My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
It’s official. I’m done!This month, I finally finished my Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Box Set. I read nearly every page over a broken, two-month period (the first month – my Millions debut – can be found here). It was a difficult, grueling battle, but I made it through with only a few bruises and just one small paper cut. And now, as I had always hoped, I have a full awareness of all things “literature.” I’m ready to start teaching World Lit at Harvard.Well, actually, I’m not. In fact, I’ve given myself an even greater test: I’m giving myself three years to fully comprehend at least one title from the classic authors I’ve (until now) completely missed.But that’s the future. This is the present. Revel with me as I celebrate this accomplishment!Choosing one of these selections as the “book of the month” turned out to be more difficult than actually reading them. I read 36 books this month: part of a classic (the very long, very complicated, incredibly wordy and not entirely pleasant A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) and 35 54-page Pocket Penguins. That’s a lot of books to filter through.Obviously, I can’t choose any of the books that I didn’t really fully read or any of the books that I quickly skimmed through on my way to another selection. Yeah, that’s right. Sometimes I cheated. You can’t blame me – this entire collection features a wide array of genres: poetry (skimmed), history (primarily rooted in World War II, most of which I read, but honestly didn’t read fully and skimmed), biography (Churchill’s and Percy’s biographies were skimmed, Selassie’s outright skipped after the first ten pages) and memoir (many were skipped after a few pages). I couldn’t possibly do it all without screaming.This left me with about 20-25 works of fiction that I enjoyed at varying degrees.What I found is that this entire 70-book collection is really a celebration of the short story. When condensing an author into 54 pages, a publisher can only choose the shortest of selections. A majority of the time, this means a selection of short stories. When “true” short stories weren’t chosen, we find excerpts or expurgated chapters instead. Regardless of its original form, it’s a short story all the same. I was blind to it through the first 35 books, but this time it was all I could think of.Throughout the second half of my Anniversary travels, I marveled at how so many authors could sum up a literary career into just 54 pages – how they could completely buck the novel’s tradition and contain their words concisely into these Penguin selections.So with that in mind, I needed to choose one book – the one book that captures everything that short stories are to me: emotion, curiosity and mystery; ultimately, thought-provoking literature that drives me to read on and devour the next short story while still feeling the heat of the previous one.Enter Melissa Bank’s The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine. The Book of the Month.I have found that most short story writing involves a quick slice of life, one that reveals only as much as needed, leaving the reader a chance to fill in the gaping holes. A great short story fills those holes without much effort, using the power of its passages as an assumed backbone, driving characters together not through writing, but through the normal constraints of society and culture.Bank’s title story does a great job of doing this. In it we find a young woman – an assistant editor who is not entirely sure of her own talents – struggling with two relationships; a love/hate connection with her on-again-off-again boyfriend and a wait-and-see connection with her father, a once strong man who is dying from leukemia.The emotion is there – this is a young woman who doesn’t know what to do in life. We’ve all been there, obviously; unsure of our place, wondering if we chose the right life, the right partner, or the right career. In this case, we find a woman who is being overwhelmed through every aspect of life – at work, with an older boyfriend, and with her father’s sickness. She feels pulled in every direction, forced to accept her position editing books (a job that is quite below her position) and to accept the criticism from an older man – her personal father figure. All the while, her actual father is sick – very sick.The curiosity is there. Where did these people meet? Why has she made these decisions, and why does she continue to stick by them? How will her father end up, and will her boyfriend be there to support her. Is he drinking again?Is she safe with herself?As good as Bank’s story was, it all kept bringing me back to the style as a whole – the short story as a concept and viable literary interest. Short stories are designed to view a small, minute portion of life and weigh it against society. They’re created to leave a suspenseful impression, one that makes you wish you could know the rest of the story and one that – for just a few seconds – leaves you considering just writing the story yourself.Often times, this is exactly what happens. In your mind, you have the ability to fill in the holes, to create biographies based on the hints an author leaves behind. There’s no better writing prompt than a short story. And it seems sometimes like there’s no harder piece of literature to actually compose.It is said that poetry is literature condensed. It gives each word an incredible weight that cannot be reproduced in prose (lest it become too weighty and difficult). Short stories take the weight away from the words and give it to the moment. Each second of a shortened piece of literature means the world. It is intensely analyzed and purposefully constructed. For me, it’s the most perfect form of writing.So let’s hear it for short stories, eh? Let’s hear it for Lorrie Moore, for David Sedaris, and for Lewis Thomas. A round of applause for Ian McEwan, for Will Self, and for David Foster Wallace. And let’s not let the brevity of a short story ruin the weight of its moment in the spotlight.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept, Oct
I am having trouble with a sentence. The point I would like to make is that I wish Stanley Fish’s new book had taken a different approach. Complicating that is that I mean for it to be a first sentence, and, hence, it bears all the burdens of a first impression. As a place to start, consider:
Although I have generally loved Stanley Fish’s work, I found his new book disappointing.
