Tag Archives: death

And Who Shall I Say Is Calling?

boneclocksOne of David Mitchell’s literary preoccupations is interconnectedness, the way that, as the theory goes, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might change the course of history (or at least the weather).  Or, say, the way that a trapped and depressed FAA contract worker might set a fire that cancels your surprise trip to Chicago to see your dad who’s recovering from a hip replacement (still not over it!).  Mitchell makes connections, so when I’m reading him I see connections.  As I was reading The Bone Clocks, his new novel, in which one of the peripheral characters rides a Norton motorcycle, I happened to see a guy wearing a Norton T-shirt at the diner near my house as I ate brunch with my family.  As I re-read the review of the book in the New York Times Book Review, I noticed that the review underneath it (yes, I still get a hard copy of the paper) referred to events that took place in January 1967, the year my husband was born.  And the world shrinks a little bit, everything stitched together a little tighter.

Perhaps that’s why I was tempted to see so many of the themes of the season in this book, even though there’s nothing remotely Jewish about it (and organized religion generally comes in for a beating – more on that later).  Reading during Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the yamim noraim, the ten days between the New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, I felt like the novel had something to say about so many of the central themes of the holidays: memory, death, rebirth, mortality, choice and free will, and second chances.  These are Mitchell’s touchstones, the big questions he goes back to again and again in all of his novels, but The Bone Clocks brings them together both abstractly – in the form of recurring characters and names, places and events, both within the world of this novel and across his oeuvre – and concretely, as a largish subplot (more later on why it seems like the main plot but isn’t) focuses on a group of immortal souls and their fight against those who would induce immortality by artificial and predatory means.

There is a magical kind of rebirth and resurrection in this novel, but as always the actual magic is just a foil for a consideration of the kind of everyday wonder of life, in this case through the perhaps paradoxical lens of mortality and death.  There are characters in this novel who are willing to fight to the death to live forever, unchanged physically, emotionally, or morally by time and experience, but the most powerful forces in the novel are not supernatural.  Rather, they are the things we experience, and undervalue, every day: love, memory, friendship, community, family.  Even for those who are not immortal, an aging character reflects at the end of the novel, “We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.”  All of us are constantly reborn and resurrected in the memories (and DNA) of others, without recourse to magic.

Perhaps because it follows one character, more or less, from youth to old age, The Bone Clocks, more than other Mitchell novels, is able to concentrate on the way that death gives meaning to life.  The immortals in this book have to find other ways to make meaning that mortal humans have access to by default.  Leonard Cohen has a song, called “Who By Fire” after the words of a prayer central to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, that lists the many possible ways we might meet our end (or prosper) in the coming year.  In it, he intones repeatedly, “And who shall I say is calling?”  He doesn’t answer the question; we all know who’s calling: death.  On Yom Kippur we rehearse for death by abstaining from life-sustaining activities and wearing our shrouds.  Why?  Because remembering that we are going to die is the only way to make sure that we are really living now.  As the late, great rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “we are not supposed to wait for a hanging, or for the doctors to pronounce that awesome word of judgment ‘malignant,’ because by then it might be too late.  We are supposed to ask these questions all the time, and at least once a year, at least on this solemn day.  What is my life really about? What is the truth of my life?”  The down side of immortality is that there is no urgency to this question, and this question is what gives life its meaning.

The more I read him, the more I think that Mitchell’s novels are religious texts for atheists.  At the very least, they offer a suggestion of supernatural order to those who doubt the efficacy and human benefit of traditional forms of organized religion.  There’s usually some kind of higher power controlling things from behind the scenes, whether it’s a band of immortal souls or a renegade artificial intelligence.  There’s usually a plan at work that is slightly mysterious, often misunderstood, and outside of regular human control or even awareness.  Of course, in a body of work so invested in exploring the uses and boundaries of literature itself, this higher intelligence is an obvious metaphor for the writer himself, invisible but apparent in every line, omnipotent and omniscient but conscious of the need to preserve the illusion of choice and free will.  In that sense the semi-divine powers in Mitchell’s work are an ironic commentary not only on the seductions and limitations of religious belief, but also on the ways that fiction – just a thin web of beautiful untruths – can move us, change us, bring us to our knees with nothing more than words.

