The thing about life is that one day we will all be pushing up daisies
AT THE END OF THE DAY, when everything has been said and done, nothing really matters. Every day of our lives, we make choices that affect us and others. Whether we like it or not, we will die one day. The thing about life is that one day we will all be dead. Yes, that’s the title of David Shield’s new collection of essays about humanity and mortality written in the form of a novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). The surest thing is somehow the most difficult thing to understand. It’s a heartwarming book about confronting our fears, especially the fear of ageing and dying. What we learn from this heartwarming cockle of a book is to appreciate life and being alive. Shields is not afraid of laughing at himself and that’s what makes his book such an engaging read.
The subject of death, and discussing it, has always been our biggest fear. Renowned Stanford psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom’s Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (Jossey-Bass, 2008) makes easier the understanding of death. Fiction writers who have written on similar themes recently include J.G. Ballard with Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography (Fourth Estate, 2008), a frank and poignant piece of life story, and Julian Barnes with Nothing to be Frightened Of (Jonathan Cape, 2008), a personal memoir infused and suffused with black humour and lots reminiscences. You might recall that Staring at the Sun is also the title of a novel by Barnes published in 1986. In his last collection of stories, The Lemon Table (Jonathan Cape, 2004. Picador, 2005), the thread that connects the stories is encroaching old age and how we respond to mortality: fear, disappointment and regret. Many of the characters die in the end; however, they are not as depressing or cheerless as they sound, because he enlivens them with dollops of wry humour.
On the poetry front, there is Alan Shapiro’s Old War (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), a consistent collection of poems that is haunted by the echoes and shadows of death and the hereafter. Grace Paley’s posthumously published collection of poems, Fidelity (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) also uses ageing and death as themes.
Can you think of any other novels that explore death, mortality and other such ticking-of-the-clock issues?