Weakening this sentence is that awful “generally.” I have adopted, it seems, an academic’s defensive precision: “I certainly wouldn’t want to say I have loved all of Fish’s work, I haven’t read all of Fish’s work and I don’t want to be held responsible for it.” That “generally,” and the underlying thought it betrays, is weaselly, and, really, I can’t recall ever actually disliking one of Fish’s essays (which is not to say I never disagreed). It’s gotta go.
Although I have loved Stanley Fish’s work, I found his new book disappointing.
Of course, now it seems like my sentence is missing a word. I could replace it with something. “Always”? Too…breathless. Especially with “loved.” I’m not sure what to do.
I suppose this sentence is an example of the
Although [general condition], [exception to the general condition].
form. We use this form a lot, of course, in the (often false) hope of awakening interest in our readers. In order for this move to really work, the reader has to have some investment in the general condition, or else the general condition needs to be such a commonplace that it would be surprising that I would be disputing it. Mostly neither condition obtains, and what the construction of my sentence really represents is lazy, good-enough-to-get-started writing.
Let’s ditch the offending clause.
I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing.
At least this has the advantage of directness. But now, the sentence is about me, which I guess would be OK, especially if I was an important reviewer of books on writing, or if I was participating in some forum where Fish’s book was well known. As it is, though, this sentence has misplaced emphasis, about what I found rather than Fish’s book. I could invert it —
Stanley Fish’s new book disappointed me.
— but even inverted, it’s about my disappointment, and, worse, it now has an unfortunate schoolmarmy tone to it: “Stanley, you have not lived up to my expectations.”
Well, let’s just take me out of it.
Stanley Fish’s new book is disappointing.
In many ways, this is better. It is declarative. It takes an unsoftened stand. That the statement is my opinion isn’t really lost, since as the author of the sentence it is obviously my opinion. It might even awaken a reader’s interest: “disappointing how?” I could live with this sentence. However, I have altogether lost my original intention which was less about the disappointingness of Fish’s book and more about expressing my wish that he had taken a different approach.
You see, a while ago Fish wrote several editorials about writing in his New York Times column. In those, he argued, just like he does in his new book, that the form of a sentence is the proper focus for composition instruction. Much like what classical rhetoricians believed about eloquence, Fish argues you can teach students to write by teaching them to pour their ideas into the molds of well-formed sentences. Unfortunately, the notions of figure and trope in rhetoric kind of degenerated, like expositions of grammar often degenerate, into butterfly-pinning, and I don’t know of anyone who much teaches polysyndeton or aporia in their public speaking course nowadays. What I had hoped for, I guess, was not an extension of his argument, or a further call to pay attention to form in writing instruction. I hoped Fish would actually begin to catalogue the forms themselves, to begin to set all of the available rhetorical variations into some sort of order.
I mean, take the form I offered before:
Although [general condition], [exception to the general condition].
There is a lot you can do with this. Students can be asked to produce a bunch of examples of the case, and thereby learn to use it fluently. You can notice that the “although” can be moved to the second clause with just a slight change in emphasis, and, I think, an improved sentence resulting. (“I have generally loved Stanley Fish’s work, although I found his new book disappointing.”) You could develop a notation system — like sentence diagramming! — that captured the relation of the clauses and the optional placement of the “although.” You could notice that the second placement of “although” can be replaced by “however” or “but,” but not the first, and try to explain why. You could observe that this species of sentence is a member of a larger genus, something like
[statement], [contrasting statement].
whose various members entail differing specific relations between the clauses, and who require differing coordinating words between. (For example, see Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say.) You could provide rhetorical analyses of each form you identify, much like I did earlier when I concluded that my original sentence was merely lazy, since it offered an irritant that wasn’t particularly irritating as a way to pretend to coax interest. This all seems to me, as it does to Fish, to be good work for students to do.
So my disappointment with Fish’s book is that it doesn’t offer a program to catalogue all of the various forms of sentences and variations and genuses and species, with rhetorical analyses for each. To try again to communicate this, it might be best to go back to my original statement of my intent:
I wish Stanley Fish’s new book had taken a different approach.