Ultimately, the story is the magic.  Despite the supernatural elements, they prove to be only a small, insignificant moment in the larger story of life on earth, and the life of the main character, Holly Sykes.  For a significant portion of the narrative, it seems that the plot centers on an epic battle between good and evil, and Holly and many of the people she knows and loves are caught up in this war in one way or another.  Finally, she ends up playing a big role in its resolution, and it seems that good has prevailed.  But the war that seems to be the main plot ends before the last section of the book, and that’s when we realize that this focus on one battle has been a feint, a purposeful distraction from the real evil, which is human and familiar.  It turns out that the most malevolent forces in the book, and in our universe, are not the self-proclaimed bad guys but all of us, with our petty greed and ignorant complacency, our consumerism and consumption, our disregard for the big picture in favor of distraction, our dislike of discomfort.

Mitchell1This brings me back again to the season of teshuvah, or repentance, whose literal meaning is “return.”  On Yom Kippur we are to return to those things that make us most uncomfortable: our misdeeds, our errors, our greed and hatred and jealousy.  In The Bone Clocks, these are the things that destroy the world, and our souls, on a far greater scale than any immortality-seeking “soul carnivore.”  This is the moment – of the year, and of history – to discomfit ourselves, to force the encounter with those unpleasant facts of our own humanity in order to make ourselves, and our world, whole again.  We must be healed in order to heal, we must look through the darkness to see the light.  As the poet Gerald Stern writes in “Lucky Life,”

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.


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Magic Undone

ImageIt seems uncharitable to admit that I was less than enthralled by Joan Didion’s memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.  I was expecting to love The Year of Magical Thinking, having been a Joan Didion fan since I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem in high school.  And I didn’t exactly dislike the book, I just found it surprisingly flat for an account of such a difficult, turbulent time (Didion’s daughter was also mortally ill during the period about which she writes).  There were a number of wonderful moments in the book, and its circular chronology mimics the mourning process well, but on the whole it lacked some vital spark that seemed to leave it a little bit empty.

As I mentioned above, one of the innovative and interesting things about the book is its somewhat circular chronology, which moves slowly forward in time while always doubling back on itself and on memory.  Didion repeats events and memories, always from a slightly varied perspective, much the way the human mind does when preoccupied, anxious, or sad (at least this is true of my human mind, and I am narcissistically extrapolating).  She recounts the stages of grief not in a procedural way, but through a kind of formal mirroring in which the structure of the book elucidates the mourning process.

There were also many moments that seemed real in the way of shared secrets, things no one admits but everyone shares.  Didion recounts that the first night after Dunne’s death, she felt she absolutely had to be alone.  After considering it from several angles, she realizes, “I needed to be alone so that he could come back.  This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”  It is this very kind of magical thinking that we all naturally engage in, I think, when something unimaginable or tragic happens, and yet it is rarely disclosed.  We are so quick to pathologize any emotions, thoughts, or behaviors outside of our narrow norms that we often don’t share our “magical thinking,” although in some ways it is the very thing that makes us human.  This is the major strength of the book, and its value, despite its faults or lack of energy.


Joan Didion

Here I must also admit that part of what turned me off of this book, despite the very real strengths I’ve described, was the kind of unthinking privilege Didion describes in her every memory.  She rarely acknowledges that her spontaneous family trips to Hawaii or celebrity life in Los Angeles are fantastic luxuries, available to few, or essentially none.  She jets back and forth from New York to L.A., spending weeks at the Beverly Wilshire hotel when her daughter falls ill unexpectedly in California.  I don’t begrudge Didion the time with her daughter for one minute, but the casual assumption implicitly contained here is one of normality, of universal experience, and I found it difficult to relate to the emotional truths contained in the shell of extreme and unacknowledged privilege.  Perhaps I am too sensitive because of my own straitened circumstances or my concern about privilege and its political and social consequences in the present moment more generally, but I found this consistently off-putting and it really affected my ability to sympathize, which, of course, a memoir about grief requires.

I wonder now if I reread Didion’s older work, writing I once loved and made me want to write, if I would have the same reaction.  I think I’ll let it live in my memory rather than reread it and risk losing it forever.

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Up Side of the Down Side

I really have to stop reading books by and about dead young people.  It’s too depressing.

ImageOr maybe not.  According to the premise of David Rakoff’s last book, a collection of essays titled Half Empty, the down side has its up side.  To be honest, this is a truism that I have carried in my bones, or perhaps my DNA, my whole life.  Yet only after reading the first essay in the book, “The Bleak Shall Inherit,” could I put a name to this quirk of my personality: defensive pessimism.  The defensive pessimist assumes disaster in all instances, but unlike the dispositional pessimist – think of Eeyore – the defensive pessimist uses this assessment to take action, therefore generally avoiding disaster and ending up, if not happy, then satisfied.  I would add another neat side effect: if it is a disaster, the dispositional pessimist also tends to be satisfied, since his expectations were fulfilled.

