Grief in the Modern Age

March 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

For no reason other than coincidence, three recent books I have read have touched on the subject of death and grief in modern and interesting ways. Or maybe calling it coincidence is a lie. A good amount of my own writing lately has been about parents and grief, and the physical and emotional residue that a parent’s death leaves for the next generation.

Each book has a death in its center, the vortex around which the book propels. In one book the deceased is a father; in another, a wife; and in the third, a close friend. I enjoyed all three to varying degrees.

Michael Kimball’s Big Ray came up during my Catapult Fiction Workshop in response to a story I had posted there, and that book happened to be sitting on my nightstand at the time, so I moved it up in the queue.

In Big Ray, the residue comes from the complicated relationship between Danny, the narrator, and the title character, his recently deceased father. Ray is a large man who can slide toward cruelty with heartless ease. Following his divorce from Danny’s mother, he stops taking care of himself, growing morbidly obese and gambling away his retirement savings.

The story is told in vignettes, with no real dialogue to speak of; little by little a life is sketched in, one of a man whose presence, it becomes apparent, could eat up all of the energy in the room. As Danny adds in more flashes of memory, some chilling realizations come to light. It’s an honest indicator of how death often causes us to regard our relationship with a person in wide angle for the first time.

My father used to do this thing when we were in public and he didn’t want to be seen yelling at me or hitting me. He would put his arm around me and rest his hand on my shoulder in a way that must have looked affectionate to anybody who saw it. Then he would grip some muscle in my shoulder so hard it would make me seize up. The gesture must have made him look like a good father, but I wouldn’t be able to move or talk or even scream out in pain.

There aren’t a lot of happy memories in Big Ray, but there are a lot of occurrences that shift the burden of the relationship onto the much more mindful Danny; it is as though he is retracing a path wondering where, if at all, things might have changed for the better. The reflections turn up a lament not for the father that Danny lost but for the one he never got to have.

Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door is a celebration of the bumps and stretches of a friendship between two strong personalities, the author and the novelist Denise Gess (Good Deeds), that grew when both were struggling to establish themselves as writers, as well as his relationship with his former lover, a poet known here as M.

Gess battled recurring cancer for much of her adult life and succumbed in 2009. Because she and Lisicky are both writers, meeting when he is a grad student at Rutgers and she’s a teaching assistant, already with a novel, their relationship, when not maneuvering around sickness, builds precariously on encouragement, envy and confession, resentment, and forgiveness. Lisicky handles ably what is essentially the responsibility of writing for two voices. From the tone of the email correspondence they exchange, the heaviness of their sighs, the prolonged silences, the reader is let in on the high plane on which these two personalities coexisted.

The correspondence allows us to hear from Gess in her own words, for which it is clear she had a gift of projecting intimacy. Both share the writer’s playful, teasing code. In spite of illness, Gess carries on a string of affairs, including one with a married man known here as Famous Writer, which positions her as a passionate giver and unapologetic taker in contrast to the author’s cautiously treaded marriage to M. She finds the energy to get up and dance on the night of Barack Obama’s election in 2008; when she talks to another writer, her face brightens “as if promises and little deals are being passed back and forth.” She and the narrator cook a meal together, “a fifty-fifty thing, and the fact that we can move, without bumping or getting in each other’s way, seems like a beautiful thing.” Her heart sinks when her editor hates her second book and she can’t hide her bitterness when the author gets accepted into an exclusive writer’s conference, during which Lisicky writes, “But at every turn I’m thinking about Denise. Not just what I’ll reports back to her, but what I’ll withhold from her: I don’t want her to think I’m having too good a time.” There are misbehaviors, breaks in the spell, and efforts to mend without the embarrassment of full apology.

The third book, Tom McAllister’s The Young Widower’s Handbook, might be the most straightforward of the group. It also has the most modern sensibility, as it approaches grief from the angle of performance—the feeling that, in this day and age, we cannot even take on the task of hurting and healing without tinging the process with some kind of irony.

Framed as a road novel, The Young Widower’s Handbook follows a young man named Hunter Cady, whose wife has suddenly passed away. It happens when Hunter and Kait were still feeling out their dreams, finding traction. After Kait’s body is cremated and the insurance check cashed, Hunter finds himself alone in a new silence:

When he opens his eyes, he see thousands of ghosts in his home, each one a vision of Kait at a different stage of their shared life; they crowd into the house shoulder-to-shoulder and some are cooking and some are sleeping and some are dancing and some are hanging pictures and everywhere around him there are Kaits. Kait in the wallpaper and bubbling in the water supply and buzzing in the wiring in the walls. He calls out to her but she doesn’t respond. His voice sounds like it is underwater.

Eventually Hunter settles on an action plan: to take Kait’s ashes with him on a cross-country road trip, visiting all of the destinations they had talked about visiting together. The book then becomes a road trip novel, with Hunter encountering eccentrics along the way, and though it risks becoming one of those overstretched narratives in which a young, troubled character shirks his responsibilities, it rings true by avoiding easy solution and letting a sense of memory and emotional obligation be the driving force. Hunter takes selfies with the urn and posts them on social media, his friends reacting initially with support, then concern. Kait’s family grows impatient. Apart from his parents, who are limited in their willingness to empathize, Hunter has no sounding board: no bro-buddy or brother who can lure him toward an unserious perspective. We realize by the end that such a character wouldn’t have belonged because Kait was Hunter’s best friend.

What rings particularly true about The Young Widower’s Handbook is the expectation of behavior foisted upon us when someone close to us dies, when you feel others watching your every move. It it has wise observations regarding how we grieve in the Internet age, when there’s this perceived responsibility to show others that we are okay when we are not, or following the path of progress that is expected of us. Grief is idiosyncratic; frustratingly, no two routes are the same, which clashes with the impulses of those around us to guide our consolations along what is standard and predictable. There’s somehow this impression that we are violating the sanctity of another soul if we attempt to do something that makes our grief personal and ours.


How the Dictionary Is Made

March 17, 2017 § Leave a comment


I don’t do much writing about my day job here, but I’m particularly excited about the release this week of Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by my good friend and colleague, Kory Stamper.

I’ve known Kory since I began working as a Merriam-Webster lexicographer almost 16 years ago. (In fact, for a long time her cubicle was in such close proximity to mine that we’d send snarky emails to each other whenever we’d be privy to the too-loud conversations about our neighbor’s medical appointments.) She is not only one of the best there is at what we do, she excels at putting into words the convoluted mental exercises that come with trying to pin down an ever-shifting language in a way that makes sense.

(Disclaimer: I’m quoted in the book a handful of times.)

You can read one excerpt of the book at Longreads and another at Slate, as well as a thoughtful review by Megan Garber in The Atlantic.

R.I.P. Paula Fox

March 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

At the New York Times, an informative look at the career of Paula Fox, who has died at the age of 93. A writer of books for adults and children, she was best known for Desperate Characters, a novel that had been out of print when it was picked up in a library at Yaddo by Jonathan Franzen, who wrote about it in a 1996 Harper’s essay. I wrote about the book here.

A number of Fox’s novels were subsequently re-released after Desperate Characters, including The Western Coast, for which the introduction was provided by another of my favorite writers, Frederick Busch. That one is now on my wish list. I was also intrigued by the bit of trivia that Fox was briefly the sister-in-law of Clement Greenberg.

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