Twenty writers discuss what the inevitability of death means to them.
Editors Shields (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, 2010, etc.) and Morrow (Ariel’s Crossing, 2002, etc.) elicit a wide-ranging variety of responses to their request to “speak the unspeakable, envision the unseeable.” In the intensely personal “The Siege,” Joyce Carol Oates vividly describes her grief after her husband's death, while Annie Dillard’s “This is the Life” is more philosophical. She writes that whatever our culture tells us about how to live our lives, the fundamentals remain the same: “You have seen an ordinary bit of what is real, the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time's soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars. Then what?” In “Bayham Street,” Robert Clark interweaves his unsuccessful efforts to learn more about the life of a sister he barely knew with his exploration of past historical and cultural events during a trip to Europe. “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” is Jonathan Safran Foer’s humorous account of how his family uses pregnant pauses to slide over serious issues, including his father's heart condition, uncomfortable questions about girlfriends, painful memories, etc. Though most of this collection’s essays are impressive, Sallie Tisdale's piece, “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies,” is a standout. In it, the author finds beauty in the way that maggots and blowflies are part of the cycle of birth, death and the re-creation of life by feeding on decomposed matter: “a piece from here and a fleck from there, a taste of this karma, a speck of that memory, this carbon atom, that bit of water, a little protein, a pinch of pain: until a new body and a new life is made from pieces of the past. The wee bit they claim, can you begrudge it? Dissolved, our flesh is their water, and they lap us up.” Other contributors include Mark Doty, Geoff Dyer, Peter Straub, Terry Castle and Diane Ackerman.
A wonderfully speculative patchwork quilt on the meaning of life and death.