In crafting The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death, editors David Shields and Bradford Morrow asked twenty contemporary writers for their viewpoints on death, to furnish essays that “speak about the unspeakable, envision the unseeable.”
Unsurprisingly (well, only to myself and those who know me best), I was most attracted to the straight-shooting stories, the ones that offered insight into the author’s relationship to death. I love the glimpse into an articulate person’s mind with respect to matters either familiar or unfamiliar to me. (Not that the inarticulate mind is unworthy. But if the thoughts aren’t conveyed well, then I have limited access to them.) And so it was that Joyce Carol Oates’s essay particularly moved me. Her book, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, (perhaps the source of this essay) is a more comprehensive story of her experience (if the word comprehensive can be used to describe something as unbounded as grief), and this essay certainly piqued my interest in it. In fact, starting with Carol Oates’s essay, it was really the last third of this compilation that captured my interest. Until then I plodded through the read, but the last section of the book found me flipping the pages far past the hour I had intended my bedtime.
One of my favorite essays was by Lance Olsen, who responds to the request to contemplate death by stringing together a variety of thoughts, anecdotes and mini obituaries, and in what I found to be a particularly beautiful line described, “how my mother changed tenses before my eyes.” Some of the other standouts included Kevin Baker’s story about his mother’s battle with Huntington Disease and Baker’s experience of discovering he is genetically destined to suffer the same fate. His straight-forward writing style captures the fear and pain inherent in such a discovery without resorting to melodrama. I also really enjoyed Greg Bottom’s work, a story of life and death told through the stories of others; people with whom he comes into contact that are merely extras in his own narrative. And though I can’t personally relate, I enjoyed Brenda Hillman’s strong and eloquent defense of her faith in the transcendent spirit, despite the “horror and nervous panic…on the faces of what used to be called ‘the intelligentsia’” when she shares her belief.
On a macro-level experience of the book, I appreciated the interesting ways some authors chose to approach the subject. I would, however, be interested to know whether these innovative perspectives are really how these authors relate to the subject or whether they were merely searching for writing flair. And to be honest, I found that some of them were tediously boring and offered little in the way of illuminating thought (unless you are interested in some of these quirky topics, such as painstakingly detailed information about flies). This applied even to some of the essays whose creative lens seemed promising, like the essay on cataloguing types of graveyards; an exploration of what memorials mean.
In Lynne Tillman’s essay she refers to Virginia Woolf, who wrote that death was “the one experience I shall not describe.” We are not privy to this unknowable that touches everyone through loss and then personally at life’s conclusion. But we “know” it as we do the other intangibles, through its impact, and through the intellectual and emotional explorations which drive this interesting read.