What I have lost here from the earlier attempts, besides my explicit disappointment, is the warmth toward Fish’s work that I have felt in the past. That, and there’s nothing here to really engage a reader uninvested in Fish’s approach. What I really want to express is the mixed feelings I have around my disappointment in Fish’s new book. Let’s go for that:
I admit, I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing.
I admit, I like this new sentence. It doesn’t outright say anything about my affection for Fish’s work, but it implies it pretty well without breathlessness. What I think is nice about it is that it suddenly has a voice (the previous sentences seem to me to be generically academic), and it seemingly — aporetically — places the blame for my disappointment on me rather than on Fish’s book. It expresses shame over having to admit that I found his book disappointing, and shame, I think, can sell a sentence.
So, although it isn’t really fair to criticize an author for not writing the book you wanted them to write, I admit, I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing. I can think of all sorts of reasons Fish wouldn’t actually want to take on the project I outlined for him, I mean, just to start with, it is pretty much endless, and if one were to take it seriously, one would inevitably end up, just like the classical rhetoricians, butterfly-pinning all of the various forms one found, an activity which entirely loses the point, I think, of the instruction Fish intends. You can catalogue and dissect, like God’s own grammar teacher, or like the authors all of those sentence diagrams I was forced to study in fifth grade, and learn literally nothing about how to write effectively, a point which Fish’s book, and, indeed, most every recent book that tries to help us write better, makes.
Back when I was trying to learn to play jazz guitar, I came across a book, Patterns for Jazz, that seemed to me to hold the promise of finally figuring out how to play across chord progressions. Apart from a minuscule amount of discussion (most of which concerns “how to use this book”), the book consists of little musical phrases, mostly four and eight notes long, that are to be transposed and played across an array of chord sequences. You could — I did — play these patterns over and over in hopes of learning enough phrases for each chord that you could sound halfway competent when confronted with “All of Me.” This book, in short, is the jazz equivalent of the writing text I wanted Fish to write: “Here are the forms. Put them to use.”
I never learned to play jazz guitar. I don’t know if that should be attributed to a failure of pedagogy, or merely a failure of musician. But, in retrospect, I can see that I wasn’t really using the text in the way that the authors of Patterns for Jazz meant. The point they intended (I think) was that students should play the patterns so much that they would be able to spontaneously predict how any given note or pattern would sound in the musical context they found themselves in. That is, you practice the rote forms so that you know your instrument and the chords so well that you don’t need rote forms to create.
Fish doesn’t seem to make his students spend too much time filling in sentence templates. Instead, he suggests that they elaborate simple forms into complex ones, discover variations and manipulations of forms (much like my observation, above, that the “although” could occupy two locations interchangeably), and, in general, observe how relationships between things and activities are manifested in sentences, and learn how to create those relationships. Like the successful jazz musician, students learn to attend to form and context (“prehearing” is the word Patterns for Jazz uses) in order to express themselves competently. Although he doesn’t say so, I believe Fish already knows that the butterfly project is hopeless. In fact, at least in a sense, you could summarize his whole program (including his literary criticism) as a disciplined approach to paying attention to sentences. If you can do that, he says, and not allow yourself to get bogged down arguing or applauding what the sentence is saying, or likewise mired in grammar and correctness, you can learn to write.
Richard Vine has a day job, a very good one. He’s managing editor of Art in America magazine, where he has written hundreds of articles about Chinese ink art, the Chicago Imagists, photographers from Mali, Korean sculptures installed in the gardens at Versailles, and the way art subsidies work in Singapore. Now Vine has a new entry on his globe-spanning resume: noir novelist.
Vine’s debut novel, SoHo Sins, has just been published by the Hard Case Crime series, and it’s a terrific addition to the pulp tradition, which Charles Ardai, a co-founder of Hard Case, summed up this way: “There’s a body on page one. The cover art is classical realism with a heightened sense of sexuality and menace. The stories are heart-stopping, a wonderful blend of high and low culture.”
SoHo Sins checks all the boxes. The moody cover art is by Robert Maguire, a prolific illustrator who produced more than 600 pulp covers beginning in the mid-20th century. It shows a man in a fedora and trench coat in a darkened alley, looming over a seated blonde in a red dress, a fallen woman in obvious distress. There’s a dead body in the opening sentence: “I slept rather badly the first few nights after Amanda’s murder.” And the story that unspools from there, as narrated by the suavely decadent SoHo art dealer and real estate speculator Jackson Wyeth, is a wonderful blend of high art and low-down deeds, a whodunit with room for de Kooning paintings and child pornography, art biennials and back-room deals, millionaires and mistresses and murder. The novel spins around a question: did the mentally unstable art collector and tech millionaire Philip Oliver murder his socialite wife in their SoHo loft, as he claims, even though he was apparently in Los Angeles when the killer pulled the trigger?
