From the Sublime to the Ridiculous, Death Pervades All Genres

By Carole Reedy

I was in a quandary when the editor and staff of The Eye chose death as the theme of this issue. What could I possibly say about death beyond what fellow cynic Woody Allen expressed so succinctly?

“I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Thus, I began to research books on the subject. To my shock, no matter what the subject or genre, death stared me in the face, and not just in fiction or nonfiction selections or war or detective crimes, but also in books classified as adventure, action, comedy, drama, fantasy, history, philosophy, romance, politics, and science fiction. Death, it seems, is represented as much as life.

I chuckled at many of the titles: Death Before Decaf, Death Comes Calling, Devoted in Death, Death Take a Trip, Relax: You Are Going to Die, Purity in Death, Survivor in Death, Origin in Death, Treachery in Death, and the metaphysical There Is No Death.

Kidding aside, here are several fine pieces of literature in which death is the actual theme, not simply part of a plot or subplot. All, save one, are memoirs, and all belong to the sublime, not the ridiculous.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

As always, Barnes plays with words and concepts to make a serious subject palpably funny, poignant, and utterly readable. Centered around his own family–father, mother, and philosopher brother–Barnes gives us a memoir that ponders the grand questions about the inevitability of death and our fear of it.

H Is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald

This recent bestseller memoir has received rave reviews from all of the distinguished publications worldwide despite the rather simple premise: a woman suffering the loss of her father looks to a hawk, and the training thereof, as a means of mending. As described astutely in the New York Times, the book “brings…a different kind of discovery: that grace resides in the most unlikely places – and that moving forward means leaving some things behind.”

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

I “discovered” Colm Toibin a few weeks ago when a friend lent me his latest novel, Nora Webster, which depicts the 1950s life of a widow in a small village in Ireland. Toibin’s vision and understanding of women, loss, and family are incredibly genuine. The book came about after ten years of pondering and writing other novels, including Brooklyn, which became not only a popular novel, but a hit movie nominated for many prestigious awards. Memories of his mother as a widow, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and Beethoven served as inspiration for this finely tuned compelling novel. One of his other novels, The Master, which delves into a few years of Henry James’ life, also focuses on loss, grief, and failure.

A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

When it comes to the art of writing novels and short stories, Oates is one of the shining stars of the 20th and 21st centuries. She has written more than 40 novels and numerous essays and short stories and won many prestigious prizes along the way. But a few years ago she took a break and wrote a memoir of the days leading up to and months following the unexpected death of her husband of many years, taking us this time on a journey of emotions that even she doesn’t understand.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion relates her contorted thoughts, imaginings, and reactions to tragedy in a book that was written during the year after the death of her famous husband, John Gregory Dunne. At the time, Didion was also struggling with the illnesses of her daughter, who died shortly thereafter. That story is told in a second book called Blue Nights. The one-woman theatrical production of The Year of Magical Thinking, starring Vanessa Redgrave, opened on Broadway in 2007 and has been playing since all over the world. The novel won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2005 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

This seems to be the book that baby boomers are reading these days, in light of the inevitability of aging and decisions to be made about death. Author and surgeon Gawande relates his experiences with patients, hospitals, the science of geriatrics, and nursing homes to give us insight into the process of dying. According to my reader friends, this is a book not to be missed.

To end this piece, ponder another Woody Allen quote on one of his favorite themes, life and death: “Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering, and it is all over much too soon.”

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