My father is perhaps the most perfect case-study of the defensive pessimist on earth, and suffice it to say I have learned from the master.  A few years ago my husband had a hernia operation, and while sitting with him before he was taken to surgery, chatting and laughing, I suddenly realized that he was not worried about the fact that someone was about to sedate him and cut into his flesh with a sharp knife.  I asked him if he were nervous, and he said no.  Then I got mad.  To me, a lack of anxiety at a moment when it is obvious that something might go very, very wrong represents an insufferable naiveté.  The surgeon walked in.  Glancing at us, he asked, “What’s wrong?”  “I think he’s insufficiently anxious about his surgery,” I said.  “I’m not getting into this,” the surgeon said, and walked out.

So you see that I am constitutionally perfectly suited to love a book like Half Empty, and I did.  Aside from my identification with the topic, David Rakoff’s essays are wonderful, even when they are not being read by him in his slightly nasal Jewish-Canadian-New York voice.  The guy can turn a phrase like no other – to wit, his description of an older woman’s laugh as “the sound of rocks in a blender, a granite smoothie,” or a parenthetical observation about Brigham Young’s requirement that the streets of Salt Lake City be 132 feet wide: “Is this bit of hypertrophic urban planning just a standard issue paleo-Trumpism?  One of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nineteenth-Century Men with Big Ideas?”  As always, Rakoff’s particularly incisive, slightly caustic brand of humor had me giggling and chuckling to myself, stopping to read the funniest bits aloud to my husband.


David Rakoff

But the humor, though biting, is rarely at anyone else’s expense.  The thing I appreciate most about David Rakoff’s work, and this book is no exception, is its deep, almost reverent sincerity.  “The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot,” which is largely an account of Rakoff’s own struggles to become a writer and take the risks necessary for creative production, is also a kind of extended confession and penance, it seemed to me, for saying something about another writer that he describes as “the only person in my entire life about whom I’ve said something purposely, gratuitously injurious and deeply unkind.”  The way we know what a mensch David Rakoff was (aside from the many, many eulogistic essays on his menschiness that appeared in print after his death) is that the thing he said, the thing it seems like he wrote this whole essay to atone for, isn’t even that bad.  I’m pretty sure I’ve said worse things in my sleep.

I like to think that this menschy quality is related to another of the aspects of Rakoff’s writing that I love: his unapologetic Jewishness, and his dedication to the most expansive and generous interpretation of Jewish identity.  Here, an essay-length meditation on the deliciousness of pork and its particular appeal to Jews becomes a sweet homage to the multiplicity of modern Jewish life (something I have written about on this very blog).  His ode to bacon becomes a kind of pride parade for Jews.  When he eats bacon, he writes, “It is this that I taste: the fact that I do not have to be ‘on the bus.’  I can, in fact, stand by the side of the road with a sign that says DOWN WITH BUSES! – or, more authentically phrased: BUSES? FEH! – and still be able to claim full and proud membership.  Which I do, emphatically.”  This is everything that is great about modern Jewish life in a nutshell – a funny, emotionally honest nutshell.  And that is David Rakoff’s genius.

Despite the charm and brilliance of these little literary gems, almost all of them were painful to read with the knowledge that the voice who spoke them is gone.  Especially painful is the moment in which, discussing his childhood, Rakoff writes, “I always felt that my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between forty-seven and fifty-three years old,” because he barely made it to his ideal age.  Paradoxically, the last essay, about the cancer that would eventually kill him, ends on a hopeful note, the cancer excised, his left arm, which at one point he thought he would lose, intact.  But my knowledge of his death reminded me of another truism dear to all Jews, defensive pessimists, and crotchety old people (two of which I am, and one of which I am probably becoming): half empty is still better than the alternative.