The novel is set during the late 1980s or early1990s, when big money like Philip Oliver’s had begun to infect and distort the New York art scene. The money has gotten even more obscene in the ensuing quarter-century, partly because dealers like Jackson Wyeth have never been inclined to ask indelicate questions. “You can’t deal successfully in art if you dwell on where the money comes from and how it gets made,” the glib Wyeth says at one point. “I concern myself with my clients’ tastes and credit ratings, not their ethics.” The novel’s money-drunk art scene is described on the cover, in suitably breathless prose, as “a world of adultery and madness, of beautiful girls growing up too fast and men making fortunes and losing their minds. But even the worst the art world can imagine will seem tame when the final shattering secret is revealed…”
The worst the art world can imagine — those words are the key. Simply put, SoHo Sins succeeds because it was written by a man with a day job, a job that gives him intimate knowledge of how a subculture works – its personalities and preoccupations, its business practices, its styles, its silliness and occasional beauty and, above all, the ugly money that pumps through its rotten heart. You have to be inside such a world to plausibly imagine the worst it can imagine.
In America today it’s maddeningly difficult to make a living writing books, and it’s just about impossible to make a living writing fiction. That’s largely because the pool of writers is constantly growing while the pool of serious readers, especially readers of fiction, is constantly shrinking — never a good business model. As a result, all but a few writers of fiction have some sort of day job, which most of them view as a time-sucking, soul-crushing impediment to the making of their art.
But as Richard Vine has shown, a day job can be a counter-intuitive blessing to the writer of fiction. Since most people spend nearly half of their waking hours at work, the workplace would seem like natural and fertile ground for setting a novel. We already have more than enough novels, written in flawless, bloodless MFA prose, about a bunch of Oberlin grads struggling to find themselves in brownstone Brooklyn. As Jason Arthur pointed out on this site recently, we need more novels that draw on worlds where people do actual work — like the art dealers and pornographers and tycoons and cops in SoHo Sins, or the metal scrappers in Matt Bell’s Scrapper, the eco-saboteurs in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, the wheat-threshers in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the drug dealers in Richard Price’s Clockers, the admen in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, John le Carré’s spies, Elmore Leonard’s hard-working petty criminals, and the lonely department store clerks in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. These can be worlds the author knows first-hand, or they can be vividly imagined worlds of the past, such as the 17th-century Dutch commodity speculators in Davis Liss’s The Coffee Trader, or the Irish immigrant sandhogs who dug the New York City subway tunnels in Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness.
The point is that a day job — as a commodities trader, say, or a construction worker or an art dealer — can be a way for a writer to admit readers to plausible, fully realized worlds that would otherwise be off-limits. Richard Vine grasps this. In a recent interview in Brooklyn Rail, Vine discussed how his day job informed his novel:
SoHo Sins, you might say, is a lament not for the art world that was, or is, but the art world that is rapidly emerging. By now, its corruption by unregulated wealth is almost complete; this book simply imaginatively extends present trends…My projection goes into the immediate past rather than the immediate future, but that reversal of vectors is just an amusing bit of game-play to help highlight the present.
An argument could be made that the art world today, ultimately dependent as it is on the buying decisions of a few super-rich individuals, is fatally tainted throughout. (Artnet.com reports a new financial scam almost every week.) Do some further digging, and the facts soon reveal that no one can become that rich, or maintain that level of inherited wealth, without being a moral criminal. Such disproportionate lucre is accumulated either through activities that are literally illegal or through the utterly unconscionable exploitation of employees, stockholders, taxpayers, and customers — an economic crime and a moral one.
A world that’s “fatally tainted throughout” — and populated with operators like Philip Oliver, who uses his tech company to both finance his art acquisitions and distribute child pornography around the world. Could there be a richer backdrop for a noir novel? And could there be a better person to write it than someone who has a day job on the inside, deep in the tainted shadows, where the dirty money does its work?
