a 1972 art porn movie of that same title, while remembering a 1980s East Village sex club, and meditates on the deathly cloud of AIDS that emerged during that era, seeing sex as a kind of affirmation of death. Geoff Dyer’s “What Will Survive of Us” discusses the worldwide phenomenon of ghost bikes—bicycles painted white and placed at the scenes of fatal bike accidents to memorialize those who died, seeing them as a creative, moving improvement on the shabbiness of the more grandiose memorial art of officialdom. As with so many of these meditations, finally we’re all just trying to figure out how to say goodbye.
The concluding essay, Annie Dillard’s brief but haunting “This is the Life,” asks: If there is no transcendental meaning, and we know we are mortal, how do we construct a life with value?
“You have seen an ordinary bit of what is real,” she writes, “the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under the slowly shifting stars. Then what?” Here is the very question every writer in this anthology pursues.
David Foster Wallace, who so often set forth the most difficult questions, said, “You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of [a writer’s] job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” This anthology is an overt attempt to do exactly what Wallace called for. To aggravate exactly this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, and articulate, even illuminate, the possibilities of living redemption.
“When editors Shields (The Thing About Life Is One Day You’ll Be Dead) and Morrow (The Diviner’s Tale) approached 20 writers with the idea for this anthology, their requirements were simple: address the subject of death and “speak about the unspeakable.” What resulted is 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. In one essay, Diane Ackerman (Dawn Light) describes “the sudden monstrous subtraction” she felt on learning of a close friend’s death. Sallie Tisdale (Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom) points out, “It is our peculiar punishment that we know things change and we want this to be otherwise.” 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
“Dynamically creative writers and editors Shields and Morrow invited 20 exceptional kindred spirits to consider the questions of what death is and how it affects life, and the result is a remarkably accomplished and buoyantly provocative anthology. Horror writer Peter Straub’s account of a near-fatal boyhood accident and shocking out-of-body experience is gloriously chilling. Christopher Sorrentino brilliantly links thoughts about his late father, the elegantly innovative writer Gilbert Sorrentino, with prickly musings on digital mementos intentional and otherwise, including the revealing listing of one individual’s web searches preserved on a creepy site called AOL Stalker. Kyoki Mori writes of her mother’s suicide, and Margo Jefferson ponders suicides among privileged yet nonetheless marginalized young African Americans. Mark Doty untangles the knot of sex and death during the worst of the AIDS tragedies. Robin Hemley visits graveyards. The death of Brenda Hillman’s first husband summons thoughts of Cezanne. Diane Ackerman and Sallie Tisdale closely observe the cycles of nature, and Annie Dillard offers a breathtaking view of humankind’s perpetual busyness and ardor in spite of, or perhaps because of, death.” —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. Though distinct in style, and in the kind of solace it offers, The Inevitable is quite similar to Shields’s earlier book The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Knopf, 2008), in which he arranges a collage of medical facts, reflections on death, details about his own failing body, and observations about his dad’s seemingly indestructible one. One of the things that made that book a winning tragedy is that while his ninety-plus-year-old father seems indestructible, the reader can’t escape the knowledge that he isn’t. And the implication/reminder follows immediately: neither is the reader. So the solace comes not from escaping the specter of death for the length of an entertaining book, or from reading self-assuring promises that no writer is in any position to make, but from the satisfaction that comes from seeking truth. We know that, as Lynne Tillman writes in The Inevitable, “Of death, mortals are absolutely ignorant. The dead, fortunately, are beyond caring.” But in the lead-up to our own deaths, our thinking about the end is of the utmost importance to how we live. Our responses will be as varied as we are—and one of this anthology’s strengths is that in featuring so many writers it has a chance of having something for every reader. Not surprisingly, The Inevitable is wildly quotable. David Foster Wallace, whom Shields and Morrow quote in their introduction, wrote that “a big part of [a writer’s] job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” You’ll find twenty writers here who are doing that same job, giving sustained attention to this most final subject and thereby offering what might be your best hope for redemption.”—Rain Taxi
“Editors David Shields and Bradford 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
“[A] diversity of views, yet a consistently high level of thought. [The] 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, Seattle Times
“Starred Review. A wonderfully speculative patchwork quilt on the meaning of life and death.”—Kirkus Reviews
“[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
“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