Let the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories.
This book is an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father’s body, an anatomy of our bodies together—specially my dad’s, his body, his relentless body.
This is my research; this is what I now know: the brute facts of existence, the fragility and ephemerality of life in its naked corporeality, human beings as bare, forked animals, the beauty and pathos in my body and his body and everybody else’s body as well.
Accept death, I always seem to be saying.
Accept life, is his entirely understandable reply.
Why am I half in love with easeful death? I just turned 50. As Martin Amis has said, “Who knows when it happens, but it happens. Suddenly you realize that you’re switching from saying ‘Hi’ to saying ‘Bye.’ And it’s a full-time job: death. You really have to wrench your head around to look in the other direction, because death’s so apparent now, and it wasn’t apparent before. You were intellectually persuaded that you were going to die, but it wasn’t a reality.” So, too, for myself, being the father of an annoyingly vital 13-year-old girl only deepens these feelings. I’m no longer athletic (really bad back—more on this later). Natalie is. After a soccer game this season, a parent of one of the players on the other team came up to her and said, “Turn pro.”
Why, at 97, is my father so devoted to longevity per se, to sheer survival?
He is—to me—cussedly, maddeningly alive and interesting, but I also don’t want to romanticize him. He’s life force as life machine—exhausting and exhaustive. Rest in peace? Hard to imagine.
Mark Harris, trying to explain why he thought Saul Bellow was a better writer than any of his contemporaries, said Bellow was simply more alive than anyone else, and there’s something of that in my father. D.H. Lawrence was said to have lived as if he were a man without skin. That, too, is my father: I keep on urging him to don skin, and he keeps declining.
I seem to have an Oedipal urge to bury him in a shower of death data. Why do I want to cover my dad in early shroud? He’s strong and he’s weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow.
New York Times bestseller
Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, TimeOut Chicago
One of the 25 best books of the year, Artforum
Best Reads of 2008, Salon
One of the 20 best nonfiction books of 2008, Seattle Times
One of 50 best books of the year, Amazon
Powell’s Books New Favorite, Staff Pick
“Many writers aim to capture the human condition in all its variety, audacity, and contradiction, but few can claim to get as close to their target as Shields. . . . [a] truly original vision brought to fruition.”–Josh Rosenblatt, The Austin Chronicle
“Mix equal parts anatomy and autobiography, science and self-disclosure, physiology and family history; shake, stir. [S]immer over a low-grade fever of mortality. . . a terrible beauty of a book is born.”–Thomas Lynch, The Boston Globe
“Enthralling. . . . Fascinating. . . . Ultimately, the humanity of Shields’s interior and exterior exploration is what makes The Thing About Life–and life itself–worthwhile.”–Meredith Maran, San Francisco Chronicle
“An edifying, wise, unclassifiable mixture of filial love and Oedipal rage.”–Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
“Mr. Shields is a sharp-eyed, self-deprecating, at times hilarious writer. Approaching the flat line of the last page, we want more.”–Stephen Bates, The Wall Street Journal
“A primer on aging and death for those who take theirs without the sugar. . . . There’s a comfort to be found in this sober investigation of mortality, in Shields’s clear-eyed look at the ways in which we come undone.”–Benjamin Alsup, Esquire