Eulogies are our gifts to the dead. The late James Alan McPherson wrote one such eulogy for his student at the University of Virginia, Breece D’J Pancake. Pancake was an eccentric West Virginian, a “constitutional nonconformist.” A “lonely and melancholy man” who loved to drink and owned guns “of every possible kind,” he felt most at home outdoors. He wanted an independent study with McPherson and likely got it through sheer force of will and personality: “In an environment reeking with condescension, he was inviting me to abandon my very small area of protection.”
McPherson’s eulogy is the foreword for The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, the only book from the writer, posthumously published. Pancake’s suicide at 26 still feels like a shock to McPherson, whose eulogy is calm, not breathless; pensive, not certain. “Whatever the cause of his desperation,” McPherson writes, “he could not express it from within the persona he had created…How does one explain the contents of a secret room to people who, though physically close, still remain strangers?”
The differences between elegies and eulogies have often struck me as being both contextual and formal; and, ultimately, those differences are incidental. Forget that an elegy is supposed to be a lament and that a eulogy is supposed to contain praise; McPherson’s eulogy transcends the genre. Some of that might be owed to McPherson’s own literary genius; the rest we might ascribe to a careful teacher speaking about his student. His eulogy feels honest; it cuts through Pancake’s literary legend.
Yet many eulogies are not the result of mentorships, friendships, or family. They are the product of intimations of closeness. The recent deaths of David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Harper Lee, Prince, and other well-known figures have resulted in a multitude of remembrances and memorials. Grief pulls us even closer to the writers, performers, and other celebrities that we adore but don’t personally know.
In their new book Dead People, Morgan Meis and Stefany Anne Golberg complicate our understanding of the public action of eulogy. They offer eulogies for a unique cast, including Chinua Achebe, Osama bin Laden, Susan Sontag, and Kurt Cobain. Although the origin of the word “eulogy” is “to speak well,” Golberg and Meis interrogate that idea, and instead see how the “death of a fellow human being can be the opportunity to enter into that person’s life.” The traditional Aristotelian method of eulogy is to step back and consider someone’s life from a distance. Instead, the authors of Dead People dig in: “We’ve chosen to wear our bias on our sleeve. We’ve chosen to take these lives personally.”
Golberg and Meis pen alternating eulogies, some of which were published previously as standalone essays. The result is a book that is very much an anthology. Dead People is not a single narrative, thesis-driven work of non-fiction. In fact, the writers’ introduction to the work is their only action of framing, which results in the book having many different entry points. You don’t need to read Dead People front to back; its value lies within its stylish and substantive reconsideration of an ancient form.
A few entries can example how Meis and Golberg use eulogies as part prose-poems, part historical reconsiderations, and part philosophical treatises. The result is an intellectually entertaining and flexible book. Meis first considers the life of Christopher Hitchens, and consistent with his plan for the book, interrogates the man for his unflinching support of the Iraq war: “Hitch could never say it. There was something greater at stake for him. There was something that he valued more deeply, in this case, than he valued the truth.” It’s a clever way to craft a portraiture of Hitchens, as a man whose morality could exist on some other plane.
Unlike many subjects in the book, Meis actually knew Hitchens — they both wrote for Harper’s — and he examines Hitchens’s legendary atheism. Hitchens, he thinks, did not
…have the courage to confront the works of Simone Weil, and to read them with honesty and openness and a feeling for the greatness that is contained within her words. A person could read Simone Weil for a lifetime and never become a believer. But no honest person can read Simone Weil, truly read her, and maintain the position that religious belief is a phenomenon that can be dealt with solely in the mode of contempt. Christopher Hitchens was perfectly aware of this fact, which is why he never allowed himself genuinely to read the works of Simone Weil or genuinely to contemplate the paintings of Caravaggio or genuinely to recite the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, to pick a few random examples of greatness on this earth that, troublingly, cannot be disentangled from religion.
It’s a fantastic reading of the stubborn Hitchens, who “was a lover of argument and persuasion. He was a lover of being right and winning at any cost. This is what made him great.”
Meis’s eulogy for Osama bin Laden is equally thought-provoking. “The scariest thing about Osama bin Laden,” Meis thinks, “was his quietness and his calm.” That quietude became a culture, a cult: “The way the 9/11 attackers spent their lives as everyday members of American society in the months leading up to that day, the way they boarded the planes as normal men, the way they flew the planes deliberately into those towers — they are an outgrowth of the calm, detached violence that bin Laden personified.”
