Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This semester is almost over. I have turned in grades for two classes and have one to go. I mark days off on my calendar, like a prisoner chalking days on his cell wall. I will pick up some essays at school and read them tonight or tomorrow morning. I will experience momentary happiness giving students who have done a good job an A or B and momentary unhappiness giving students who did a less than stellar job a C or less. Even when the latter is accurate, it is never satisfying. It leaves the taste of incompleteness in my mouth--like biscuits not cooked through completely.

I recently heard from a couple of friends that they hoped one day to read all the books on their shelves which they have started and not finished or had intended to read but have not cracked. That sounded like something I ought to understand, but I realized I did not have this problem, as I have enough of a driving need to finish what I have started or know why. A book I have not finished does not go back on my shelf, but into the Goodwill box--because it seems to me not worth finishing. There's another feeling of incompleteness.

Once I pick a book to read, I generally read it through. And I generally pick a book knowing a little bit about it. I have usually read or heard something about it, or, more often, read a few pages or a chapter in the book store, enough so I know whether or not I want to read it. A lot of people loved The Lovely Bones, but after a few pages of stomach turning prose I knew I would never be able to finish what seemed essentially a book for young girls. I think the word that tipped me off was skeezy, though I may be botching that word. The young girl who was clearly about to be molested and killed said that something made her feel all skeezy. I put the book back on the shelf. There was enough in that word usage to let me know I had nothing to gain there: morbid sentimentalism and false youth.

There is not much better than finishing a book knowing that it has satisfied you in many of the ways a book can satisfy. I can name things that beat it on the fingers of one hand, though, to be honest, I use all the fingers. In the pitch of the last weeks of a semester, I am usually unable to read something not required of me, as I must reread the books I have assigned, and student papers and stories, perhaps a thesis or two, keeping up and finishing off as grandly as possible. So as soon as I had attended my last class of the semester, and even though I still had plenty of work to complete myself, I picked up a book my dear Lisa recently bought and began to look at it.

When she bought it, it seemed like a book I would pick out; it had been niggling at the back of my mind since she put it on the shelf unread. As soon as I got home from the last class, I pulled it out and gave a look. It looked short enough I thought I might finish it in time to get back to what the world required of me. Two hundred pages of pleasantly produced text, a handsome cover with a photo of lissom grass on a sand dune, obviously near the ocean--inviting and forbidding under the title Being Dead. The writer was a Brit named Jim Crace, who looked pleasantly like he had spent some time on such a dune. Also on the cover, a small gold seal which claimed this novel had won the National Book Critics Circle Award, which had no effect on me whatsoever until I finished the book and felt this was a pretty good choice for such an award.

One thing I noticed right away: each 'chapter' of the book was short, generally of the same length as all of the chapters. This matched the gentle and generous tone of the novel, and made it more pleasant to read, as it seemed to open before me. In the very first chapter we understand that a pair of married zoologists have been rather brutally murdered on a sand dune much like the one on the cover, that Celice is naked from the waist down, and her husband Joseph is totally naked and holding on to her ankle.

Throughout the novel, the couple remains dead, though they are visited by various insects and birds and small mammals, and, finally, by their human counterparts. You might say that the entire novel is a meditation on their being dead, though we go back to the momentous and very unspectacular day they met, and several days in between, but that doesn't really account for how engrossing the book became for me.

Why does it strike me as a small miracle that the two main characters, though dead, were in their fifties? And not entirely attractive. She is built a little like like a satyr, a lovely, small-breasted torso from the waist up, and the large butt and thighs of a normal woman. He is too short for most things, as he often points out, and certainly shorter than her. Their lives, though intense and dedicated to their science, are really common, moderate, usual. And the natural processes of death to which they become susceptible are also completely normal, though often shied away from in the course of our lives.

I want to note that I am sixty-three years old at this writing. I have had a heart attack, which I like to call minor, and have two stainless steel bits in my chest to keep arteries from occluding once more, so thoughts of death, while sometimes as inviting to me as to anyone else, are not entirely welcome. I do not like to take long walks through graveyards--which I take to be the reason I chose not to read The Lovely Bones. In addition to this, sentimentality often seems to me like a way to invite death to your doorstep; please don't ask me to elaborate. But this death I enjoyed reading about. It left me unfrightened, accepting, acknowledging.

Perhaps this is because Crace is something of a naturalist in his understanding of the processes of senescence and thanatology, which are the basis of the study to which the deceased couple gave themselves in life. How, you might ask, can such a gentle novel of death keep the reader's attention? I think the answer is balance. He balances this discussion of death with scenes from life, and just when it seems impossible that Crace could keep my attention alive through his meditations, we get a new character--the daughter of the deceased couple who becomes involved in discovering what has happened to her parents.

Even with her rebellious nature (she has left home, shaved her head, and gone to work as a waitress at a hot spot called MetroGnome) she manages to charge the prose without taking over. In the course of the novel, she discovers her place in this world, and a little about her parents, even if only that they were born to die; much more isn't required of children, is it? Children of decent parents, let's say. That should be enough to cause them to be loved by the child who took life from them and will yet take it further than she or they could have imagined.

But now, alas, I must leave this discussion unfinished, as my duties call me back. I must finish, submit grades, a hundred other little things--some of them large and heart-breaking in their smallness. But let me say this much: the life in Jim Crace's book is real, unadorned by dreams or falsity, yet touched by the grace of decency, of respect for life, such as it is, such as it will be, in this world. And finally, it is touching. Because, at last, the novel is as beautifully complete as their lives.

About Me

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I write short stories and essays. I have published over seventy stories and essays in magazines, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.