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Footnote to a Life

Sometime in late 1994 I opened The New Yorker and saw a new story by David Foster Wallace. I had read his first two books, a novel and a collection of short stories, and I was a fan of his work. But it had been years since I’d seen anything new from him in print and I was thrilled the way I still am when I open up The New Yorker and find a story by a beloved author who hasn’t published anything in a while. I don’t know why, but I was so thrilled and happy to see this particular story that I wrote David Foster Wallace a fan letter, care of the magazine. And that would be the end of my silly, youthful story of booknerddom if not for one thing: David Foster Wallace wrote me back.

cardI found his letter recently in my parents’ basement, in a stack of old correspondence. It’s a card with a colorful reproduction of a painting by a Native American painter of the figure of Kokopelli, which I now know was something DFW was into at that time. Inside is a folded piece of white paper with a typed message with handwritten addenda and corrections. It’s a very sweet note to a fangirl, thanking me for my letter, which made him “feel good” during the difficult process of editing a long manuscript that must have been Infinite Jest. He writes a chattily about work; Boston, where I was living at the time; and his dog. I can hardly bear to re-read the letter now, partly because it embarrassingly reminds me of my younger, nerdy, insecure self (and also that I am older, but still pretty nerdy and sometimes insecure), and partly because it feels like an artifact of a terrible tragedy. My 96-year-old grandmother died in November, and I joyfully wear the few pieces of jewelry she left me, remembering her fondly as I do. Perhaps because I didn’t really know him, or because his death violated the natural order in the way that all suicides do, looking at this letter, even handling it, feels like a desecration.

ELSIAGSAll this is just a preface to establish the deep, abiding, and long-term interest in DFW that led me to D.T. Max’s (relatively) new biography of the writer, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. As I read, I found myself increasingly irritated by certain seemingly minor but actually major structural problems, like the unnecessary endnotes that seem like a heartless and failed parody of the work of the man who elevated the endnote to an art form; the second layer of citations, for sources, mystifyingly listed by page number just after the conclusion of the endnotes, which make the endnotes look skillful after all by comparison; the shockingly high number of typos and grammatical, if not errors, then awkwardnesses in a book about a guy who worshipped at the altar of grammar and for whom language was god; the strangely detached voice that left me somewhat cold for the first half of the book. I was also appalled to find details like excerpts from DFW’s elementary-school poetic efforts, which I just think should be off limits to anyone, especially the entire reading public of the whole wide world.

But soon I realized that my irritation probably lay largely in the genre of biography itself. I don’t read many biographies – or any biographies? I think the last one I read might have been a profile of Winnie Mandela when I was twelve, and to give you an idea of how long ago that was, it was at a time when Winnie Mandela was still a person you would want to read a biography about – but after reading this one I have realized that I hope never to be well-enough known or influential enough that someone might want to posthumously publish excerpts from my kindergarten literary oeuvre or dissect my high-school and college friendships to a degree that could only be described as microscopic (and to anyone who ever spent a late night in my parents’ kitchen or in the common area of a Canaday-D dorm room: your lips are sealed, right?). Despite all this intimate investigation, it felt to me as if I knew DFW less and less as the pages wore on, but I don’t think this is Max’s fault. Biography just reminds us of that truism of human relationships and life on earth, which is that you can never – although you can come really, really close in certain instances, like in a long, happy marriage or a mostly functional family – really know another person.

What you can learn from the biography of a writer is the fascinating machinations of composition and publication that you might call literary history. Every Love Story is particularly strong in this area, and the book got better as it passed into the era of DFW’s major work. It is also strong, and grows stronger toward the end, at explicating the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of DFW’s fiction, and the transformation in his thinking about literature and life over time. Max writes insightfully about a commencement address DFW delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, later widely circulated on the Internet, “The truth behind banalities always excited and embarrassed Wallace, filling him with the wonder that, as he wrote in Infinite Jest, ‘cliched directives are a lot more deep and hard to actually do.’ Over the past twenty-five years his mental life had run a huge circuit through the most astonishing complexities to arrive at what many six-year-olds and nearly all churchgoers already understood.” Max understands perfectly what DFW’s contribution, his masterpiece, really was: not a single book or body of work, but the way that he increased the range of contemporary fiction, its warmth and humanity, with an expansiveness of spirit that was courageous and genuine.

Alas, the worst thing about reading a biography about a figure you like and admire who is also a relatively young suicide is that you first have the creeping and then the galloping sensation of being carried along with increasing anxiety toward an inevitable and unbearable conclusion. D.T. Max himself recognized this, and wrote of the title he chose that it “captures the particular, morbid work of the biographer, who doesn’t open up his or her laptop until the casket shuts.” That quality made this particular biography, for me at least, more difficult than most. As I approached the end of the book, I was increasingly filled with dread, and only partly because I knew it meant that DFW would die, which, since he’s already dead, could hardly have been the source of all of my anxiety, but because it caused me to reflect, at every moment that I was reading, and even when I wasn’t, on the quality of my own days – or the water I was swimming through, as DFW had it in his Kenyon speech – which, after all, was what he spent his own life trying to get the rest of us to see.


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