We find nothing to praise in a criminal like bin Laden, and yet Meis knows sustained dissection of the terrorist leader has become rote. Much more difficult is what happens we turn the lens of the eulogy on the audience, as when he considers the more public execution of Saddam Hussein in contrast to bin Laden’s burial at sea: “What does it do to one human being to celebrate the killing of another human being, whatever the circumstances? What happens inside you, how does it make you feel? Is that something you want to feel? Is it a way you want to be?”
I admit that those questions unsettled me, and that was perhaps the first moment I realized that Dead People is a special book. It should be noted here that Meis is a Catholic convert, although one comfortable with uncertainty (in an essay about his conversion, he writes “I believe in a God who can err all he damn well pleases, and probably does. Or not. How could I know?”). I mention this because there is a radical Catholic strain to these philosophical questions — perhaps a particularly Jesuit strain, in fact.
Elsewhere in Dead People, Meis shows his facility as a literary critic. His eulogy for John Updike includes a generous but perceptive observation about a scene from Rabbit at Rest: “You can’t overestimate how difficult it is to write about McDonald’s that well. You can only write like this if you really care about the experience, if you take it seriously. Updike took it seriously. By flattening his metaphysics, by letting everything be essential, Updike discovered a new richness.” He is equally spot-on about David Foster Wallace: “He wanted to get hold of what it’s like to be a person in this particular world without either dismissing the vast sea of commercial and popular culture we live in or pretending that we don’t often feel uneasy swimming around in that sea.”
Golberg’s half of Dead People leans cultural. She eulogizes Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47. He was a sickly child who studied poetry and whose family had been exiled to Siberia. Kalashnikov once said “I wanted to invent an engine that could run forever,” but he instead created an instrument of violence. Rather than simply take the easy approach of sullying him, Golberg wonders
Whether it’s a lawnmower or a locomotive or an AK-47, the inventor is always faced with the same burden — how to turn chaos into order. But the chaos the inventor faces is not only the chaos of nature; it is also the chaos of human desire. The inventor stands between these two forces, pulled in both directions, servant to both nature and man.
As Meis does with bin Laden, Golberg uses eulogies to not only complicate our understandings of her subjects, but also force us to look inward: “As much as inventions come out of the inventor’s hands, they are, in the end, form to the dark shapelessness of all life. Remember, [Mary] Shelley warned us in her story, inventors only give form to substance. They cannot bring into being the substance itself. The form of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s invention was an AK-47. But the substance of his invention is us.”
Another worthy subject is Mary Ellen Mark, who photographed “people who dwelled on society’s fringes: street kids, prostitutes, junkies, the homeless, women who were mentally ill.” Think Amanda and her Cousin Amy, the shot of a 9-year-old, one arm across her chest, standing in a kiddie pool, smoking a cigarette.
Golberg thinks “Mark’s genius was to capture the subtlety of a woman’s monstrosity: the errant scar, the odd slump of a body, the too-happy smile, the worldly-wise and cynical stare.” Mark’s photographs were affirmations of presence; she captioned each photo the same — “I exist.” She believed that even the photographer’s presence was necessary in the communion of the photograph, whether it be the shot’s angle, the subject’s pose, or even the reflection of the artist in the eyes of her subject.
That might be the central metaphor of Dead People: how we see the living in those who have passed. Golberg’s discussion of the enigmatic Sun Ra might be her purest act of praise. “Ideas and music carried a reclusive black boy from Birmingham and transported him into outer space.” Sun Ra chose jazz because it is the “music of the restless, the awakened.” He would tell his musicians “If you’re not mad at the world, you don’t have what it takes.”
Golberg considers how Arkestra, Sun Ra’s orchestra, intermingled “music, theatre, dance, philosophy” as they “combined the ancient and the radical future, African rhythms played with fists and synthesizers played with the elbows.” Sun Ra wanted unity, in both his band and in the performative connection with the audience. That required a measure of discipline in the tradition of W.E.B. DuBois and Elijah Muhammad, yet “discipline alone lacked, for Sun Ra, creative energy, vitality.”
As the authors of Dead People do best, Sun Ra becomes a vessel for a deeper discussion; “When morality expressed itself in beauty, daily life had a little more of that mysterious, mystical quality to it, a quality Sun Ra was always searching for to conquer the ‘unpleasant’ aspects of what it was to be human on Earth. Morality could make life sensible but beauty made life happy. Why wear only a black suit and tie when we have available to us all the colors of the rainbow?”
Essays about death should contain a lot of questions. Golberg and Meis’s approach to eulogies models a provocative but useful approach towards the eulogy form: the ability to empathize with and yet also tell the truth about those no longer with us. Let the dead bury the dead — but let the living eulogize them.